When Panic first announced the Playdate, I didn’t think it was going to succeed. It came across as a niche system, and I thought the limited art style and a gimmicky crank that helped it stick out from the crowd could hurt the handheld’s lasting appeal. I’ve avoided picking up a Playdate until now because of that, but there was always one game I had my eye on: a mysterious new title from Lucas Pope.
With Papers, Please or Return of the Obra Dinn, Pope produced two very different and creative indie titles that made him a top-tier indie developer. Papers, Please adeptly addressed real-world immigration struggles with gameplay, while Obra Dinn coupled a compelling narrative experience while puzzle-solving on an abandoned ship.
Now he’s making a long awaited return on Playdate with Mars After Midnight, which I went hands-on with at PAX West. Though it’s a bite-sized handheld title, I can already see Pope’s trademarks at play here. That’s helped me realize that I may have been trigger-happy to outright dismiss the quirky, but capable platform.
Mars After Midnight is, more or less, a spiritual sequel of Papers, Please, but one that’s much more approachable compared to Pope’s previous works. Pope was sure to make the most of the Playdate’s 1-bit black-and-white screen to create some stunning visuals. Playing as a doorman of an alien colony on Mars, my demo tasked me with letting people into a Cyclops Anger Management session.
I interacted with two primary screens throughout my playtime. The first gave me directions to only let in aliens with one eye and a sad face. As visitors came knocking on the door, I would use the Playdate’s crank to see if they met the criteria to be allowed in. That was a simple enough request to observe, but there were instances where I had to second-guess myself. One time, an alien approached with one eye, but multiple irises, and once I looked at the instructions, I realized that a single iris was another thing that would prevent me from letting an alien inside.
Once I invited someone inside, they would proceed to a dessert table and grab a piece of pie before heading into their session. This is where the second part of the gameplay comes in. After grabbing the dessert, the table becomes dirty. While waiting for more people to knock on the door, my job was to rearrange the plates, pie, slicer, and dessert sign back to the way they were.
As I was playing as an alien with multiple tentacles, I had to manage holding everything in my hands while using a “SOUP-A SWEEP-A” to clean crumbs off the table by twisting the crank. I then needed to put everything back in its proper order. As I was doing this, more aliens began knocking at the door, which created a sense of urgency. After a certain amount of time, the game automatically stopped me from cleaning and forced me back to the door to let people in again. Depending on whether or not I let the right people in and if the table was ready for them, these aliens would donate to the fund used to pay my character.
While I only got to do a single shift during my demo, I did get a small taste of what happens in-between. On what essentially serves as a level select screen, I could choose which event I wanted to be a doorman for, how much money I wanted to put into promoting it, and what dessert I wanted to serve. Unfortunately, I did not get to find out how these choices impacted the moment-to-moment gameplay, but it has piqued my interest on how it will come together once Mars After Midnight launches.
What I played was simple and compelling, never overwhelming me with overly complicated rules. In Papers, Please, the requirements got more strenuous as the days progressed, creating some fun chaos. Those strengths carry into Mars After Midnight, so much so that I want to purchase a Playdate. It turns out I was just looking at the platform through the wrong lens.
While it is without a doubt a niche platform to play games on, it also is a home for very unique experiences meant only for it. Mars After Midnight wouldn’t have the same level of charm or integration if it were on another device. The Playdate isn’t perfect with its purposeful lack of a backlit screen, small size, and crank, but that’s no longer a deal-breaker for me. I don’t know what the future of the Playdate will be, but I think it will thrive in the little box Panic created for itself if Mars After Midnight is any indication.