Playdate Review: A Boutique Handheld With Alternate History

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When I unpacked the Playdate handheld on TikTok, a number of people asked if they could play old Pokémon games on the device. That makes sense because we’ve seen so many portable devices from China that only exist to play old ROMs. However, the $179 playdate is something new. It combines low component costs (relative to the past) with modern indie gaming sensibilities to produce a unique experience. That has led to a quirky, yet cute portable console. And one that intentionally raises your expectations of how game distribution should work.


The Playdate will be launched soon. All I can do so far is unpack it. #PlayDate #gametok #switch

♬ First Class – Jack Harlow

The Playdate is a small yellow handheld measuring 76 by 74 mm with a 400×240 black-and-white screen. That screen has no backlight and is even more “black and white” than the original Game Boy. Playdate can only display 2 possible colors instead of Nintendo’s device’s 4-way, 2-bit grayscale. But the image is sharp and pretty easy to see as long as you have a light source. And the screen refreshes quickly, so don’t expect the weird ghosting you might remember from using 80s/90s handhelds.

As for the input, you get a D-pad, two face buttons and buttons for sleep and menu, a 3-axis accelerometer and a pendulum. And those checks are more important than the details of the internal parts. This is a system where the way you play games is much more important than the power of the CPU. But it’s crucial that the device has Wi-Fi, because that’s how you get more software.

And it is that software that is the beginning of the experience.

Playdate is a kind of hipster handheld

Playdate does not play Pokemon. Well, it probably will eventually – and Doom too. But the goal is to provide more than 20 new and custom games from modern indie studios. For all of these games, the developers built them specifically for the Playdate’s capabilities.

And what are those games? Well, they cover a spectrum of genres and game types. The arcade-style Whitewater Wipeout, a surf game that you mainly control with the crank, is a standout. But I also enjoy DemonQuest 85, where you have to summon demons to solve puzzles, and the underground role-playing adventure Ratcheteer.

Most games are significant in size and scope. Playdate features multiple RPGs in addition to the more arcade or minigame-like offerings. And that variety is part of its appeal.

But the other half of that experience is in how Panic delivers its indie partners’ games. The company includes all games in the purchase price of the system. But instead of presenting them all in a menu on the first day, the system downloads them one by one every week.

Whitewater Wipeout is awesome.

This is a huge difference because it makes each game feel like part of an overarching whole.

You never know which game will be unlocked next. And the system does a great job of making it exciting when you get something new. The always-on screen will appear with a warning that a new game is available. Once you download that software, it will appear in wrapping paper on your home interface. And the animation to unwrap that gift — like all UI animations — is slick and appealing.

But it’s important to think of the Playdate as a cohesive whole because it’s likely that many of the games won’t click with everyone. That means you might have a disappointing week with the Playdate, but that’s when you’ll likely revert to a previous favorite.

It’s great to swing

So yes, the Playdate has a crank as a control input. And that’s crazy, but it’s also responsible for some of the best stuff on the handheld.

The reason the pendulum works is because it is super accurate. This means that if you have it at the 6 o’clock position, the system treats that as it were south. For example, in Whitewater Wipeout, this means your surfer is pointing straight down as long as you have the crank pointing down as well.

Not every game uses the crank. Not every game that uses it actually has to. But, like Wii motion controls, it occasionally makes an entire game work better than it otherwise would.

The screen is not a problem until it is

Panic makes decisions with the Playdate. The monochrome display without backlight is an aesthetic choice. But it is one with practical drawbacks. You simply cannot play the system in a dark room. The system needs a light source. And then players have to angle the device so that the light bounces off the screen so that it lights up the action without reflecting the light bulb directly into your eyes.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. I got used to tilting the screen slightly off-axis relative to my head. And when it all works, the aesthetic choices pay off. The screen looks like it comes from an alternate history where display technology hasn’t come close to processing power. I really like that.

But it’s a bit annoying when the sun goes down, and I have to turn on the lamp to keep playing.

Do you know if the Playdate is something for you

Some games are unlike anything you would find on Game Boy.

The reality is, you probably know if the Playdate is for you. Have you ever enjoyed discovering a little new game from developers like Bennet Foddy, Serenity Forge and Zach Gage? You will probably get something out of the Playdate. I’m.

But if your friends sent you a link to QWOP and you’re wondering what’s wrong with them, you probably want to stick with your $200 million blockbusters.

The good news is that you don’t have to slander the Playdate just because it’s not for you. Handheld gamers have more options than ever before. The Nintendo Switch dominates the space, but you can also get the extremely impressive Steam Deck for modern PC games. Analog also has a Pocket for playing the aforementioned Pokémon games or other retro classics. And if you want something cheap, I love those Chinese handhelds that come with a legally questionable collection of built-in ROMs.

Playdate is separate from that, but is also in consultation with them. I have and want them all. They all serve different purposes, and the rule is that the Playdates aren’t like those other things. We should use the great integration between hardware and software to experiment with new ways to play. And Panic and its development partners have delivered just that.

Playdate is available to pre-order now for $179. Panic has provided a review unit to GamesBeat for this review.

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