Pocket and Playdate

A pair of interesting handhelds

Recently I’ve gotten two very different and very interesting handheld game systems. The Analogue Pocket is a retro handheld that uses FPGA to “emulate” various Game Boys and the Playdate from Panic is a retro-inspired (but very modern) handheld with a bunch of unique games (and a crank). Both are flawed and fascinating systems that are trying to be different things.

But I got them both within a month, and they’re both handheld game systems, so they get to share a post.

The Pocket

The Analogue Pocket is all about recreating that Game Boy magic. Quite literally, in fact. Out of the box, it claims to be compatible with ANY Game Boy, Game Boy Color, or Game Boy Advance game cartridge. Based on my small collection of games and various posts on Reddit, that seems more or less accurate. The way they accomplish this is to “emulate” the original hardware using an FPGA. It’s a neat trick that Analogue has done before for retro home consoles, but the Pocket has something that a home console doesn’t have: a screen.

And what a screen! It’s a 3.5 inch LCD that has a resolution of 1600x1440. That’s over 600 dpi and exactly 10 times the resolution of the original Game Boy screen. In short, it’s beautiful. There are so many pixels. So many pixels that they can, with incredible accuracy, recreate the original screens down to sub-pixel arrangement and the grid lines between pixels.

Some passing thoughts:

  • The actual unit is a bit heavier than I expected. Not too bad to hold for a long time, but not super comfortable either. It would honestly be nicer if it were a bit ticker so it could fit better in hand.
  • I really wish there was more of a cover over the cartridge to help keep it in place. The slot does a good job of holding onto the games, but it seems just too easy to knock them loose.
  • GB Studio patches are a phenomenal way to take a sizable library with you without having to drag around a bunch of carts. Also retro games are stupidly expensive now.
    • Someday, apparently, there may be a jailbreak to allow side-loading any GB/C/A ROM.
  • Battery life has been really good so far.

The Playdate

Where the Pocket is attempting to recreate nostalgia as accurately as possible, the Playdate from Panic is really something else. Nostalgia has clearly been an inspiration but was used to create something very new and very wonderful. The Playdate is small, bright yellow, and has a crank. The screen is reflective (not illuminated) and 1-bit, that is: only black and white.

I love it.

Let’s start with the screen. It’s almost like e-Ink in that it requires good lighting to use. But the sharpness and fluidity is amazing. It’s easy to see despite being so small. It’s something you really need to see in person to believe.

Also there’s a crank. Some games use it to varying degrees of success. It’s a lot of fun and makes it very unique.

The delivery method for the games is also unique. Included with each system is a “season” of 24 games. Once you power the system on for the first time, it will automatically download the first two games. Then on each following Monday, you receive two more games. It’s a clever way to spread out the fun. Each game is unique and the weekly delivery ensures that you can spend time with each before trying out the next set of games.

Some other thoughts:

  • Since the screen is so low power, the system is always on. When you put it to sleep, the screen shows a clock. I modeled and 3d printed a stand so I can use it as a desk clock while I’m working. I’ll post that model somewhere before too long.
  • It’s really small, even with the cover. It can be a bit uncomfortable to hold for a long time.
  • Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure and Whitewater Wipeout are the “showcase” games so far. Both take great advantage of the crank and are super fun (and hard).
    • Pick Pack Pup is also super adorable and addictive. It doesn’t use the crank for game play, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome.
  • Side-loading is super easy with their web interface and itch.io has plenty of games to explore.

Overall, I’d recommend either system. They’re both well made and very fun. They’re expensive, the Pocket is $220 and the Playdate is $180 (or $200 with the cover included), but they are both very good at what they set out to do. If you think either is for you, I’d say order one. Just be prepared for a long wait.