Two Years Ago, the Playdate Proved a Good Gimmick Can Thrive Despite the Switch’s Dominance

A handheld with a crank seemed dumb at first, but using it to control games is what makes the Playdate stand out.

Inverse contributor Ian Carlos Campbell using the crank on the Playdate handheld to control a game.
Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Iam Carlos Campbell

How important is the crank to the Playdate? It’s technically just one part of Panic’s quirky yellow handheld, but it’s also the feature people point to first when they describe the tiny gaming device with the E Ink screen. The crank hasn’t proven to be necessary for enjoying games on the Playdate, and yet, I think it’s ended up serving as a good metaphor for the device as a whole.

When I reviewed the Playdate (Panic’s first piece of hardware) I was convinced the crank was a gimmicky distraction from everything else that made the Playdate interesting. A year later, the shipping issues that Panic had sort of dulled some of that initial excitement. And now a year after that, there’s real evidence the Playdate has found a passionate community of gamers and developers.

The elements of the Playdate that might be described as gimmicky are also the things that make it an interesting gadget to play with and develop for. You might not use the crank or even love having a grayscale screen, but they’re limitations that draw people in, and keep them around.

In Defense of a Good Gimmick

The Playdate recalls gimmicky Nintendo hardware of the past.

Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

Describing one of the core elements of a piece of hardware as a gimmick inherently implies an element of cheapness, but it’s easily applied to the company behind the handheld that the Playdate is most often compared to. The Game Boy features a similar set of simple buttons, and when it originally launched in 1989, a similarly dull screen. In the history of Nintendo’s hardware, the Game Boy was arguably one of the most straightforward devices the company has ever released, but Nintendo is best known for its gimmicks.

The Wii, one of Nintendo’s best-selling consoles, was built on a gimmick: motion controls. The Wii Remote combined familiar buttons and triggers with an IR blaster and accelerometers to track your movements as you played. Motion controls for iconic games like Wii Sports brought gaming to a far-reaching audience beyond the typical gamers holed up in their basements or bedrooms. The success of the Wii was so great it arguably led the games industry down a disastrous cul-de-sac of motion tracking-enabled controllers, cameras, and games (Sony countered with PlayStation Move and Microsoft with Kinect). Motion controls made sense for certain games and even made them easier to play, but it was by no means a requirement on the Wii. There were plenty of games that didn’t rely on motion controls at all, like Super Smash Bros Brawl, and many of the games ported to the Wii from other consoles later in its life.

The tiny crank and general Teenage Engineering-designed aesthetic make the Playdate look distinct and were the main source of the early hype around it.

You could say the same thing about the Wii U, which introduced a tablet-like gamepad as an additional screen and controller (confusingly to some, it also worked with Wii Remotes). Or the Nintendo DS, which used two screens (one of which was a touchscreen), a stylus, and a microphone to offer all sorts of different game experiences. Even the Nintendo Switch, which is a phenomenon in its own right, was initially sold on its detachable, Wii Remote-esque controllers, kickstand, and TV dock. The Switch gets by now on its gigantic library of games, but it got people in the door with its magic trick of switching between handheld and docked modes.

The tiny crank and general Teenage Engineering-designed aesthetic make the Playdate look distinct and were the main source of the early hype around it. That crank got people in the door and lusting after the Playdate, even if it's not central to using it most of the time. The gimmick served a purpose.

The Ultimate Tinker Toy

Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure was part of the launch season of games on the Playdate and exclusively used the crank.


When Panic launched Catalog, the Playdate’s hand-curated storefront for games, I don’t think anyone assumed it would be competing with Steam or the Epic Games Store. The terms are favorable — developers keep 75 percent of the sales of their game (minus Stripe’s processing fees) — but based on sales numbers Panic shared in 2023, there are only around 53,000 Playdates out there. That’s admittedly modest compared to the over 139 million Nintendo Switches and tens of millions of PS5 and Xbox consoles already in homes. Even if Panic sells more Playdates, Catalog won’t be the first place most people go to buy games.

The numbers Panic recently shared bare that out. Developers made over $544,000 off Catalog in the first year of its existence. That’s based on a library of only 181 games and 150,000 game purchases. You’re not making a living with those kinds of sales, and probably treating Playdate projects as something to tinker with more than anything else, but I think there’s potential for it to grow. That can be directly contributed to the weirdness of the Playdate’s hardware.

Even if a majority of games primarily use the directional pad and A and B buttons, there have been some interesting crank ideas that have popped up along the way. Gravity Express has you finesse the crank to fly a spaceship. Grand Tour Legends, an early addition to Catalog, turns the crank into the pedal of a road bike. There have been even more abstract uses, too. Root Bear uses the crank to simulate pouring soda, PlayBook uses the crank to flip through pages of ebooks. It might not make sense for everything, but the crank clearly inspires new ideas in its own way, and arguably, the smaller community of Playdate owners and developers have taken better to the quirks of the Playdate than anyone ever did to Nintendo’s oddball ideas. Through some combination of being early adopters with money to burn and being conditioned to the unusualness of the handheld itself, Playdate owners are more adventurous.

It’s a Magic Trick

That’s why I think, two years later, calling the Playdate’s crank a gimmick isn’t really derogatory at all. It might have seemed like a cheap way to get people interested in an indie piece of hardware, but the crank has proven itself to be one of the hard edges of the handheld that make the Playdate interesting to use. The crank is not a limitation, and not an improvement on what’s come before, it’s entirely its own thing.

The crank is not a limitation, and not an improvement on what’s come before, it’s entirely its own thing.

In the world of magic, the gimmick is the hidden mechanism that makes an illusion work. The double-sided playing card, invisible wire, or fire paper that makes something impossible seem possible. That’s what the crank is to the Playdate. Not just the flashy thing that gets you curious about buying it, but the grease that makes the impossible — an independent handheld game console surviving in a world dominated by Nintendo and Valve — a reality, even if it's on a small scale.

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