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- Playdate is a handheld gaming console with a retro aesthetic and a unique control style.
- The console uses a metal crank as an additional control method, opening up lots of new ways to play.
- While relatively pricey at $180, that includes a “season” of original games by independent developers.
Playdate Playdate$180.00 FROM PLAYDATE
As a life-long fan of video games and game design, I’ve purchased — or at least played with — just about every game console out there of the past 40 years. I’ve also been reviewing games and gaming hardware for a decade now. With this new handheld game console known as Playdate, playing games finally feels like something truly new and unique again.
Playdate, available now for preorder at $180, is a retro-themed handheld that fits in the palm of your hand with classic-style, black-and-white pixel graphics. However, this product focuses around a unique control method used by game creators with a shocking amount of ingenuity and a knack for fun.
The metal crank featured on the right side (which also supports left-handers by using an “upside down” mode) does not charge the console, but instead is used as part of its controls.
I liken the crank, a control method I’ve only seen before on fishing game controllers, to the Nintendo Wii remote controller in its level of inspiration for new, more interesting kinds of gameplay.
The first game I played on the Playdate just so happens to be my favorite of the lineup: Whitewater Wipeout. It’s a surfing game that tasks you with stringing a combo of sweet spinning jumps off a wave that’s consistently pushing you to the left, using the crank almost like a rudder to steer the surfer and pull off those spins.
Perhaps it’s a gimmick, but it hasn’t worn off on me yet after a few weeks of testing the console. There are more games like this that are also entertaining, like Lost Your Marbles, a physics puzzle game with a hilarious premise and plot that has you guiding a marble across various stages using the crank to rotate the stage’s position.
However, not every game is beholden to this new control mechanism, and some games that ignore it entirely are just as fun.
One such game is Saturday Edition, which blends a detective noir aesthetic with a plot all about alien abductions in a fictional ’80s US city as a point-and-click adventure game. Having been a fan of the mystery point-and-click genre since the days of games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Myst, this game was particularly engrossing.
Another hit in a similar story-focused vein is DemonQuest ’85, which crosses a friendship/romance simulator with a tale of summoning demons from an ancient tome.
In fact, I find the Playdate hard to put down, and have barely picked up my Nintendo Switch OLED in the past few weeks.
When the Playdate arrived at my home, I had been progressing through the sublime Pokemon Legends: Arceus. That Switch game has been an absolute breath of fresh air for a lapsed lover of the Pokemon franchise, but the Playdate is just so interesting and engrossing that I basically forgot about my pocket monster adventure.
This may have been helped by the way in which I received games to the console over those two weeks.
Playdate doesn’t use cartridges, but instead will wirelessly receive new games on a weekly basis, as part of what are known as ‘seasons’, through a Wi-Fi connection.
For the general public, these games will be delivered to consoles for no additional cost. The first “season” will feature two games issued per week for a total of 12 weeks and 24 games. It’s unknown what plans Panic — the console’s independent creator and distributor — has for its second season.
The press, however, received two new games each day over 12 days, so as to be able to evaluate everything the console has to offer in its first season in time for a review. If I weren’t able to receive these games in such quick succession, would it have engrossed me in the same way? Perhaps not, but I will say that I have spent the majority of my time with Playdate improving my skills in Whitewater Wipeout, so that point may be moot.
To fill in the gaps between seasons, Playdate’s browser-based game development tools are available to everyone, and sharing or side-loading those homemade games is easy.
Pulp, Panic’s browser-based game development engine and interface, is available for anyone to use. The development software features “drawing tools, animation, [a] level editor, custom font, chip tune music, and sound effects” for easier use, but direct coding access is also available.
Users can then export games they’ve made to either their own Playdate console, via its USB-C port connected to a computer, or to a friend by sharing their game files digitally.
How widely will these features be used? It’s tough to say, but if Panic is able to somehow curate and list these independently made games within the console’s interface, it could have success similar to what’s been seen in recent developer tools disguised as games, such as the Mario Maker and LittleBig Planet game series.
As for the Playdate hardware’s other particulars, I’m generally impressed with its sound from such a tiny speaker, and the console has decent battery life.
The Playdate is rated for up to eight hours of battery life in use and 14 days of standby battery life. That generally checked out in my experience over the past few weeks, and it charges awfully quickly, like from near-zero to full in less than an hour.
Being a retro-themed device, the speaker does well to play the familiar bleeps and bloops arranged into music similar to that of classic games. The main Whitewater Wipeout theme is particularly catchy.
However, the Playdate’s screen is going to be a make-or-break aspect of the device for potential buyers.
I’ll be upfront: the Playdate’s 400 x 240-pixel, 1-bit resolution display is neither backlit nor frontlit. Like the Game Boy that so clearly inspired the console, albeit released in 1989, the Playdate needs to be played under a source of light.
Yes, the screen is basically the Game Boy taken to its logical conclusion in terms of sharpness and coloration, but that might not be enough for some players at a $180 price. Both my wife and my nephew scoffed at having to angle the device just-so to be able to play the games when I showed it to them. (That said, my nephew thoroughly enjoyed his time with it, asking his mother for one short after.)
Personally, I don’t mind the screen all that much, as I find the display to be quite forgiving in its viewability under limited lighting. Unlike my Game Boy as a kid, I won’t be seeking out some sort of “worm light” accessory for the Playdate.
The bottom line
At $180, just $20 shy of a Nintendo Switch Lite, the Playdate is quite pricey for what it is ultimately: a niche product for particularly deep fans of video games.
As someone who owns far too many retro-revival game consoles — from the Super Nintendo Classic Mini to the TurboGrafx-16 Mini — I’m more than willing to pay the asking price for such an interesting product. I’ve been deeply into video games since the early ’90s, and so I’m part of Playdate’s target audience.
The group that the Playdate is not for is those simply looking for either their first handheld game console ever or their first in a long time. The Playdate is for intense fans of the hobby who are either into the retro aesthetic (or classic games in general) or lovers of independent (i.e. “indie”) games. Being one of them, I’m excited to see where Playdate goes in its second season and beyond.
Unfortunately, Playdate preorders made right now will not be fulfilled until 2023, as demand appears to have outstripped Panic’s supply and its ability to keep up with orders. However, something this unique and entertaining, for the retro and indie gaming nuts out there, is well worth the wait.
$180.00 FROM PLAYDATE
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