Many of us at Nintendo Life have been patiently, excitedly waiting for the Playdate to go on sale, because we're suckers for bits of colourful plastic. Well, it did, and we missed it, because all 20,000 initial units (for the 2021 batch, at least) sold out in just 20 minutes. [Not all of us missed it! - smug Ed]
It's hardly surprising that the Playdate proved to be so popular — it's a cute little thing, with an appealingly egg-yolk-yellow outer shell (not to mention a tiny initial batch available for pre-order, although Panic has said it will produce as many units as necessary to meet demand). Granted, it's more of an objet d'art for adult nerds who also have glass cabinets full of pristine LEGO sets and professionally-framed game manuals from their childhood on their walls, but that doesn't mean it's not also a really intriguing handheld console.
I can think of a few reasons why someone might want to get their mitts on the first run of Playdates. I mean, I'm one of them, and I even know a bunch of lucky sods who already have one, either through knowing someone associated with the product, or being journalists with the privilege of review units. I've held one; I even cranked the crank. It's a sexy piece of engineering and design, albeit surprisingly light. So, why are people queuing up to drop $179 (£130) on a little plastic toy?
First, there's the novelty. It's got a crank! Also, it's retro-styled, while updating the aesthetic for a modern era without being too slavishly devoted to its inspirations. It's hard not to feel drawn towards something that does things a little differently — including the way it handles games, releasing them in a 24-game season (two every week for the first 12 weeks) rather than expecting people to buy games directly.
Those games are another huge reason why someone might want to own a Playdate: they're all exclusives, and already have some rather appealing names associated with them, from industry veterans like Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy) and Chuck Jordan (The Curse of Monkey Island) to indie darlings like Lucas Pope (Papers Please, Return of the Obra Dinn) and Bennett Foddy (QWOP, Getting Over It). For the kind of people who'll buy a Playdate, the games themselves might not matter; it's more about being involved with a new way of doing things, and being able to say you played a game that only a handful of people have ever seen.
Of course, nostalgia is a big part of it, too. Don't think it hasn't escaped our notice that the Playdate is the very specific yellow of a certain electric mouse, or that its simple design recalls another handheld console we know and love. Handhelds haven't looked like that in a few decades, after all — the DS succeeded the Game Boy family in 2004, and Nintendo has been dual-screen in the portable-only space ever since — so it's not hard to see what the Playdate is winking at.
To put it more succinctly, the Playdate is a lightning-strike combination of all the right things at the right time. The 3DS, which was discontinued in late 2020, is slowly crawling towards an official time of death: just this year, support for Netflix was withdrawn, repairs were stopped, and StreetPass was proved to be a desolated wasteland, but Nintendo doesn't seem to have plans to replace it (Switch Lite aside, of course).
The Switch, and to a lesser extent, the Wii U, seem to have been testing grounds for merging handheld and home console into something hybrid. In fact, in 2013 — four years before the release of the Switch, and one year after the final 3DS console release — Nintendo actually rolled their handheld division into their console division, blurring the lines between the two and marking a new approach to how Nintendo consoles would work from then on.
In my opinion, it would be a mistake to forsake handheld consoles altogether — and the numbers agree with me.
Nintendo's top five best-selling consoles, in order, are the Nintendo DS family, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, the Wii, the Nintendo Switch, and the Game Boy Advance family. The DS family alone outsold the Wii by over 50 million, and with all their sales combined, Nintendo's handheld consoles have sold around 430 million — almost 65 million units more than Nintendo's home consoles (source: Nintendo).
Personally, I've always preferred Nintendo's handheld offerings. Not only is it easier to game on-the-go, which means that I generally game more, but the catalogue of games on the DS and 3DS is one of the best of all time. Partly, that was because of Nintendo's willingness to publish the weird stuff, a subject I've talked about at length on Nintendo Life, as has freelance writer Nathan Ellingsworth. One of Nathan's quotes says it best:
"Would Nintendo have launched a home console with an interactive dog simulator?"
...The lack of NintendogSwitch says no.
But the other part of the brilliance of Nintendo's handheld offerings is that the DS and 3DS was a testing ground for a lot of the more off-the-wall ideas. It seems like it was possible for internal studios to work on a mainstream game, like a Twilight Princess (2006), at the same time as a handheld one, like Phantom Hourglass (2007), keeping all the bizarre, jokey content for the latter and making the former a bit more weighty and serious. So, what happens when Nintendo combines the two into a hybrid? Do you get the best of both worlds, or a diluted version of both?
The Nintendo Switch is clearly intended to welcome handheld gamers into the home console fold, and vice versa, but it does the job of home console far better than it does as a portable gaming solution. Despite all the marketing behind it, no one actually plays the Switch in their hallway, or at a skate park under a bridge, and my travels around the world proved that the Switch is nowhere near as hardy as my 3DS. It's a console designed to be played in bed, or maybe at a café, but it's safest in its wee dock.
The Playdate, despite its loveliness, is not really designed to be a portable console, either. It's quite light and delicate, and the case — sold separately, in a rather nice Game Cube/Game Boy Advance purple, depending on your opinion on what "purple" is — won't do much to protect it from the elements. Nintendo's purpose-made handhelds, by contrast, can literally withstand bombs.
Of course, for the past year-and-a-bit, a lot of us have been doing nothing but staying inside, so all this talk about handhelds that can be taken out and about is pretty moot. But with vaccinations on the rise, it's hopefully a matter of time before international travel and working in cafés is normal again, and with all of that will come the question: will we ever get a new Nintendo handheld?
I hope the answer is yes, and with good reason. Most of my favourite games — Ace Attorney, Majora's Mask 3D, Fantasy Life, Zero Escape — came out on handhelds; even with home consoles, I've often enjoyed games most in their portable form where possible, like Wind Waker HD on the GamePad and Breath of the Wild in handheld mode. My favourite studio, Level-5, put out most of their greatest work on handhelds, too, like Professor Layton, Yo-Kai Watch, and yes, I'm going to mention Fantasy Life again. IT'S REALLY GOOD.
Many of the brilliant games we have now on the Switch — The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is a great and recent example — wouldn't have ever existed without the success of the Game Boy, DS and 3DS. Obviously, Nintendo has given us no hints as to what comes next. But the success of the Playdate seems to me like it implies the existence of a market hungry for the next handheld — something smaller, stronger, and more off-the-wall than a Switch. The Switch OLED model looks to be an effort to improve the portable experience for the current console, but I want more.
I don't expect the Playdate to fulfil what I'm hoping for, and it would be unfair to impose those expectations on Panic when they never promised anything of the sort. It's an art piece with interesting and innovative games, but perhaps not something you take with you everywhere you go, or play for hours like a 3DS. It's somewhere between a Tamagotchi and an amiibo: perfectly functional, but largely for visual appreciation and cool points™. That's okay! I like these things! I have a Tamagotchi in my house right now!
But if Playdate is the Crank Prince of the Handheld Kingdom, Nintendo's portables are the undisputed Kings — and the throne is getting cold.