Playdate: The Good, the Bad, and the Cranky

There is a certain sense of childlike wonder that only a quality handheld console can elicit. Nothing is quite like the promise of fun anywhere provided by a AA battery-draining Game Boy. Sure you may have spent half the time trying desperately to get the light just right to see the screen in the car on the way to your grandparents’ house, but you never felt more alive, almost as if you were getting away with something you should not be doing. Naturally, when I heard that Panic Inc., the publisher behind Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game, was designing their own quirky compact handheld, I knew I needed to get my oddly still child-sized hands on one. Now, over a year since my pre-order, I finally have the little yellow wonder, so here are my thoughts after the first few weeks.

The Good

The Device Itself

Panic absolutely nailed the most crucial component in regards to their niche handheld. It is bonkers how amazing the device itself is. Pictures do not do justice to the overall level of enchantment it possesses. The yellow absolutely pops, the aspect ratio is compelling, the buttons look crisp, and the exterior feels as if it has been lightly sanded making it seem ever so slightly more tangible and less cartoony. Throw in a few splashes of metallic silver, and it’s a toy you’ll proudly show off.

The Crank

The most distinctive part of the Playdate is also one of its best. The crank really does set this handheld apart from others. It looks and feels great, and the tactile sensation of undocking and docking it dispenses the same joy that the wonderful Nintendo Switch click sound that happens when you attach a joy-con gives. It’s basically saying “Fun Activate!”

Plus, I am fairly certain using your Playdate counts as exercising due to the rigorous demands some of the crank-based games place on you.

The Intro

Starting with the box it comes in, the Playdate immediately charms you as it literally instructs you to “Have Fun!” It only gets more delightful from there as the opening “game” that has you utilizing the buttons and crank to operate a complex party machine makes sure every inch of you is absolutely ready to follow the box’s orders of merriment.

Making Your Own Games

One of the aspects of the Playdate that I am the most excited about is how user-friendly they made making your own games. There is a fantastic Pulp program you can use that features a web-based Playdate to allow you to instantly test things out, and there’s an SDK for those who are more programmatically inclined. The game design also provides a unique challenge due to the 1-bit nature of the display where each pixel is simply on or off. Once that’s been mastered, actually getting your games out in the wild appears to be shockingly smooth thanks to the next item on our list.

Sideloading

Putting new third party games on your Playdate from sites such as itch.io, from yourself, or from friends is a surprisingly easy process. You can either connect your Playdate to your computer and bring the games over, or, you can use the preferred method of adding them to your account online and having them instantly show up on your device ready for download. I was originally going to put not having an official store in the “Bad” column, but sideloading is so easy that a marketplace almost seems unnecessary aside from having a more cultivated selection to peruse.

The Season Pass

Waking up every Monday to two shiny new games already loaded on to my device is a blast. It guarantees that I will at least fiddle with my Playdate for an hour or so a week as I scope out what’s new, and it will vastly increase the handheld’s ability to hold my attention span.

The Early Games

There is a surprising amount of variety among the early games I have played. The main categories the games fall under early in the lifecycle tend to be arcade style games revolving around setting high scores using the crank, puzzle games, and some smaller story driven adventure titles.

I think that ultimately how successful the Playdate is will come down to how well developers handle the crank. If game makers keep finding new, innovative ways to exploit the trademark crank, the Playdate will flourish. If, however, it ties their hands too much or becomes just a gimmick, then Panic’s name will prove apt. So far, some of my most enjoyable experiences have been in games that almost wholly ignore the crank, and if developers just seek to make the best gaming experience regardless of mechanic, Playdate owners will rejoice.

Screenshotting/Mirroring

I love posting screenshots of what I am playing, so I was somewhat worried that the seemingly simplistic nature of the Playdate was not going to be conducive to this. On the contrary, it actually provides a wealth of options with high-quality screenshots directly from the pause menu that you can pass back to your computer via USB-cable and a Mirroring app that lets you capture video or screens on your computer. The only way they could make it nicer is if they added the functionality to upload the screenshots directly to your Playdate account similar to a reverse sideloading.

Sound

I have been shocked by some of the sounds that have come out of my quaint little Playdate. Whether using speakers or headphones, the Playdate more than holds its own turning things up to 11, and there are even a few really interesting games out there based on audio puzzles.

Playing A Quick Game

Perhaps the number one way I use my Playdate is in short 5 or so minute bursts when I have time in between meetings. Some of the more arcade-like games lend themselves incredibly well to a quick run to try to top your high score. Then you can easily stow it away until your next Zoom break.

The Mixed Bag

The Screen

This is perhaps the nittiest of picks I will make this entire review. The screen itself is gorgeous and highly reflective. I’m constantly amazed by how good games look, and I know they did not have to go nearly as hard making such a beautiful screen. In spite of that, there is one big downside to using a reflective and non-backlit screen – you need light for it to work! Given that my favorite way to play handhelds is laying in bed before sleep time, this means my preferred method of taking advantage of such a device is out of the question unless I want to anger my wife and her far earlier bedtime.

The UI

There are a lot of great things going on in the UI. The game icons are sharp and lovely, menus are easy to navigate (and are quite pleasant to do so with the help of the crank), new games appear as enticing wrapped presents, and there is a wonderful lock screen clock. The only reason this gets dinged is that there is currently no way to rearrange or group your games. Sure, the Playdate automatically segments off the season pass titles from games you sideload, but I would love to be able to move around my games so I have faster access to the ones I play most instead of being stuck with the order I downloaded them in. Still, this is something that will be patched in a future update, so I do not imagine this will stay in the mixed category for too long.

The Battery

The battery seems good, but I just cannot trust it yet. As you’ll find out in the “Bad” section, Playdate has a less than stellar history with its batteries, and my first experience with it made me somewhat concerned. The device arrived with only about a 25% charge. It charged incredibly quickly, but then drained back down to the teens after a fairly brief amount of playtime. I was worried I had a defective unit, but after letting it charge for an extended amount of time, it appears that maybe it was just a problem with the percentage indicator as the resulting charge held well. Panic purports that the Playdate’s battery has 8 hours of gameplay or 14 days worth of idle-time in it, and my experiences after that first night seem to support that leading to charging about once per week. Even so, I won’t really feel confident about the battery until it proves itself for longer.

Playing for Extended Periods

While I mostly use my Playdate in small bursts, there have been quite a few times already that I have found myself playing some of the more arcade-like games for 1-2 hours at a time. There is a ton of replayability in trying to top your high score, but your hand will cramp mightily given the small form factor of the device.

The Bad

Trying To Do Things in Bulk

When I purchased a 13 game bundle on itch.io, I could not wait to try out all the new games at my disposal to really see what the Playdate could do. Unfortunately, adding the 13 games to my device was a lengthy process. For single game sideloading, there shouldn’t be much of an issue, but I hope future updates include some better bulk actions.

The Launch Delay

Is there anything that hasn’t had supply chain troubles over the past couple of years? Sadly, the Playdate fell victim to the dreaded chain woes just like everything else and was forced to postpone launching due to problems with the initial batteries they used not holding charge well. While simply experiencing a delay would not have been a major issue, the fallout from it actually affected things greatly. As a result, the devices have been delivered on more of a slow roll than planned at first, meaning people who were expecting to get them in the earliest batch of shipments in 2021 are just now getting them over six months after they began shipping. The major consequence of this is that everyone is at an entirely different spot in their Season Pass, so the feeling of community Playdate promised where everyone was playing the same new games every Monday gets lost a little. For people later in the shipping list similar to myself it feels as if we are stuck playing catch-up. I imagine when Season 2 kicks off, we will get to see that original vision achieved.

The Verdict

Three weeks in to Playdate ownership, I am extremely excited about its future, both in discovering what gems indie devs can come up with and in seeing how I can grow myself as an amateur game developer. If even a fraction of the promise of the Playdate can be fulfilled, and it does not just devolve into a crank-centered gimmick, it could grow into one of the most engaging and charming mini devices out there. However, it will still probably feel incredibly niche to the average gamer. If you love the idea of this punchy little experimental indie handheld, then you most likely won’t be disappointed if you give it a try. If you would rather bigger titles or a more powerful experience then it may not be for you, but that’s ok, too. Now, if after reading all those words you nevertheless find your interest remains piqued, check out a few game recommendations below.

For the Arcade Lover

Whitewater Wipeout (Season Pass)

The first game that comes in Season 1 is a great introduction to the Playdate as figuring out how to turn the crank just right to rotate into insane tricks or catch waves remains challenging and engaging for endless attempts.

Flipper Lifter (Season Pass)

This fresh take on Elevator Action has you serving as the world’s most skilled elevator operator, using the Playdate’s crank to expertly deliver penguins to their destination while shooting for ever-increasing high scores in hopes of unlocking the next level and its unique challenges.

Reflector (itch.io)

Reflector has you piloting a tiny little UFO that moves around and tries to deflect projectiles off of itself to destroy other obstacles and stay alive. While the standard endless mode is quite fun, the real highlight of this game is the challenge mode, providing 10 or so incredibly fun and difficult objectives to overcome.

Necro Crisis (itch.io)

This House of the Dead inspired shooter gives you a gatling gun and a poor man’s version of Duke Nukem one-liners to help you mow-down hordes of the undead. It’s a helluva lot of fun.

For the Puzzle Minded Individual

Demon Quest ’85 (Season Pass)

You get to summon demons in 1985 by solving complex reading context puzzles. Yep, I don’t know why you are even reading any more of this and aren’t immediately playing it.

Pick, Pack, Pup (Season Pass)

The first Playdate game I completed is a fairly straightforward match-3 game that you could find on really any mobile device. It’s incredibly well done, though, with some fun side missions throughout and a biting take on Amazon work culture that kept me going. Plus, unlike similar mobile games, there are no micro-transactions or icky gacha mechanics.

Echoic Memory (Season Pass)

I highlighted the sound generated by the Playdate as one of its top qualities, so it’s no shock that a game based on audio puzzles stands out to me as one of its best so far. The premise seems simple enough as you try to quality check machines by matching given melodies to distorted ones, but it is far more difficult in execution.

Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure (Season Pass)

One of the best uses of the crank yet, Crankin’s has you rewinding and fast forwarding time to help your character avoid increasingly bizarre obstacles while attempting to make it to a date on time. The hilarious ways your girlfriend responds to your tardiness are the icing on the very fun cake.

Shift (itch.io)

Another stellar match game, Shift has you pushing and pulling lines of blocks to try to match up 4 in a row of the same color. What really makes it fun, though, is the energy meter that forces you to carefully consider each move and go for combos to keep from losing. When you hit a flow-state, it nearly reminds me of mobile puzzle juggernauts like Threes or 1024.

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