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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

How the Playdate's crank reignited my passion

Late last year, I was in a bit of a funk.

We'd completed the Video Games Are Good Campout, our annual 24-hour stream celebration of VGG's birthday in November. Our Game of the Year announcement video was done and debuted. We were wrapping up another year of pouring heart, soul, and sanity into VGG. And I... felt empty. Despite growing viewership, despite compliments on all we'd done to close out the year, I felt like nothing I did was worth a damn.

Depression's a hell of a thing.

So naturally, I tried to retreat into my usual coping mechanism: video games. I played way too much Fortnite. I played a ton of games I'd missed out on throughout the year. None of it worked. I went through my near-annual crisis of "Do I even like video games anymore? Is this where the gig ends? How can I run Video Games are Good if I don't even like them?!" Christmas rolled around. I was handed a small rectangular box by VGG's Deputy Editor, Julie, and by the end of the day, my passion was rekindling. And it's all because of this funky little square box with a crank attached to the side.

Meet the Playdate.

A product photo of Panic's Playdate handheld gaming device and the attached cover. A person is holding the purple cover up to reveal a screen with a 1-bit adventure game on it. The Playdate is a small yellow square with a d-pad, two buttons, and a tucked away crank on the side. The photo has a flat green background.

This brand-new handheld is the collaborative child of Panic and Teenage Engineering, the former being a Portland-based software company that's made waves in the indie publishing scene in recent years and the latter being a Swedish consumer electronics company known for its sturdy and stylish builds of synths, speakers, and more.

It's a simple thing to behold: a cheery sunshine-yellow body, rounded D-pad, A and B buttons, a small speaker, a menu button, a power button, stamped buttons for you to loop a lanyard through, and cleverly tucked into the side of the device, a crank that can be used to control menus and special gameplay mechanics.

This sneaky little box full of some of the most creative bits of game design I've seen in years will likely fit in the palm of your hand. It'll feel weirdly comfortable in spite of this fact, and it'll likely have you giddy the same way the Game Boy first did way back in the day.

An illustration of one of the bears from Root Bear. A small bear holds up a tall glass of root beer. The bear has bubbles near him that imply drunkenness and he holds up his finger and his thumb against his chin.

I distinctly remember the moment it all clicked for me. I'd poked into the handheld's online shop and bought one of the first games I saw: Root Bear. The game advertised itself with a cartoon bear holding aloft a tall glass of root beer. I'm easily swayed by cartoon bears, so I bought it without asking questions. The game is a simple score attack: pour root beers for very particular bears up to the fill line they request. The faster and more accurate you can be, the better your score. You pour from the tap by pulling the crank down and you stop your pour by pulling it back up. The speed of the flow depends on how much you crank (what a sentence).

It took all of one play to get me hooked, both to the potential of this system and to chasing high scores in Root Bear. I immediately passed it to Julie — known Root Beer Tapper fanatic — who was in the middle of opening some gift (because yes, I'd forgotten about the rest of Christmas while diving into the Playdate) and they were sold too. It's simple. It's intuitive. It's fun.

A product photo of the Playdate. It's a small yellow square handheld gaming device. It's got a small d-pad, two buttons, and a crank poking out on the side. On the screen, a dynamic scene of a robot bursting to life can be seen.

I spent the next few days recalling all the reasons I wanted a Playdate in the first place. 1) They'd collaborated with a ton of game devs to provide a full library of games for new Playdate owners; what they called Season 1, with new games being dispensed two at a time every single week. 2) The no-backlight, 1-bit art style and simple handheld mechanics made it a nostalgic experience that had me curling up on the couch with the device held just so, transporting me to my childhood in so many ways. And 3) it's something new. In an era of gamers criticizing "stale" concepts and asking for actual creativity (as misguided as that all can be), the Playdate is inarguably genuine freshness.

Then I learned even more that made me fall in love with it even further, like the fact that the Playdate has a beginner-friendly game engine that all users are invited to experiment with called Pulp. Pulp-made games are eligible to be listed in the Playdate's online store and are elevated, promoting the creation and support of new developers. Then there's the fact that brand-new games made by developers I love, like Strange Scaffold, Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy), and Bennett Foddy were waiting for me inside of it.

The Playdate reignited my passion for gaming, even sparked my creative brain to consider embarking on a game dev journey one day using Pulp, and reminded me how creativity is only further enhanced by limitations on stripped-to-basics devices like this one. And so VGG dedicates the month of April to the Playdate.

A product photo of the Playdate packaging. A full yellow rectangular box is opened up to show a Playdate nestled in the box and a paper surrounding what looks to be a cable next to it that reads "Have fun!"

What's in store for Playdate coverage

All month long, we'll be publishing a set of special Playdate-focused articles alongside our usual rotation of reviews. It all starts with this introduction. We'll be handing out crank-specific superlatives to the Season 1 games. We'll be reviewing the first new game from Lucas Pope since Return of the Obra Dinn: the Playdate exclusive Mars After Midnight, and more.

We'll also be streaming Playdate games over at once a week all month long! Stop on by to see it in action.

I love this unconventional little thing and I'm excited to showcase it. We hope you'll join us for this month-long play date!


Joel Bacon
Joel Bacon
Apr 06

I am so hyped to get my hands on one of these. There are so many cool things about this device. It isn't just the crank. It's the mindset behind it's creation. Great read.


Apr 01

Ohhh!!! I've been curious about this!!


Glory Duda
Glory Duda
Apr 01

Exciting to see what reviews you CRANK out this month hehehehehehe lol

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