Playdate Review: "Has No Competition In The Current Market"
In recent years, the power of mobile phones and the Nintendo Switch has made mobile gaming feel closer to console and PC gaming than ever. They allow you to take AAA experiences on the move with you, or boot up some of the biggest multiplayer games on the planet, but with that modernisation, mobile gaming has lost some of the weirdness and unique creativity that's typically fostered by systems with limited power and input.
So it certainly came as a surprise when indie publisher Panic announced the Playdate, a tiny, yellow handheld console with a black and white screen, two buttons, and a crank coming out the side; something that has more in common with the Game Boy than it does a modern handheld. The Playdate is, frankly, one of the oddest handhelds I've ever seen, but underneath its weirdness is one of the most creative portable consoles ever made.
Little Yellow Square
From the very beginning, the Playdate feels different. The packaging it comes in is very small, with only enough room to house the Playdate itself, some foam cushioning to protect it, and a charging wire. It's quite refreshing to open a box that isn't full of wasted cardboard and plastic, and the snug packaging is compact enough for you to take it on the go in a backpack or handbag if you want to keep the handheld protected.
The Playdate itself measures at 76 x 74 x 9 mm, with a square shape that's roughly half the length of a modern smartphone and a little wider. The top half of the device is taken up by the 400 x 240 1-bit black and white display, along with a small speaker and a home/pause button. Below this is a very tactile D-pad, two buttons, and the crank can be found jutting out of the right side. Finally, the top features a power button, while the bottom houses the USB-C port and a headphone jack.
Everything fits together perfectly, and you can tell there was great care put into the aesthetics of the device. It looks incredibly sleek and pretty, and the bold yellow colour makes it stand out in any gaming collection. It's also worth mentioning the inside of this thing. While understandably, the Playdate is nowhere near the power of a smartphone, it has more than enough power to handle the types of experiences you would expect on it, and the battery life is good enough to last for up to ten hours of continuous play.
Despite how great it looks and often feels, there are some downsides to the design of the Playdate. Firstly, for people like me with big hands, trying to grip the thing for longer than twenty minutes can quickly lead to hand cramp, and sometimes it feels hard to hold it in the optimal way to utilise all of the inputs. The screen, while pretty, also features no backlight, so you will need a generous source of external light to actually play with it, which can make nighttime sessions difficult. It's also worth pointing out that the crank can feel a bit flimsy, and while it's still going strong after nearly two weeks of use, it feels like one misjudged spin, and it could break.
Games, Games, Games
The Playdate was built for one purpose, and that's playing video games. When you turn it with the power button, you'll be greeted to a simple menu that lists all of the games in little tiles with their own art. You can scroll through it with the D-pad or the crank, and it works great for getting you straight to the games themselves. There's also the added joy of getting new games, which appear as presents on the menu which can opened, revealing the tiles in all their glory.
Now one of the unique selling points of the Playdate was its seasonal approach to delivering video games. Essentially, when you purchase the device, you also get access to the first season of games, which features 24 titles specially developed for the Playdate by some notable indie developers, and Panic themselves. Upon booting the device, you will get two of the games, and then every week you will get two more until the first season is finished.
While the choice to give players 24 games as part of the package was brilliant and really sells the diversity of games that can be played in the device, Panic hasn't confirmed if there is another season of games set to come. This uncertainty about the future is a bit of a setback, but there are still other ways to get games for the device. Sideloading other games onto the device is really simple, and just requires you to upload the game files to the official website, before downloading the game to your device. The itch.io marketplace is already starting to teem with both free and paid experiences by indie developers, and as more people get their hands on the Playdate, we can only hope that developers start pushing the limits of what can be done with the hardware.
Speaking of games, there are already some standout titles that highlight the kind of creativity the Playdate is built for. Zipper has been one of my favourites from the first season, which is a turn-based tactical game where you play a samurai. Its graphics are beautiful, and the 1-bit pixel violence highlights how much you can get out of such a simple display. Another standout for me was Whitewater Wipeout, which is one of the games to make use of the crank control. It's a simple surfing game where you ride the waves, avoid sharks, and do flips to earn a high score, and you control the direction using the crank. It can feel odd at first and takes some time to get used to, but it's a novel use of a unique control input that highlights the beginning of its potential.
Outside of the season one catalogue (which has even more top-tier games I don't have the word count to gush about) there are already some great experiences to be found on the itch.io marketplace. Super Corporate Tax Evader is a free game where you use the crank to shred important documents while watching dialogue cues to hide your lawbreaking from a lawyer who occasionally bursts into your office. It's an extraordinarily simple game, but it's actually quite a genius use of the crank, even gamifying the process of taking it out and putting it away to hide the shredder and your crimes.
Panic have also announced that they intend to release an app for the device called Catalog, which will serve as a marketplace for games. This is just an additional way for people to sell their games, and will make the process of getting games onto the device even easier, but with some of the games I've seen so early into its life cycle, the future is bright for the Playdate.
One Of A Kind
The Playdate is a unique handheld console that honestly has no competition in the current market, but it's certainly not for everyone. If you can put up with the somewhat steep entry cost and enjoy smaller gaming experiences that prioritise experimentation, minimalist mechanics, and above all, creativity, then you will get a lot out of this device. There are some issues with the design that can make it awkward to use, and the lack of confirmation for a second season is disappointing, but it's such a breath of fresh air in the gaming landscape that I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates the type of experience it offers.
You can purchase the Playdate from the official website here.