Playdate Review: A Magical Standalone Game Machine

sLaydate shouldn’t be able to do the things he does. It’s small enough to fit in the very narrow front pockets of skinny jeans, is lighter than a deck of cards and has a 1-bit black and white screen. It feels like a 90’s relic, at least until you play it – Playdate supports smooth pixel-dense animations, connects to Wi-Fi and has a library of exclusive games from top-level developers, all available for free. A small crank affixed to its side represents the icing on the yellow cake, adding a layer of sweet innovation to every experience on the system.

Playdate is my favorite mobile device since the Vita. It’s a love letter to indie games and creativity, and I think that’s exactly what the industry needs right now.

Playdate is the brainchild of Panic, the Mac developer and publisher behind it fire control And Untitled goose game, with equipment made by Teenage Engineering. Its specs are suitably impressive, with 16MB of RAM and 4GB of flash storage, a motion-based input accelerometer, a 400 x 240 1-bit display, a built-in mono amplifier, a condenser microphone and a stereo headphone jack, and Wi-Fi. – Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. The Bluetooth functionality wasn’t available for the test to review, but connecting to Wi-Fi was a painless, even gentle process.

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panic

Admittedly, most things about Playdate are cute: its size, crank, audio cues, the way each game is presented as a little treat for the jaw-dropping, and how the screen looks like a fuzzy face when you wake up. There are so many themes packed into Playdate’s monochrome screen that interacting with the settings page is fun. Of course, playing on it is better.

Playdate comes with a bunch of free games, each one designed exclusively for the system and most of them taking full advantage of the crank mechanic. Automatically added to the library in batches – once you activate Playdate, you’ll receive 2 new games every week for 12 weeks, for a total of 24 titles in the first season of the device. There are plans to offer games for purchase at Playdate down the line.

Some are definitely more playable than others, but I haven’t found a bad game on Playdate yet. It spans genres and lengths, culminating in a few hours, but there’s at least one moment of pure joy in every experience. A time travel adventure in CrankenHe, for example, is a lateral controller starring a hopeless romantic who is just trying to meet his date on time, his movements are entirely controlled by the forearm, and the steps reverse and accelerate depending on the direction of rotation. It’s a simple concept with a single input method, but the crank makes it challenging in a way I’ve never tried before, and it’s instantly addictive.

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panic

Spellcorked It’s my favorite game on Playdate so far, largely because it cleanly captures everything the device has to offer. It’s a potion-making game with a romantic subplot and a sassy cat, and every time I play it, I’m impressed by the amount of subtle detail that fills the screen. It has dialogue, character icons, an email interface, and environments filled with spiders and nicks, but nothing is lost visually. Every frame is crisp and the actual potion making process includes every input method Playdate offers: pressing buttons while rotating the crank to grind ingredients, cranking and chopping blade in a back and forth motion, and tilting the whole device to the side to pour a ready-made potion into a vial. Each new mechanic is so fun, and surprising at first, that it adds an extra layer of magic to an already spell-heavy game.

Crank Playdate is not a gimmick. It’s an essential aspect of the system, transforming from a revamped Gameboy into something completely new, a portable device with a quirky, hilarious feature. The crank, like the limitations of hardware lo-fi, is an invitation for developers to think more deeply about the way they develop games, try new things and innovate on old ideas. The first season of Playdate is already full of new concepts; I haven’t felt this spark of plot from a handheld device since I grabbed my fingers on the back of a Vita for the first time.

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panic

I think the ideas generated by Playdate Games won’t just be trapped in a crank bubble. This kind of creative thinking moves naturally into the broader game development cycle, where designers test exotic mechanics on mobile devices and then transfer those concepts to traditional consoles, computers, and phones. The Vita eventually switched over to DualSense, after all, and developers of all sizes regularly find wells for inspiration in new entry mechanics. As silly as it may sound, the Playdate crank can be a boon to the entire industry. All applaud the crank. Trustworthy.

There are some downsides to Playdate. It’s small enough to be unobtrusive but unique enough to be a conversation starter; It is packed with exclusive games from amazing independent developers; Its battery easily lasts two days with intermittent operation; It costs a reasonable $180 and has a crank. My only complaint is the brightness of the screen – it’s not backlit, but instead uses a super reflective system that requires light in the room To play, sometimes the screen looks dimmer. It’s not unplayable, but I’ve found myself staring at it a few times, especially in direct light.

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It’s also very, very small, and fits perfectly in my hands, but people with large gloves may have sizing issues. But hey, if you can use Joy-Con, you should be able to handle Playdate. In addition, with the Playdate Mirror app, you can broadcast the device screen in real time to a PC or Mac and play with traditional gamepads. This also helps anyone who wants to stream Playdate games on Twitch or YouTube, and should come in handy for developers.

Playdate looks like a cross between a Game Boy and a business card, but it feels like a modern system. Part of that is the fast enough processor and feather-light feel, but it’s also the sense of innovation built into the hardware. There are plenty of devices out there that promise great graphics and massive processing power, but Playdate is a stark reminder that there’s more to the magic of a good game than top performance. This is something indie developers have known for decades, and Playdate distills that philosophy into a package as nice as hell, complete with a crank.

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