Game Boy nostalgia: New handheld gaming system from Portland company to debut in 2020

An official press asset for Panic’s new handheld system, the Playdate. (Panic Photo)

Game Boy nostalgia, anyone?

Portland, Ore.-based software company Panic just announced, to the surprise of many, the upcoming release of a new handheld video game console.

The Playdate is a small device with a 2.7-inch, black-and-white LCD screen planned to ship at an initial price of $149. It’s made in conjunction with the Swedish firm Teenage Engineering, and will be sold directly via Panic itself in 2020, with pre-orders beginning in 2019.

Surprise is a key element of the Playdate, with its software library is made up of a gradual series of time-released exclusives. Playdate owners will have access to a subscription gaming service; every week after the device’s debut in stores, a new original game is planned to be released for it, “delivered over-the-air,” and intended to always be a surprise. One has already been revealed: Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, from Japanese developer Keita Takahashi, known for Katamari Damacy, which was recently remastered for Windows and the Switch.

Other developers confirmed to have games on the Playdate include Zach Gage (SpellTower), Bennett Foddy (Getting Over It, that bizarre physics-puzzle game that every Let’s-Player on the Internet did a video on in 2017), and Shaun Inman (The Last Rocket). The plan is for each week’s new game to come as a total surprise to the system’s owners, with no telling what they’ll end up getting.

The Playdate features a standard control pad and two input buttons, as well as an analogue crank built into the right side of the device. Described as a “flip-out rotational controller,” it does not, in fact, power the unit. Instead, it’s made to be used with a few of the system’s games as a unique control method.

The forthcoming issue of Edge magazine contains an exclusive cover story on the Playdate, containing the details of its five-year-long production cycle.

Panic has been making software for decades, including award-winning MacOS applications such as Coda, Transmit, and Prompt. It recently branched out into video game publishing with 2016’s Firewatch, a narrative game by the now-Valve-owned, Washington-based Campo Santo. Panic’s next title is the Australian stealth-humor adventure, Untitled Goose Game, scheduled for release later this year on Windows, Mac, and Nintendo Switch.

Panic’s decision to release the Playdate came out of a desire to try more new things, such as hardware development, just for the fun of it.

At $149, the Playdate ships at nearly twice the price of a brand new Nintendo 3DS, though it also comes with its own 12-strong launch lineup for no additional cost.

Its deliberate retro appeal — black-and-white one-bit games in 2020? — is going to make it an interesting pickup for collectors and enthusiasts, but any handheld system in this market is facing an uphill battle.

In previous hardware generations, Nintendo’s hammerlock on the portable gaming space, courtesy of the Game Boy, would repel all challengers. Now, anyone releasing a portable system has to basically ask a user whether they’re willing to carry around a second device besides their smartphone.

Still, Panic seems to be getting into this just for the sheer hell of it, and there’s a certain infectious enthusiasm to their approach that’s respectable. With a new Takahashi game on the system, I definitely want to get hold of a Playdate — but how about you? Will you buy the device? Let us know in the comments.

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