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Friday, June 21, 2024

The Ten Best Games for Playdate in 2022

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For the last year and a half now, I’ve been quietly publishing a little column once or twice a month where I just talk about nifty little indie games I’m playing that are doing something unique – whether that’s mechanically, narratively, artistically, or otherwise.

You’re going to see a lot more of that column in early 2023, but in the meantime, I wanted to throw in a fun holiday bonus column to talk about a neat device I’ve been tooling around with on the commute to and from the office: the Playdate.

Unless you’re already a die-hard Playdate stan, you may have only heard of it as the “hand-crank” device. It looks like this:

Playdate Review – Photos

The Playdate comes loaded with a “season pass” of sorts where you get two games automatically delivered to your device every week for 12 weeks, and there are dozens more available usually for very cheap (or even free!) through itch.io.

We actually reviewed it back in April, praising its lo-fi charm despite its niche appeal. You can read that review if you’re curious about the hardware, but what I want to talk about is the software. In the past I’ve thought a lot about how designing games within very specific restrictions often results in more creativity and innovation than endless expansion of possibility – it’s why Minit was my Game of the Year in 2018. The Playdate is simply delirious with that very idea. The ease with which developers can make bite-sized experiments and make them available has allowed for some really genius stuff to fill the Playdate library.

A bunch of my favorites are contained in the aforementioned Season Pass, but many lie outside of it. Honestly, I didn’t play a single bad game on the Playdate this year, and you can check my thread soliciting ideas from earlier this year to learn about even more of these gems. But after stuffing my Playdate library full to bursting, here are my ten favorite Playdate games thus far:

Casual Birder

This was one of the first games that dropped in my Season Pass, and it instantly raised the bar of my expectations sky high. It reminds me a bit of another one of my recent faves, TOEM, in that it’s a top-down exploration and photography game, but it also has a bit of an old-school Pokemon aesthetic to it. You’re given a camera and told to take photographs of birds, using the hand crank as a focus to get the perfect shot. It’s harder than it seems – the birds are still birds, so they move around and fly away and play hard to get while you’re trying to line them up. Some are easy to see at first, while others you may not notice unless you turn the sound up to listen for birdsong on a given screen.

Serene as all that sounds, the town is also full of bullies who want to shame you for taking bird photographs, and townsfolk dishing out goofy bird-related dialogue. The writing and the artstyle combined make Casual Birder not just fun, but funny, which makes my motivation to finish my bird photo collection all the stronger.

Generations

Playdate is a natural home for simple card/tabletop-style games in a virtual format, and while that’s not normally my cup of tea, I had to write about Generations because I cannot put this dang game down. It’s ostensibly a card game, though it takes place in the format of hanging family portraits on a 6×3 portion of wall. You start in center left, and can only hang portraits next to ones you’ve already hung. At first, the portraits are just storks – but when three storks are hung together, they combine for a single baby portrait. Three babies gets you a kid, three kids results in a teen, then adult, then senior. Three seniors together are cleared from the board, and all other portraits remaining age up by one. Your goal is to get a high score by clearing as many portraits as possible without filling up the grid entirely, resulting in a game over.

It’s hard to explain why I’ve gotten hooked on Generations – possibly it’s the combination of simplicity and satisfaction with clearing a huge chunk of the board all at once, making room for more and more portraits. Whatever it is, I can’t stop playing. Don’t forget to pet the cat that’s watching you hang the pictures.

Faraway Fairway

I love weird golf games. From the generic (Mario Golf) to the extravagant (Golf Story) to the whacky (What the Golf?) to the solemn (Golf Club Wasteland), there seems to be no end to ways in which golf can be translated into game format. Faraway Fairway, a game I tried out ahead of its Playdate launch, is one of the most curious takes. It’s a prime example of using extreme development restrictions to do something new – from a top-down perspective, you use the crank to choose your ball’s direction, hit A to confirm, then use the crank again to choose the force of your swing. The result is an enjoyably precise little puzzle game where you’re constantly testing the limits of both direction and force to make your way across obstacle-laden courses, all the way to the hole. It’s a very patient golf game, which I suppose is well within the spirit of golf itself. But it also thankfully disposes of all the extra gamey fluff I get bored with like selecting clubs and monitoring wind speed and such. Just hit the ball and go.

Skew – The Last Worker Spinoff

I wrote about why I like The Last Worker earlier this year, so obviously when I heard there was an upcoming Playdate spinoff of this I had to give that a go too. Like The Last Worker, it was absolutely not what I expected at first look. But unlike The Last Worker, Skew’s surprise wasn’t a disarmingly pertinent satire of my worst present day capitalism fears – it’s a delightfully-clunky 3D endless runner driven by crank and motion controls. You get to drive a little propeller man through an endless hallway of obstacles, trying not to crash. I’m awful at it! It’s very fun! You can’t make things like this unless you have a literal crank sticking out the side of your machine!

And since you play as the propellered minion Skew from The Last Worker, it is also quite literally a spin-off. Well-played. Skew is planned for official release in 2023.

Zipper

While we’re still in the department of games I’m bad at, add Zipper to the list. Zipper is the brainchild of one Bennett Foddy, who you might remember from games like Getting Over It or, for the olds, QWOP. Reminiscent of chess and set on grid-based maps, you play as a ninja who can move up to a set amount of spaces in a single direction on his turn. The goal is to get past enemy ninjas guarding a castle, who can also move a set amount of spaces each turn. You can kill enemies by landing right in front of them or passing them directly, but you don’t have to, and you can use the crank to preview the outcomes of certain moves before you execute.

From Foddy, I was expecting something more like Getting Over It with execution-based victory conditions, but Zipper is all in the head. You can spend all the time you like making decisions, but one wrong move and the enemy ninjas will cut you to bits and you’ll have to start again. And yet it’s got that delicious Souls-like appeal of making it a bit further each time, just a bit further, as you memorize enemy patterns. I think I’m supposed to be looking for a way to get into the castle here, but I keep getting murdered before I can make headway. I’ll get there eventually.

Crankin Presents Time Travel Adventures

Another game from an illustrious name, Keita Takahashi and studio Uvula have brought us Time Travel Adventures, a game that took me maybe a bit longer to understand than it should have. It is played entirely with the crank – you use it to make a little toy man run forward so he’s not late for his date with his girlfriend. But as you progress through their dates (which he is inevitably always late for), more and more obstacles appear to stop you from making your appointment, necessitating using the crank to rewind and pause time to avoid them. For instance, a butterfly approaching may require you to rewind time to the moment you were sniffing a flower, so you can duck under it. Incoming throwing knives can be dodged if your little fellow is hanging from a monkeybars in a very precise fashion, but you have to adjust the crank to get him to the right position.

Really, what I’m learning here is that when I’m deprived of button mashing muscle memory and forced to use a crank, I’m actually terrible at video games. I’m also learning that being bad at crank-based video games is very fun and more people should try it.

A Joke That’s Worth 99 Cents

Look, I know the broad theme of my list so far has been “games I’m bad at” but I promise, you’re not good at this one either. It’s also ripe for list placement, because even though I still have no idea what the joke’s punchline is, the hilarity of the concept alone is worth the very low price. The screen shows a Playdate, crank and all, a little star near the upper section of the crank, and a little man falling down near the crank. Your job is to turn the actual crank so the one in the game will make the little man bounce up and down and collect the stars. For every start you collect, another line of the joke will appear on the Playdate screen.

No spoilers here – the joke is something about three men making three wishes to a magical fairy. I haven’t managed to collect all the stars and finish it yet because it turns out, bouncing a little virtual man on a Playdate crank is very difficult. Another one for me to continue bumbling around with on the daily commute.

Demon Quest ‘85

Another game that absolutely shattered my at-a-glance expectations of it was Demon Quest ‘85. I thought for sure it would be some RPG or tiny Diablo-like, but no. It’s a logic puzzle game of sorts where you play as a high schooler who has found a demon summoning book, and now wants to invoke the dark forces of hell to become more popular at school. You can thumb through the book at will and use context clues from each demon’s page to determine what food you need to bring to the ritual, what music you should play, and which of your three classmates you should invite to help summon your demon of choice. As you summon, you learn more about each demon’s lore and help your friends with their various high school problems – aid that surely comes with no ill effects whatsoever. I especially love the ways in which individual demons’ lore begins to sync up with other demons the further you play and the more you learn about them. Also it’s just very funny that you can summon a fiend of hell with a strip of beef jerky and whatever is lying around in your dad’s record collection.

Spellcorked

I’m a sap for little witchy potion games, and Spellcorked’s added tactile elements were right up my alley. You’re a young witch who must fulfill potion orders sent to her by experimenting with ingredients, and it’s a bit more complicated than it initially appears. All ingredients must be processed in some way, whether that’s by selecting runes to help distill them or using the hand crank as a mortar and pestle to grind them down to a precise powder. The choices you make in processing ingredients will turn out different potions, and there’s no guide to making them, so it’s all experimentation. I enjoyed the commentary of all the magic shop cats and the very gritty feeling of grinding down coffee beans to a specific strength for my client’s potions.

Bloom

Bloom is unquestionably my favorite thing I’ve played on the Playdate so far. You play as Midori, a young woman trying to get her flower shop off the ground. You use the crank to switch between the rooftop garden where she grows plants in real time, and Midori’s apartment where she texts her family, her friends, and her girlfriend Ai. As you earn money and pay rent, you unlock more flowers and more rooftop space for gardening, and text messages from people close to Midori arrive throughout a real-time day, so you can check in every few hours for a little bit more plot development.

What really captured me about Bloom was the lovely writing, especially between Midori and Ai. They’re adorable, but more importantly, believable. They talk like two normal people in their 20s who are still figuring things out, from their goofy escapades to their arguments. Because Bloom is taken one day at a time, I still haven’t finished it (or even really have a concept of what an ending for Midori might be!). But I’m still checking in multiple times a day, tending my garden, and hoping Ai will text me back soon.

Playdate – Season 1 Games

While these were ten of my favorites, between the season pass and everything on itch.io I still have a massive pile of Playdate games to spend more time with in the new year. It remains true that the Playdate is a somewhat niche little system that doesn’t fit neatly into most people’s plans or budgets for how they game. But if you looked at the little hand crank friend when it first came out and were intrigued but uncertain, know that some of the weirdest, most fun game experiments of the current generation are happening on the Playdate.


Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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