Playdate review: Our verdict on its design, games, screen and more

Panic Inc. has been known for its developer apps and publishing critically acclaimed indie titles such as Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game. So its most recent project may seem like it’s from leftfield.

In 2019, Panic unveiled the Playdate – a handheld 1-bit gaming console that shares a striking resemblance to Nintendo’s gaming hardware of the Eighties and Nineties. But what really stands out about the new device is its analogue handcrank, which can be used as a controller for each of the system’s games.

We spoke with Greg Maletic, director of special projects at Panic, about the newly released games console, the company’s design philosophy and concept for its new handheld. Turns out the initial plan for the brand’s first hardware began a decade ago, and was conceived as a modest reward for a limited run before taking on new life as a new gaming platform.

He said, “So the first ideas were either going to be maybe a clock or a calculator or something else. But we finally settled on the idea of ​​something that was akin to an old Nintendo and Watch game. and that’s where the screen came from. We chose this screen because it most resembled that sort of early Nintendo LCD look.”

After wiring up a circuit board and successfully running a game, the project expanded in scope. “It would be one fixed game that you would get on this thing.” Maletic explained. “But then we had an idea, what if it just magically changed into a new game each week? It would transform into something new and it just blossomed from there into becoming a full platform, which is something we didn’t plan on from the beginning, and has taken a lot of effort to bring to life, but that’s what we ended up with .”

The Playdate is an open platform, meaning that anyone with the technical know-how could write their own software and make their own apps for the device. As software developers themselves, Panic is well aware of the constraints that digital shopfronts can have and wanted to create a solution for software developers that could see it as a new platform to make games and other apps for.

“We don’t want to restrict anyone to having to use our distribution solution. You can use outside solutions, like Itch and I’m sure other avenues will appear in the future as well.” He adds. “But we didn’t want to be the gatekeeper for Playdate. That was one of the most important things to us because we’re tired of locked down platforms.”

Since launching pre-orders for the console last year, the initial run of 20,000 units sold out within the first twenty minutes of going live. Panic began shipping Playdates in April 2022 and is currently accepting pre-orders for consoles expected to arrive in 2023.

If you want to find out what we thought of the Playdate, then read our full review below.

Playdate: £146.37, Play.date – pre-order now

The Playdate comes with a charging cable in a fun little box

(The Independent)

  • Rating: 8/10
  • Storage: 4GB
  • Screen: 2.7-inch, 400 x 240 pixel sharp memory LCD
  • Dimensions: 76mm x 74mm x 9mm
  • Weight: 86 grams

Design

What is most striking about the Playdate out of the box is its banana yellow glossy finish with black and white screen. Slightly smaller than a beermat, it fits snugly inside the hand with both front-facing buttons and the directional pad reachable with one hand. It also makes it an excellent size to fit inside a shirt or back pocket.

What really sets it apart is the three-axis hand crank that gently protrudes out the side of the handheld. It doesn’t look out of place while being used and there is even a small nook to fit the handle when not in use. A gentle magnetic resistance can be felt with the handle which gives it enough heft as to not feel flimsy and still feels substantial enough when using it as a form of analogue input.

The black and white always-on display is quite simply mesmerizing to look at. When in standby mode, a simple clock display can be shown and two touches of the standby button will bring the handheld to life. While it doesn’t have a backlight – a conscious choice but nevertheless an omission – means that it feels more akin to something like an e-reader than a games console, but its high refresh rate means on-screen visuals are crisp and fluid, which some of the games on the system make excellent use of.

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Anyone familiar with trying to play a Game Boy with no external light source will immediately know the feeling. It’s next to impossible to use the Playdate in a dark room which is inevitable but still a shame considering how good the screen does look when viewed from a flattering angle.

But this does still have its benefits. Not only is its lo-fi screen fluid and responsive, it also reduces energy consumption on the device’s battery. The Playdate can go several days without needing to be plugged in via its USB-C port and even longer when simply in clock mode. It also means that it’s not a strain on the eyes and is a good way to give yourself a “screen break” after staring at a backlit computer screen for extended periods of time.

Another welcome design point on the Playdate is the presence of a headphone jack. What would have been a make-or-break feature ten or so years ago could have easily been an optional component but it now means that game audio can be enjoyed privately, which is welcome if you fancy taking it on a bus or in a park .

Software

The Playdate comes with a library of 24 games. However, not all of these games will be available at once at the point of purchase.

‘Casual Birder’ is one of the first titles you’ll get to play

(The Independent)

Every week, the Playdate automatically receives two new games via an internet connection. Part of the charm of receiving each of these titles is not knowing exactly what you’re going to get, so we’ll try and avoid saying too much. We will, however, talk about the first two as they are immediately available and both make good use of the Playdate’s unique hardware, albeit in their own ways.

first off, Whitewater Wipeout, is a tribute to classic arcade-y sports titles such as the original California Games on the Sega mega drive. Players control a surfer using the hand crank to turn the board while moving left along the screen and trying to score as many points as possible over three lives.

It’s addictive, excellent fun that really shines a light on what makes an analogue hand crank feel like a natural extension to a traditional handheld console. The motion of the surfer, combined with the lo-fi black and white aesthetic, lends itself well to a short digestible experience. It’s simple, but it will feel endlessly replayable and is a perfect way to demonstrate what this new handheld is all about.

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Casual Bird by Diego Garcia on the other hand is a vastly different experience. It plays more like a traditional top-down RPG with a larger focus on traditional controls and the crank being used as a novel extension.

Players explore a small seaside town as a bird photographer and use the crank to cycle through items in the inventory and to pull camera focus on various birds located around the town. It’s simple, funny and engaging enough to finish in its short run time. Having both of these titles as the entry point to the Playdate was a sensible approach and one that works across both ends of the gaming spectrum.

The other titles that are featured, such as a Marble Madness-style game and a Ducktales inspired side-scrolling platformer, are all worth experimenting with as micro-sized gaming experiences. Some rely almost exclusively on the hand crank, while other games don’t require any crank input at all. By the time all 24 games of the first “season” have been played, there are some clear favourite – but that decision may come down to personal preference.

Read more: 16 best Nintendo Switch games for every kind of player

Having two titles per week is a sensible choice and adds that sense of delayed gratification and makes the Playdate a worthy desk toy, where its strengths really shine through with just a few minutes of downtime. The idea that a new experience can be enjoyed each week means that the Playdate is not something you can never put down, but as a peripheral experience that works as a welcome distraction.

And that’s where the Playdate’s other unique selling point comes in. Not only does the handheld come with its own library of games, but it’s also refreshingly able to sideload content from sites such as Itch.io. Essentially what this means is that anyone who fancies making their own game for the platform is able to do so with little to no restriction.

It’s early days, but already there are a number of indie developers who have created their own experiences with the Playdate in mind, a highlight being A Joke That’s Worth $0.99 (trailer above) which perfectly encapsulates the kind of games Playdate was built for.

Pre-order now

The verdict: Playdate

It’s hard not to be utterly charmed by everything the Playdate has to offer. From its slick screen to its novel hand crank, everything about it screams creativity and light-hearted fun. But even with its exquisite presentation and open-ended design philosophy, it won’t be for everyone.

For a start, a device that costs around £150 is already a hefty investment for the casual observer. Arguably, when factoring in that it comes included with 24 hand selected games, the cost can be spread quite modestly but not every game will be to everyone’s liking. But if the platform itself is what intrigues you and you’re interested in trying out other creations (or even making them yourself), the Playdate is an excellent pocket-sized window into a unique and limitless world of creativity.

Playdate

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