The Playdate Hardware Review
In an era of 4K visuals, 3D spatial audio, and sprawling open-world designs, there’s something oddly refreshing about a new handheld device trying to emulate the earliest Game Boy and Game & Watch experiences. Playdate is a retro-inspired indie handheld built entirely to deliver novel experiences in a pocket-friendly format. From its bright and friendly appearance to its often whimsical games, it’s clear the Playdate’s name was chosen with purpose. Like a meet-up between childhood friends, this is an experience meant to recall youth and simplicity. It aims to delight those who pick it up through an array of small, entertaining activities.
The Playdate makes an excellent first impression. The charming yellow handheld may be tiny, but it feels solid in hand. The buttons feel clicky and responsive, and the side crank (the system’s most significant innovation) is satisfying to twist round and round. The included speakers are crisp, clear, and capable of robust volume for their size. Or you can plug your preferred headset into the included jack. The small reflective black and white screen nails the nostalgic vibe it’s going for, instantly calling to mind those first successful handheld games that older players may remember from youth.
However, the small screen and absence of backlighting are also Playdate’s biggest failures. While it might offer a throwback experience, I don’t think I’ve ever found myself missing those heady days of eye discomfort from trying to read minuscule text or constantly tilting my device to catch the best light. The Playdate must contend with both problems. In bright outdoor sunlight, the Playdate is at its best. But in indoor settings or later in the day outside, a nearby direct light source is nearly essential. Even with excellent vision, I needed regular breaks from play to prevent significant eye strain.
The user interface is straightforward when it needs to be in menus and setup scenarios but playful when it can be. A seemingly eager-to-please robotic buddy handles an intro and the subsequent navigation to individual games. Its eyes gleefully open as you double-tap the button to wake the machine up. As new games arrive in your library, they show up as wrapped presents, and the robot pulls open the ribbon to reveal the new arrival.
The games in question are delivered via download on a WiFi connection, and the initial launch includes full access to all 24 games in the first season. This naming convention certainly implies future expansion. But even ahead of the implied later seasons, the device is especially creator-friendly. It fully supports the sideloading of new games through an easy-to-manage process; the review package included the option to sideload an enjoyable game called Bloom, about running a flower shop. While I didn’t have the expertise to build anything worthwhile myself, the Playdate’s SDK is free to download, so enterprising programmers should have few barriers to creating something unique.
Playdate’s developer, Panic Inc., has brought aboard an eclectic group of indie game creators for its initial catalog. The mostly bite-sized projects represent an impressively curated mix of genres and game styles. Many of these games use the analog crank as an input method, whether for something simple like advancing text or an actual navigation tool for movement and action. I like the novelty, but I’m not yet sold on the crank as far as its utility for precise controls.
By their nature, the included games arrive in small batches in the days after your Playdate purchase arrives, a clear expression that Playdate is meant to be experienced as a gradual unearthing of fun. It would be a shame to spoil too much about the individual experiences. Every player is likely to be attracted to different games. The most rewarding were games that embraced simplicity and throwback designs, albeit with some clever modern twists.
Spellcorked has players stirring up reagents to make magic potions with a crank twist. Battleship Godius is a variation on 2D space shooters, but with a crank to rewind time when things go wrong. Executive Golf DX has you shooting a golf ball up the proverbial corporate ladder, with desks and copy machines as obstacles. Not every game clicked for me, but that’s sort of the point; each of these small concept games is an experiment likely only to capture the attention of certain players. But the joy of discovering these unknown projects is easily half the fun. If you come out with several favorites on the other side, all the better.
If you’re considering a purchase, Playdate’s early library of games is best experienced while knowing as little as possible. Everyone is likely to find their favorites, but if you’re okay with some light spoilers, here are some of my picks from the first season’s 24-game collection.
Developer: Zach Gage
One of Playdate’s most straightforward and approachable games is also one of its most enjoyable. Snak is a relatively direct emulation of the classic Snake, in which you guide an ever-lengthening serpent as it snatches up apples. But this time, the apples can move across the screen, they infect and slowly climb toward your head, and you can jump over your own scaly body to eat the apples before they end the game. The tweaks to the formula add a new layer of strategy, and the escalating speed levels always provide a new challenge to chase.
Developer: Chuck Jordan
Cornering the “turn-based tactical cryptozoology” genre, this amusing mash-up challenges players to lead a team of fame-obsessed scientists with dreams of becoming influencers as they venture into the wilderness to snap pictures of cryptids like the Sasquatch and Chupacabra. The grid-based movement recalls games like Advance Wars, while the framing of good photos (to capture views and likes) seems inspired by the likes of Pokémon Snap. It’s a silly and engaging mix that kept me playing for a long time.
This battle-focused RPG has your intrepid hero running ever-forward into more dangerous environments and monsters, but his attacks are on auto. Players must juggle a rapidly expanding inventory as it threatens to overwhelm the few open spots in their backpacks. Pick the best armor and weapons, pop healing potions, and make sure to trash those pesky rabbits before they start to breed and take up extra space. It’s fun, fast, and diverting.
Pick Pack Pup
Developer: Nic Magnier, Arthur Hamer
You’re a well-meaning dog hired at a massive profit-obsessed shipping fulfillment center, which is certainly not based on any real-world analog. The match-three gameplay demands you put specific shipments together on each work day. The constantly shifting objectives keep things fresh. Matches/packages only disappear when you send them for shipment, so there’s a clever risk/reward mechanic to maximize your score.
Forrest Byrnes: Up In Smoke
Developer: Nels Anderson, Christina Neofotistou
Forrest is a cheerful forest ranger running ahead of a raging inferno, rescuing children and picking up collectibles through a gamut of short 2D platforming stages. Designed to be enjoyed in short doses of traversal fun, each new level injects random new elements to uncover and pick up. The action is familiar and uncomplicated, but the clever level design and tight controls ensure a good time.
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure
Crankin is a robot who enjoys napping, but he’s always late for his dates with Crankette. Through a series of increasingly complex levels, you must wind the crank to make Crankin rush toward his meet-up with his girlfriend. Pause or “rewind” the crank, and he halts or reverses his run, even while other objects continue moving. A seemingly endless series of distractions halt your progress, from bumping into a butterfly to the chance for a nice cup of tea. You must navigate the hapless robot into the exact position he needs to be in to let the obstacles pass him by before continuing along his frenzied way, and his doomed date with an impatient partner.
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