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Playdate review: Technological trifle

The Playdate defies every benchmark and standard of the modern world of video games. The tiny $179 portable device comes with a “season” of 24 games, released two per week, so you don’t need to buy them. It has an inconceivably small screen for a device released in 2022. Oh, and did I mention that one of the controls is a crank? Yeah, the spinny kind. Like you’d find on a fishing pole.

Created by Panic, an eclectic software company probably best known these days for publishing 2019’s Untitled Goose Game, the Playdate is a small, independent game console with small, independent ambitions. It is not a competitor for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, or your gaming PC. With a (mostly) finite set of games and intentionally limited tech, it does not offer the all-consuming “investment” of a platform for the latest and greatest. All it really offers is the chance to try something different.

In some ways, the Playdate is a breath of fresh air. As a person who has spent a long time thinking about video games in a critical way, trying all the games in the Playdate’s first “season” of content was very exciting. In the mainstream, game controls are more standardized and streamlined than ever: That consistency is a good thing in many ways, but it limits developers’ capacity to create something completely new and truly wondrous. The Playdate, with its crank input and a series of games with an alternative mindset, veers off in new directions we rarely turn to.

At the same time, its limitations are severe and immediately apparent. The tiny form factor keeps you from committing to games for particularly long stretches. The screen lacks a backlight, making the beautifully sharp 1-bit display hard to see in anything less than perfect lighting. It’s not a replacement for Nintendo Switch, but it isn’t trying to be.

Instead, the Playdate carves out its own little corner of the gaming world. A corner where you’ll be engrossed for a few minutes and walk away satisfied. That defies every law and expectation in the mainstream gaming handbook, and may not appeal to many players, but the surprises it offers, especially in your first moments with each of its games, are a series of worthy pleasures in their own ways.

Playdate Review

Mike Epstein

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Tell me more about the Playdate

The first thing you should know about the Playdate is that it is much smaller than you might think from the photos released before launch. You might have already heard that the bright yellow tile measures 3 x 3.06 x 0.25 inches (WHD) and weighs 3.0 ounces, but the numbers don’t really do it justice. As a reference, it’s about as wide and thick as my iPhone 12 Pro, but half as tall.

Screen time

The small wonder has an even smaller screen, just 2.7 inches. In a world where 6 inches to 8 inches is the standard screen size for portable devices, gaming and otherwise, it can be hard to give yourself over to such a tiny screen. You either need to hold it really close to your face, or concentrate on it intensely to keep the outside world from seeping into your game. Given that, I rarely found myself wanting to spend more than 10-15 minutes with the Playdate at a time.

Playdate Review
The Playdate is the smallest handheld device I’ve used in a long time. Mike Epstein

The Playdate’s black-and-white 1-bit display is both a blessing and a curse for the device. On the plus side, its sharp lines give developers the tools to create well-defined games with lots of visual texture and a retro look that evokes the games you might have played on a Game Boy or an old PC 30 years ago. Many of the games have found ways to create interesting effects with the limited display tech, like the Pokemon-esque bird-watching RPG Casual Birder, where you blur and unblur the screen by using the crank to focus a virtual camera.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that the Playdate doesn’t have a backlight, which means your ability to see the games and enjoy those 1-bit visuals are predicated on having really good lighting. Many of the Playdates games rely heavily on shading parts of the screen in deep black, making it hard to see anything on the screen without a direct light shining on it. Finding a perfect spot where you can see well without any glare can be a challenge, too, if you’re outside or relying on natural light from a window.

Cranky-con

Once you get past the display, everything else feels quite simple. The Playdate has a d-pad and two face buttons below the screen, plus a menu button to the right and a power/pause button on top.

The key input is, of course, the crank that’s attached to the right side of the device. Chrome, with a yellow handle at the end, it fits flush against the side of the console when it isn’t in use. In keeping with the overall size of the device, the crank is small enough that you need to be somewhat delicate with it. That isn’t because it’s going to break—the crank feels perfectly durable—but because you can easily pull or jiggle the console as you use it, especially when you want to try and spin it quickly.

Playdate Review
The crank control is the Playdate’s signature feature. Mike Epstein

Despite Panic’s marketing, the Playdate crank is absolutely a novelty, and it is incredibly effective. Most of the games rely on it in some way or another. Some of them do so in ways that feel creative and intuitive: Whitewater Wipeout, a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater-style surfing game, lets you move up and down a wave by turning the crank, and spin yourself to do tricks in the air. Other games force the issue: A circular Breakout riff called b360 forces you to spin the crank to move your paddle around a circular track. You see and think left and right but have to crank forwards and back, so it can feel jarring. 

Even when the crank doesn’t exactly fit, though, it imbues the opening minutes of each game with a sense of discovery. It isn’t always clear how the crank is going to fit into a game, or if you’ll be able to use it well. Your first few attempts in any score- or puzzle-based game feels like tinkering with a shiny new toy, seeing what it can do and finding the fun.

What about sound and battery life?

There are a few other things you should probably know about the Playdate. In terms of sound, it features a single, front-facing mono speaker next to the screen. It’s surprisingly loud, considering the size of the console, and fits in perfectly with the enhanced retro look of the display. You can also plug in headphones via a 3.5mm jack on the bottom.

Panic claims Playdate should last through 8 hours of active use, or up to 14 days in standby mode. That’s incredible, given the small size of the device and how I found myself playing it in 10-15 minute bursts. It charges via a USB-C port on the bottom of the device.

What about the games?

Playdate Review
Casual Birder’s virtual camera is one of the more interesting uses of the Playdate crank Mike Epstein

The Playdate game library features 24 games, which you’ll get in sets of two over the course of your first 12 weeks of owning the console. (Panic fast-tracked my Playdate season rollout for review purposes, sending me two new games per day rather than two games per week.)

That distribution plan is very deliberate, making the Playdate and its games feel like a single package, rather than a console that serves as a vessel for individual games. Even with getting them all quickly, the act of unwrapping new games—new games literally appear gift-wrapped until you open them for the first time—was always interesting and exciting. That conscious and playful attention to aesthetic detail is built into every aspect of the Playdate: Every moment with it feels a bit whimsical, even when you’re poking through the menus and changing the clock—from analog to digital to written out as a sentence. 

In fact, whimsical would probably be the best single word to describe the entire playdate lineup. Many of the games have either well-crafted writing and/or an especially pointed layer of ambient storytelling. Pick Pack Pup, a satirical match-three game about packing and shipping boxes in a warehouse, has a punch and a message about overly demanding workplaces that you wouldn’t normally expect. Spellcorked, a resource management game about running a potion shop, also finds ways to inject small jokes into every moment. Not every game has a quirky, funny, progressive vibe, but enough do that it’s baked into the device’s creative foundation.

Playdate Review
Zipper, a puzzle game where you control a samurai who dashes and kills enemies quickly, is one of the best Playdate games. Mike Epstein

Mechanically speaking, Playdate’s games run the gamut from short score-chases to less short RPGs and story-driven games. Given the size of the hardware and the ease of distraction by my phone, the shortest experiences tended to be the best. A couple of the games, like Samurai dueling puzzle game Zipper, grabbed me for a surprisingly long session, but quick hits like Whitewater Wipeout generally outshine the projects that needed more time and attention.

The most indie is yet to come

Though it comes with a discrete selection of games, for the time being, Playdate isn’t a closed platform. Panic hasn’t said one way or the other whether it will release a second “season” of official, Panic-published Playdate games. Given the success of the hardware, which already has a long waitlist extending into 2023, it seems like a safe bet that they’ll find some way to sell more games. 

In the meantime, you can sideload games made specifically for the Playdate through the company’s website or using your PC. Panic has released a game-making toolkit called Pulp, which lets anyone design Playdate games for free, so Playdate’s future is, realistically, in the hands of its community.

With no store or platform to distribute Playdate games, it seems safe to assume that whatever support Playdate receives will come mostly from the far indie fringes—first-time game-makers and people with simple, story-driven ideas. It could be an incredible place for aspiring game developers to flourish, or it could be worthless to players. (Honestly, it could be both.)

Given the unclear roadmap, I wouldn’t buy a Playdate expecting the platform to grow, long-term. Platforms with far bigger budgets and more infrastructure have collapsed once the hype machine moved on and the project no longer feels new. Even if professional developers continue to bring creative ideas to Playdate, I can’t see them creating a pipeline of new games that will satisfy players’ hunger for content.

That said, I’m generally satisfied with the package and the proposition that’s here. Anything I play beyond the original 24 games is icing on the cake.

So, who should buy the Playdate?

To me, buying a Playdate is an act of patronage in the art of video games. It is likely one of the few chances most people will ever get to see or experience games with hardware that diverges from the controller layout standardized across PS5, Switch, or Xbox. That said, even with the possibility of more games coming down the road, the Playdate does not fill the role of a game console like those other boxes. It is a one-off toy that brings a little burst of joy every so often. Ultimately, I think a lot of people—even those very enamored with it—will enjoy it as the games roll out, then drift away.

For many people, that will (or should be) a disqualifying factor. If you have to be convinced of whether the Playdate is a good deal, or will hold your attention, you probably shouldn’t buy it. If you see the console cranking and think to yourself, “I have to know what that’s about,” then you should get something satisfying out of indulging that impulse.

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