One of my favorite video games in recent years has gone relatively unsung. Which sort of makes sense, since Casual Birder isn’t the typical fare. It’s a quaint, quiet game about the niche hobby of photographing birds. Further hindering its chance at mainstream success is the fact that it was released for Playdate, a new and obscure handheld game system created by Panic Inc., a Portland, Oregon-based company best known for publishing Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game.
The gimmick of Panic’s new handheld is that it has a mechanical crank on the right hand side, which different games use for varying purposes. I love it, as I love other odd tech. It’s a fun, ingenious device with several excellent games already, but it doesn’t enjoy the massive user base of the major gaming systems, and even if Casual Birder appeared on something more mainstream, like Nintendo’s Switch, I imagine its premise would be sufficiently unusual that most people would pass it by.
But Casual Birder is a beautiful game, and it deserves more attention.
Developed by Diego Garcia with phenomenal music by Max Coburn, Casual Birder is a classically styled isometric 2D adventure game with distinct game mechanics, a large cast of charming characters, an excellent soundtrack, and a very specific quest. Think of Legend of Zelda, in a town where everyone is obsessed with birding (the hobby of watching and photographing birds).
In Casual Birder we explore Bird Town and chat with NPCs (non-playable characters) to learn their stories. We help many of these people to improve their lives. In some cases, we find the lost clothes of a stranded skinny-dipping couple. Other times we help them meet their true loves, or photograph their favorite bird, or gift them a picture of their crush. These diversions (a more commercial game might call them “side quests”) are cute, and well-written, and genuinely funny, and they bring the town to life in a way that all of my favorite games have done for the past four decades.
Early in the game we learn that not all is well in Bird Town. We’re attacked by a notorious gang of hardcore birders, The Pearly Eyed Thrashers, and in classic 16-bit era style, we awaken in the home of a wizened quest-giver who begs us to win the Birdobon Society’s annual photo competition and free Bird Town from the talons of the villainous gang.
Delightfully tropey video game items to aid us on our quest are scattered throughout the world with a wry wink and a nudge; a bird call, a crank, new and better cameras, a handful of worms bought at the bait shop. Puzzling out the intended uses of these items opens new activities and new areas, and advances the story.
Along the way we take pictures of birds and log them into our bird diary. We select the best camera for the job and manually focus on the bird by cranking the Playdate’s crank. The challenge of this increases at times when a bird is shy, or hidden, or fast-moving, and in these cases, we must use our brains and eyes and hands to get the shot (just like in real photography!).
While the game can be finished in about two or three hours, there are endless lovely, funny, and ridiculous moments packed into the relatively short experience. Among these is one that I keep thinking about. It’s the moment when I fell totally in love with the game.
Toward the end of the game, we climb to the top of a mountain, where we find a fellow birder waiting anxiously to shoot a photo of a truly special bird. It’s the last bird they need to complete their life list, the mythical Bird King, which the birder can just barely see, floating upon an updraft far in the distance.
With the wry humor that Casual Birder so often employs, the birder wistfully sighs their wish to see the Bird King up close and laments their inability to draw it near enough for a photo.
“My life list is almost complete,” he says. “I can see the Bird King, right there, soaring among the clouds. But I’ve never been close enough to take a picture.
“If I can get the shot, I won’t even have any use for my VERY SPECIAL CAMERA anymore. Heck, I would probably just give it away to whoever happened to be standing near me. But of course, without magic abilities – or some kind of equippable item – I’ll never be able to call that Bird King over. Oh well.”
I blinked and felt a slow grin spread across my face as I read this NPC’s monologue. Who would be this obsessed with birds? Who would give away their expensive camera? (Indeed, this birder’s camera is the best one in the game!) Who in real life would speak of anything as an equippable item? The game was enjoying itself, poking fun at games, and I loved it. As I cranked the Playdate’s novel crank to select the equippable Bird Call that I’d found earlier in the adventure, I even smiled a bit. I pressed the button to blow the whistle and watched. Soon, the Bird King drew closer. The NPC vibrated with excitement.
“Here she comes!”
And there, indeed, she was. The Bird King of legend. The NPC snapped their photo, and I followed suit. And here’s the Casual Birder moment that will live with me forever. The NPC spoke on.
“I’ve done it. I’ve seen every bird. It’s a miracle.” And turning to my character, they continued predictably. “Oh, I didn’t see you there. Please, stranger, take my high-speed camera. I have no use for it anymore. I’m free…”
And without another word, the NPC spread their arms and was lifted from our perch on the mountaintop by a gentle gust of wind and carried away into the distant sky.
It was such an unexpected, silly, ridiculous moment. But when I saw it, I laughed, actually laughed, alone in my office, hunched shrimp-like over a tiny yellow handheld gaming system with a silly crank dangling off the side.
Over the next half hour, I continued the story and finished Casual Birder. A final showdown with the villainous Pearly Eyed Thrashers. A quick stint photographing as many of the hidden birds as I could find before the judging of the Birdobon photo contest. A parting round of conversations with the colorful characters of Bird Town. And finally, the contest, the results, and the credits.
And as the credits rolled, I knew that I’d just played something special. A game full of its own ridiculous personality. A game that was built with love and one which I loved. And sadly, a game that I knew was destined to be missed by almost everyone, unwittingly ignored by countless people who might otherwise find within it the same charm and joy and honesty that I had found.
The games that stay with me are the ones that lace my feet into the shoes of a character and drop me wholly into that character’s rich, distinctive world. Katamari Damacy. Shenmue. Almost any Legend of Zelda. These are legendary games, deeply (if not widely) held in great esteem. Casual Birder is that kind of game. It puts us into a heartfelt, crafted world with a charm, a humor, and an earnestness that’s rare in the medium. ∎
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