Playdate review – 50 shades of play

The tiny handheld with a monochrome screen and a crank, find out what we make of this adorable new device in our full Playdate review.

After years of teasing, waiting, fawning over screenshots, and now weeks of gameplay, it feels amazing to sit down and write a Playdate review. Panic created the Playdate, you may recognise that name as the studio behind Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game, and assembled it with help from Teenage Engineering (the geniuses behind small synths like the Pocket Operator and the OP-1, if you’re reading this Teenage Engineering, I love you, let’s be friends).

With its tiny yellow form factor, crisp monochrome screen, and the trademark crank on the side, the Playdate is certainly eye-catching and a gadget that any enthusiast will love to have on their shelf. But for the price, it needs to offer much more beyond that. So, does the software and the possibilities of the Playdate impress enough? Well, let’s dive into our Playdate review to find out.

It’s hard to review a brand new console. The Playdate more than most offers an exciting look into what’s possible, with a clear ethos of expressing the joy of playing sitting front and centre in both name and its form factor. The devs behind this clearly just want people to have fun both experiencing and making these games, and it’s easy to get swept away with that as the Playdate is such a colourful bundle of joy.

If you’re waiting for your Playdate, you may be aware that you slowly unlock 24 games over a twelve-week period, with a couple of games every 12 days. The lovely people at Panic gave the press a slightly truncated version of this, unlocking the full 24 games with two new games appearing every two days. To make things easier for myself and to not write 5,000 words, I’m not going to review every game, but talk about my highlights and a few select titles, and then move on to the console itself.

Playdate review: a pair of hands holds the playdate

Upon firing it up, the most striking things about the Playdate are its size and the screen. This truly fits in the palm of your hand, with the device a touch smaller in height and width than your average wallet, and about the thickness of an iPhone 12. It feels like a premium product thanks to the weight and the sturdy materials used, but it still looks like a toy. It’s a great middle-ground that fits with the company ethos.

The screen itself looks thick and sturdy, and while the games don’t have any colour, the monochromatic art still pops out and is presented with great detail. Not every game uses tiny detailed pixel art, but the ones that do look fantastic. I will say that the screen is very prone to smudges though, as I need to constantly wipe away fingerprints from handling the device.

The solid yellow of the body is a nice matte that doesn’t catch anything, but, as I said, you’ll want to avoid touching the screen. Also, in case you didn’t know, the screen is not backlit. This is an authentically old school experience that brings to mind the original Game Boy. It’s very easy to play in low light though, and obviously, it’s perfect for the outdoors. It’s hard to say if that will be an issue for people, but unless you’re absolutely determined to play it in a dark room, I’m not sure why it would be an issue.

Playdate review: the playdate is shown in its box

The device comes with a yellow USB C cable for charging, and along with a port for this on the bottom is a port for a 3.5mm headphone jack. Panic has also promised that Bluetooth features will be introduced to the Playdate down the line, though we’re not sure what that means entirely just yet.

Another big feature is the crank. When I first saw the console I thought the crank was to charge it like a radio, but that’s not the case. Instead, it’s a fully analogue control that you can use to twist characters, ride elevators, spin spaceships, and more. It feels responsive, intuitive, and importantly, it’s fun to use. It can be tucked away into the body of the console, but pulling it out with the tiny lever is a joyous little moment.

One of the first games you can boot up is called Whitewater Wipeout, an addictive little surfing game where the crank controls the direction your surfer faces. It’s such a simple little thing, but the fun of twisting the crank to move your surfer just immediately clicks. Many other games use it better, but that’s the first one I got my hands on, and it sticks with me.

Playdate review: the playdate sits on a desk in the playdate speaker

Early adopters also have Casual Birder to look forward to, a bird-watching game where you explore a city and use the crank of the Playdate to focus your camera. It’s got a lot more to it, with pithy dialogue and wholesome smalltown vibes that bring to mind titles like Earthbound, but I had a lot of fun just walking around and exploring, while trying to find cool birds. Here, the crank feels very natural and the way to use it comes across as second nature. With these two titles, you’ve got a great introduction to the Playdate and the infamous crank right out of the box.

As for the actual buttons, on the Playdate website Panic mention that “we worked hard to make sure buttons feel perfectly clicky and that the crank action is silky smooth”. You can really feel the attention that’s been paid to the device, as it feels ergonomically designed and fits well in your hands. It might be a little too small for some adults, but the buttons stick out nicely from the console, and they’re indeed very satisfyingly clicky. Titles like the match-three puzzle game Pick Pack Pup (which I love so much) feel smooth and precise. You’ll need to move every item quickly and accurately to net a high score, and the Playdate itself never gets in the way.

One standout title I’d like to highlight is the brilliantly bonkers game Lost Your Marbles, a platforming game of sorts that feels a bit like Super Monkey Ball. On a 2D plane, you twist the crank to control a marble in a maze, with it bouncing off walls and leaping off-ramps to fall into various other areas. The catch though, is that this is how you’re making decisions. When faced with questions, the possible answers appear as physical objects to be hit by accurately flinging your marble at it, which is bloody tough. The best possible answer is the toughest to hit, while letting your marble fall repeatedly ends up in bad decisions being made, and your missing dog poster only showing a picture of the precious pooches butt. It feels amazing to control the crank, and shows the versatility of the device perfectly.

Playdate review: a grey screenshot shows footage of a game with marbles

Executive Golf DX is a wacky golfing title where the crank is how you perfect the angle of your shot, and with some fun powers and kooky obstacles, it’s a neat twist on the golf formula that’s much tougher than you might imagine. Echoic Memory is a puzzle game that really tests the Playdate speakers. You fix abandoned pieces of hardware by solving music puzzles where a sound is played, and then you must choose it again from a selection of noises that pass through various distortions and filters. This is a neat little game that I enjoy, if mainly for the incredible sound design.

If you want a platformer, Forrest Byrnes Up In Smoke is a snappy title that sees you constantly running away from flames on the left-hand side of the screen. As you make your escape, you must grab collectables and save lost children before they’re caught up in the encroaching blaze. Horrible connotations aside, this is a really whimsical little title that controls great and is an addictive ‘one-more-go’ type of game, where you just want to land a new high score.

The game I come back to the most, so far, is Inventory Hero. Sort of like a miniature Loop Hero, you’re a hero making his way through waves of enemies, but the only thing you control is their inventory. It’s up to you to decide which outfits to wear, weapons to equip, and when is best to use potions. Managing the limited inventory space is stressful fun, and there are so many fun twists thrown at you as you progress.

Playdate review: A grey screenshot shows a game where a small character holds up a lantern in the dark

While some of the titles are clearly designed to be smaller high-score chasing experiences, there are still some surprisingly deep games here much like Casual Birder, or the very Legend of Zelda-inspired Ratcheteer. It’s going to be absolutely fascinating to see what the community achieves, as developing games for the Playdate is open to anyone, with a free web browser-based development tool.

There are already other games out there for the device waiting to be played, and users will be happy to know it’s a painless experience to install them. Simply log into your playdate account from this website, click on your account, then sideload, and then upload the zip version of the file.

You can access both the regular season games and uploaded games over wifi by heading to the Playdate settings and hitting games. It’s simple to find and download them, and there’s ample space on the device with 4GB of initial storage. I’ve got all 24 games from the first season and a couple of others loaded on the device, and I’m nowhere near even halfway through my storage. You won’t need to worry about deleting games for a while.

The overwhelming feeling from the batch of 24 games that come with season one of the Playdate is just the indie spirit. So many fun ideas are crammed into these titles, the creativity of the crank, and some fantastically made titles that are just solid versions of classics like breakout or match-three puzzlers. Panic has found the right people for the job, and while some stand out more than others, I’d struggle to pick a duff game from this first season.

I’m of the generation that grew up with the original Game Boy, playing games outside and treating my Nintendo device like a toy. The Playdate takes me back to that era more than anything I’ve played recently, and the sincere spirit and chaotic creativity reminded me of some of the wackiest moments from my childhood like the Game Boy Camera. The Playdate is a brilliant device that I think any gaming enthusiast will fall head over heels in love with. But, it’s hard to convince anyone that this should be a commercial product, even though it’s clear that’s not what Panic is aiming for either.

Playdate review: the playdate is shown on a desk with a clock as the screensaver

The price point is tricky, because at $179 it’s way beyond the price of an impulse purchase and other fun gaming toys like the NES Classic or SNES Classic. I can’t really hold that against it though, as it’s clear what the Playdate is, the foundations for something that will continue growing for years to come. I’m already stuck to my Playdate, unable to leave the house without sneaking it into my pocket, and showing it off to friends.

I just don’t know if I could convince anyone outside of a hardcore audience to give it a chance, and I wonder how this will affect the device in the years to come. I want to see a burgeoning indie gaming scene, updates to the device, and some amazing titles made by small developers reaching the hands of many eager gamers. So, I sincerely hope that people give the Playdate a chance.

An adorable device filled with great games and the potential for a shining future, the Playdate is everything I wanted and more. It feels fantastic to hold, the screen and interface work well, and almost every game in the first season has something fun to offer. People will have to think hard before dropping the cash needed on it, however, but anyone who adores indie gaming, the DIY spirit, and the simple joy of playing, will find so much to love.

Playdate review

The Playdate is the bright yellow embodiment of the joy of playing and indie gaming spirit. It’s stacked with creative games both simple and much deeper, and anyone who enjoys the more niche and obscure side of video games will be hooked. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Playdate.

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