I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember, and whilst games have evolved and incorporated many new forms of technology, whether it be season passes, always online functionality, patches or DLC, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss just sitting down to play a game, without having to download a 100gb piece of software or an update every second day.
This is what excited me most about Playdate, a brand new portable console by Panic, the publisher behind titles such as Untitled Goose Game and Firewatch. As soon as you turn the handheld on, everything just works, and is delivered into the palm of your hands. The basic concept (or what the makers are calling season one) is that with your Playdate purchase, you get 24 games included, but not immediately. Rather than handing these to you all at once, each week for the 12 weeks following the turning on of the new handheld, you’ll get two games per week. This could be anything from a platformer, to a fully fledged RPG to a music creator, some of which take advantage of all of the features of the handheld, or others that rely heavily on features such as the crank.
If you’ve held an old-school Gameboy before, then the Playdate will feel familiar. The Playdate is a portable handheld device with a D-Pad, A/B buttons, a 2.7″ black and white screen (that isn’t backlit) as well as a crank, which is not only its most unique feature, but also the most compelling after going hands-on. In some games, the crank is definitely used in a gimmicky way, but in others, it allows you to make precise movements that simply wouldn’t be possible with any other input mechanic. It’s also used in quite a few games to scroll text and such, which not only felt more natural, but also had me reading in-game text more like a book, scrolling at my own pace, rather than just pressing the A button over and over again.
The Playdate feels great in the hands, with the build quality feeling more like a Nintendo product rather than some cheap knock-off. Whilst the screen is gorgeous in the right lighting, I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t more than a handful of times that I wanted to use the Playdate, either in bed at night, or sitting in non-direct light in my house, and was just left unable to see the screen in a way that would do the game justice. This was worse more often than not when I was looking at white on black backgrounds, and I fully appreciate why there isn’t a backlight in this tiny device, but I’d hope in the future that we at least see some third-party or official accessory that either shines a light on the display, or just somehow makes it more visible in less than perfect situations.
There’s also an accelerometer built into the device, which wasn’t used as often as the crank, but it’s a great thing to have in a modern portable console. The speaker is also surprisingly good given how small and light this device is, but there’s also a headphone jack, as well as a microphone built in, so really all grounds are covered, for future use. When it comes to battery life, Panic suggests that it lasts about 8 hours and I’d say that’s roughly in-line with my experience. There’s also a clock display that is on the screen whenever your device is sleeping (you can choose between analogue and digital) and you’ll get roughly 14 days standby using this, but no doubt this is to be used with the dock that is set to launch post release.
Any console is going to live and die by its software, and whilst I can see the potential in the hardware, and absolutely love the concept of getting 24 games free with the console and having them delivered to you over a 12 week roll-out, the downside of this is that not everything will be for everyone. As mentioned, there’s 24 games in season one (you can find them all here), some are as simple as Whitewater Wipeout which literally has you just using the crank to try and ride waves in order to beat your highscore or Boogie Loops which is literally a basic music mixer. The great thing is that even if you boot into a game and don’t like it, nothing has been wasted (outside of the initial hardware purchase).
When the games did resonate, boy did I find myself struggling to take my mind off of them. Games such as Pick Pack Pup which is a clever puzzler about a removalist doggo or Crank’s Time Travel Adventure which has you only using the crank in order to control a robot who needs to make his date by a certain time. Both were insanely simple, both in their premise and gameplay mechanic, but that was part of their charm, and what kept me coming back. Are they games that could exist on other platforms? Probably, but there was just something so special about playing these games on a handheld that felt like it was from the 90s. There weren’t huge, expansive worlds to explore or dozens of mechanics to navigate, it was just fun gaming in its purest form.
It might sound weird, but this really did at times, feel like if Nintendo released the Gameboy in 2022, and then had a bunch of games designed for it with modern sensibilities. It’s a really interesting blend of old-school hardware with a bunch of really cool Indie developers developing games for it, with the learnings of the past 20 or 30 years.
Whilst we don’t know if there will be further seasons of games, you’re able to sideload games really easily via the Playdate website. I was able to do this with the first paid Playdate released for a game called Bloom (it’s $10 USD). Panic has also announced a marketplace app called Catalog which will presumably let you download free/paid games post-release.
There’s a host of other software that’s already available too, such as Playdate Mirror which lets you plug your Playdate into your PC and instantly have it mirrored on a display, so that you can use a controller, capture content or livestream to platforms. It worked flawlessly and honestly better than most software from larger publishers. There’s also Pulp which allows talented people to easily build games for the Playdate.
Everything about the Playdate oozes polish, and I’d recommend the handheld for any gamer, if it weren’t for two things. The price which is almost $300 AUD with shipping, which again does include 24 games, but is still a decent price to pay, and also the fact that if you were to order one today, you won’t be able to get one until 2023 (unless production magically improves before then).
What I will say though is that if you can get your hand on one of these devices, even for a few weeks for a friend as such, you’re going to be in for a good time, and not for the fact that a lot of these games couldn’t be played on another console, but just because it really does feel like a perfect blend of retro gaming with modern games, without the constant need to play online or update your games. It’s a really fun time.
The Playdate takes the wonder and excitement that we used to get with video games in the 90s and jams it into a tiny portable handheld that delivers at every turn. It's price point and non backlit display are the only things holding it back from being something that every gamer should own.
Solid Build Quality
The Crank Is As Inventive As It Is Useful
The Game Season Rollout Is Genius
It's Just Really Nice To Have A Handheld Console Again