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Panic Unveils Playdate, A Handheld Gaming Console With A Crank

Panic, the company best known for publishing 2016's Firewatch, is once again back in the news. But it's not because Panic has stumbled upon another indie gem. Instead, it's because the company is releasing a handheld gaming console; one of the strangest we've seen in quite some time.

It's called the Playdate, and at first glance, it looks like Apple's 3rd-gen iPod Nano had a baby with the Game Boy. That is, until you notice the crank on the side. Then you could be forgiven for thinking this is a fishing game; a callback to one of those old Tiger Electronics handhelds that you could pick up at K-Mart.

But the Playdate is neither of those things, though graphically, it does have more in common with those Tiger systems than it does any handheld from this century. The Playdate is first and foremost an indie game machine. It's a $149 way to play new software from some very well-known indie developers, who are bringing their big ideas to its 2.7-inch, 1-bit black-and-white display. And it plans to generate revenue on a recurring basis by selling sets of games in "seasons."

The first Playdate season will contain 12 titles, and will come free with the purchase of a Playdate. It's unclear how much Panic plans to charge for additional seasons, though we're guessing that the company is just playing it by ear at this point. After all, who knows if the Playdate will sell enough to make continued development viable?

If a portable was ever to come after the Nintendo Switch, this was not the one we were expecting. It's somehow a more stripped down Game Boy that, despite its low-grade display, manages to include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and support for USB-C. And the crank? Perhaps we'll see some innovative uses of it in Playdate's first season of titles. But it feels more like a gimmick than anything; a way to create buzz around a system that might otherwise have flown under the radar due to its unimpressive specs. 

In that regard, well played, Panic.

The Playdate, which costs $149, is scheduled to ship in the early part of 2020. Preorders aren't available just yet, but you can sign up to be notified when the system goes on sale over on the Playdate website.