After spending a few weeks with the Playdate I’m happy to say it’s a delight. Okay, its boutique approach to lo-fi indie gaming is, at its most superficial level, kind of pretentious, but it’s so damn charming I couldn’t help but let it into my heart. It’s not without its shortcomings, and supply issues and chip shortages have driven its price up to $ 179, which is higher than initially expected, but the Playdate succeeds in its mission as a quirky platform for some truly weird little games. I gotta say, I went from thinking the crank was just a goofy gimmick to realizing it’s actually a clever and fun way to control games. It’s silly, for sure, but it’s charming rather than try-hard, and I like it a lot.
Crank It Up
First and foremost, let’s talk about the crank. Folded partway inside the case of the Playdate is one of its defining features: a crank like you might find on a Jack in the Box. It spins with little resistance in either direction and is wholly optional when it comes to games. You can use it to navigate the menu, particularly your game collection, and it can be used in games. It’s not a requirement, but it’s just there, tempting developers to make use of it. And I have to say, when they do, I like it quite a lot. And they do it a lot.
Playdate Review – Photos
For instance, one of my favorites is Whitewater Wipeout, one of two included games when you first boot up your Playdate. You have three chances to show off your surfing skills by using the crank to control your spin, both in the wave and above it. It takes some getting used to, sure, but once I was able to get it down I was pulling off sick quadruple spins over massive, monochrome waves. It feels so fun and is a great use of the crank as a controller in a way I wouldn’t even have considered.
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure is a more straightforward use of the Playdate’s novel control input. You’re a little robot dude who’s been invited on a date, and you use the crank to control the flow of time. While it seems like a pretty obvious use of the crank, it’s clever in how clearing a level requires quick thinking and adjustment to your rotations, both in speed and direction.
Little. Yellow. Different.
Outside of the crank, the Playdate itself is quite a minimalist gaming handheld. The yellow plastic case is almost a perfect square, measuring 76 x 74 x 9 mm. The corners are rounded and there are attractive brushed-metal screws holding it together. The screws themselves have a hole through the middle, so if you really wanted to you could attach your Playdate to a boondoggle keychain you made at Scout Camp.
On the face are a familiar set of controls: a lovely D-pad and a modest pair of buttons. It’s similar to the original Nintendo Game Boy, with a slightly different layout. The best part here is the D-pad. It’s so clicky in every direction! It doesn’t have any mush or sloppiness. The A and B-buttons have a similarly satisfying tactile feel to them.
That’s it for actual buttons, but there’s also an accelerometer inside, so you can tilt the Playdate to control some games. Of course, right now very few games take advantage of it, so a lot of people probably won’t even realize it exists.
Above the controls is the Playdate’s back-to-basics 400×240 monochrome screen. It’s small, around 70 mm wide not including the bezel, but man is it crisp. There’s no gross smearing like we suffered in the olden days of monochrome handhelds. Motion is very fluid and there are no issues with ghosting even in fast-paced games like Whitewater Wipeout or Hyper Meteor. The viewing angle is okay and doesn’t become an issue unless you’re about 45-degrees off center, which would be a weird way to hold a handheld. However, to get the perfect contrast and view means you really have to look straight-on, which can be a problem if there’s a light source reflecting off the screen. Also, there’s no backlight, which is a double-bummer because it means you need ambient light and, again, you need to make sure that light source isn’t reflecting on the screen. That puts some limits on where and when you can comfortably play.
On the right of the display is the menu button and the Playdate’s tiny speaker, which puts out decent sound considering its diminutive size. Given the retro screen I was a bit surprised that there’s no hardware limitation holding back the sound: Chiptunes are a design choice for some of the games, but others, like Pick Pack Pup, use actual music tracks. During the Pick Pack Pup tutorial I instantly recognized Home’s “If I’m Wrong” from their 2014 album Before the Night. Needless to say, that one gets bonus points with me for using music from one of my favorite vaporwave artists.
On the bottom is a 3.5mm headphone jack, a small microphone, and a single USB-C port, which allows for both charging and data transfer if you want to sideload some home-brewed games. That’s a pretty sweet feature considering how closed-off most handhelds are.
The 168Mhz processor inside is 40 times faster than the one inside the original Game Boy, and its rechargeable battery gives you an (advertised) 8 hours of continuous gameplay. It’s hard to get an exact measure, but I was able to play during intervals over the course of several days before I needed to charge it up again, and if I had to guess, it came pretty damn close. I never had any sort of battery anxiety.
Even with its modern hardware touches it’s a far cry from the power of even a budget smartphone. Because of this, game designers have to work with and around its limitations and I absolutely love the results. The hardware absolutely colors the design of the software in all the best possible ways. There are no 3D graphics here. Just hand-drawn art that evokes a much simpler time in gaming. A game like Omaze, for example, is essentially a maze created with rotating circles, while Saturday Edition gave me some serious Sierra Online vibes.
My biggest complaint with the design is it’s kind of hard to hold with my hands, and if I play a lot of a game like Whitewater Wipeout (which, quick reminder, is my favorite Playdate game thus far) my left hand begins to hurt. In order to maximize my sick surfing moves, I have to hold it by the top and bottom in order to not get in the way of the crank, and after a few sessions of killer tricks my fingers start to cramp in a way I haven ‘ t experienced since marathon Halo sessions on the original Xbox controller.
One of the Playdate’s features (or gimmicks, depending on your level of cynicism) is its game delivery system. When you buy one for $ 179, you’re not just buying the hardware, you’re buying a steady stream of content, too: at the start of each week you’ll find two new games waiting for you to try out. It doesn’t matter when you first connect your Playdate to WiFi, either. If you get one a year from now, you’ll still get the surprise of a new pair of games each week for 12 weeks for “Season 1.”
It’s an interesting way to dole out the goodies, and delivering two games instead of one doubles the odds that there will be at least something you like each week. It’s kind of like how streaming services are returning to the weekly model for their shows to keep us coming back instead of binging everything and forgetting about it a few days later. In theory, this clever approach will keep people talking about the Playdate for as long as the new games keep rolling out. Right now, there aren’t any details about Season 2, like if it will cost extra or even if it will happen at all. So outside of homebrew and sideload games, buying the Playdate guarantees you get 24 bite-sized little games to enjoy, two per week, for 12 weeks after first connecting your Playdate to the internet. From a marketing perspective, I tip my hat.
Over the past couple of weeks I was treated to an accelerated version of the game release schedule, which took a little of the joy of anticipation out of it, but I will say it was still pretty delightful to “open” up the new games a couple at a time.
Quick spoiler warning, the next two paragraphs will be talking about the Playdate’s game library, so if you don’t want to be spoiled and would prefer to keep the surprise element of the season-long delivery schedule, skip down to the slideshow below.
I mentioned Whitewater Wipeout and Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, both of which use the crank as a core part of gameplay. Other standouts include Ratcheteer, which is something like a cross between Seiken Densetsu and Link’s Awakening… but with a crank mechanic. Forrest Byrnes: Up In Smoke, a side-scroller where you play a park ranger escaping a forest fire, throws off some major Shovel Knight vibes but is original enough to not feel derivative. I also really enjoyed Inventory Hero, which I had a hard time wrapping my head around at first but is a pretty clever twist on role-playing games: the point is to manage your inventory between, and during, battles, as each battle depletes or destroys one of your equipped items. Questy Chest is one of the coolest games, with super lo-fi aesthetics reminiscent of very early PC games. It’s an RPG / puzzler / battling game where the movement rules of chess pieces factor into each level and it’s just such a delight.
Not every game resonated for me though. Demon Quest ’85, on paper, sounds like something I’d really like but it just didn’t jibe with my sensibilities. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the aiming strategy for Executive Golf DX to do anything even close to a decent round. And Zipper, while conceptually and visually amazing, is also incredibly unforgiving if you make a mistake. And for me… mistakes were made. A lot. That’s not to say these games are terrible. I don’t think there’s a bad game in the bunch, to be honest. They’re just not all for me.
Playdate – Season 1 Games