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Monday, June 27, 2022

Pushing Buttons: Need nostalgia? Crank up the new Playdate console | Games

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These days, video games aren’t often tied to a particular console or gadget – even if something like Halo or God of War originally appears on Xbox or PlayStation, it will often eventually make its way to PC, and the majority of games come out on everything at the same time. Unless you’re playing a console-exclusive game like Returnal, specifically designed around the PlayStation 5 controller with its adaptive triggers and fancy haptic feedback, the experience of the game isn’t shaped much by the hardware you play it on. You can play Minecraft with a controller or a mouse or on your phone, and it’s still largely the same.

The exception to this is, as ever, Nintendo, the gaming powerhouse that always seems to be the exception to every rule. Its games are still, and always have been, inspired by and inextricably tied to the machines that the company designs. There could be no Wii Sports without the motion-sensing Wii Remote to wave around, no Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training without the Nintendo DS’ touch screen.

The DS particularly had a lot of games that could only have worked on that hardware, with all its little gimmicks. There’s a puzzle in one of the DS Zelda games where you have to get someone on the far bank of a river to lower a bridge for you, and after several stumped minutes I suddenly realised that I had to actually shout at them, in real life, into the console’s microphone. I tried it, and it worked, and it was simultaneously one of the most stupid and most magical moments I’ve ever had in a game.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve spent the last few weeks playing around with the Playdate, a little yellow handheld console with a black and white screen, two buttons, a D-pad and a crank. An actual little crank on the side of the machine, which is used in all of the experimental games that come with the console. You use it to focus a camera, surf waves, move forward or backwards through time. The developers making these microgames – including indie legends such as Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy) and Bennet Foddy (QWOP) – have evidently found the crank to be a delightful source of inspiration. It’s a reminder that gimmicks can and do actually inspire creativity.

New games will arrive on the Playdate every week, coming in seasons. None of them last long, usually a few minutes to a half-hour’s play, but every one I’ve played has been very endearing. This wee console is definitely a curio, and an expensive one at $179, but it’s just so charming. It’s made me miss my old bright yellow Game Boy Color, which I spent several years begging my parents for, and which eventually arrived just in time for the best years of the original Pokémon craze. I still remember how the smooth buttons felt under my thumbs.

This is one reason why, despite the games industry’s current enthusiasm for streaming and subscription services, I doubt that the console (or the controller) will ever become a thing of the past. We have sensory memories tied to the Spectrum’s rubber keyboard or the GameCube’s strange little controller with its bizarre button layout, the clamshell snap of a DS or the clicky shoulder buttons of a PlayStation pad. (I’d say something nice about the Dreamcast pad but let’s be real, it is mostly memorable for how terrible its analogue sticks were.) We like gadgets. They’re fun to play with. Games consoles and controllers are more than just tools: they’re toys, too, and their design is an art in itself.

PS: Following last week’s issue about the bizarre social stigma that still sometimes comes with video games, I’ve had an update from Daniel, whose boss gave him a hard time for playing Switch on his lunch break. He writes:

“I’ve had no further incidents between my boss and my Switch and I have continued to play on my lunch break, if even only for a few precious minutes. I told some colleagues about our CEO’s reaction and interestingly, pretty much everyone thought it was ridiculous, and it turned out that a couple of them are gamers as well, something we had never spoken about before … One is a rather serious guy in his late twenties who has just got his hands on an PS5, and the other is a female colleague in her late fifties who was given her nephew’s old Xbox 360 to try out and discovered to her surprise that she really enjoyed the gaming experience and is now a convert (she’s currently taking a walking tour through Skyrim – her words). It was nice to discover that I now have a little gaming posse in the office. I’m sure there are others as well, we just haven’t smoked them out them yet.”

Video games, bringing people together yet again. It’s like a not-very-secret club full of fun people.

What to play

Nintendo Switch Sports
Nintendo Switch Sports Photograph: Nintendo

Remember Wii Sports? Family Christmases enlivened by virtual bowling? Kids getting too enthusiastic in the boxing mini-game and nearly sending a Wii remote through the TV or into their sibling’s face? Nintendo Switch Sports is out this week, a modern take on motion-controlled multiplayer sports, and honestly not a lot has changed apart from the slicker aesthetic. Tennis is still here. Bowling is still here. It also has badminton, volleyball, sword-fighting, and a clearly Rocket League-inspired take on football. It’s all playable online as well as together in person, though honestly without the inherent slapstick comedy element of watching someone else swing a pretend tennis racket, it rather loses something. A no-brainer for anyone with a Nintendo Switch and at least one real-life friend or family member.

Available on: Nintendo Switch
Approximate playtime: As long or short as you like

What to read

  • If I’ve piqued your interest about the Playdate, Polygon has a lovely in-depth feature about how it came to be, and the people at Panic who created it. It talks a lot about the crank.

  • The Washington Post explores why esports careers are so short: the average professional gamer competes for only a few years and usually retires before their mid-twenties. In short, if you know an aspiring 17-year-old esports star and they’re not competing, they’re already leaving it a bit late.

  • Also on Polygon: Charlie Hall interviews game developers in Ukraine, who are staying right where they are and hoping to bolster their country’s economy. “When peace comes we will all be needed even more to help rebuild and the idea of abandoning Ukraine entirely at a time like that is inconceivable,” said Frogwares’ Paul Milewski.

  • Not strictly games, but I can’t stop thinking about this NYT story about a man who married a fictional character (Hatsune Miku, a Japanese pop star who is in fact made up).

What to click

Shoot em up! How TV fell in love with video games

Question Block

Another great question this week from reader Lawal Muhammad, who asks: “What are the best games about professions? My vote would probably go to Crazy Taxi (Sega Arcade/Dreamcast) or Cannon Fodder (Amiga).”

Games about jobs are, for some reason, absurdly compelling, as proven by the enduring popularity of Football Manager and Euro Truck Simulator (and its ilk). For me however they are especially fun when they bear absolutely no resemblance to the real-life version of the job. I lost an entire summer to Game Dev Story once, one of a series of cutesy management games on smartphones that managed to make sourcing funding, hiring developers, getting your first hit game and then making endless sequels into a crazed dopamine rush. I love being a lawyer in the mad anime courtrooms of Phoenix Wright. And at the risk of disappearing down a self-referential rabbit hole, I have to mention Job Simulator, a comedy VR game that imagines a future museum of professions in the year 2050, where you can try out being a shop clerk or office worker, except it’s much funnier than anything that has ever happened in an actual office.

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