Everyone thought it was a little crazy when Panic announced that they would be making a monochrome handheld game machine with some sort of subscription model where you can’t choose the games you get. DOA, right? Well, the pre-orders were sold out, so maybe not. And thankfully, Playdate is a fun, weird and promising device, which is exactly what it aims to be, and for those drawn to its funky aesthetic and games, a worthwhile purchase.
The original idea of the Playdate was a pocket-sized game console that distinguished not only with a black-and-white screen and the addition of a crank for gaming gimmicks, but also with a scheduled release of games that would appear automatically and regularly. … a play date.
Unexpected interest from gamers (20,000 first batch units sold out even at the rather high asking price of $180) and developers interested in something new and weird prompted them to extend the first “season” of games to 24, which made the deal slightly sweeter. After a few delays due to COVID and the chip shortage, the Playdate is finally shipping, and Panic was kind enough to send TechCrunch one for testing, with games arriving sooner.
So how are you? Fun and weird – like an indie game or movie that asks you to join on its own terms, the Playdate is its own thing and comparing it to other devices isn’t exactly productive.
A pocket-sized panic production
First, the device itself. I love it. It’s cute, banana yellow and Post-It-small. Panic and their partners at Teenage Engineering really nailed the look and feel.
On it you will find a directional pad, A and B buttons, menu and power buttons and of course the famous crank. The D-pad is a little soft but works fine; the main buttons are pleasant to use. And when held like a traditional handheld, it’s quite comfortable even for medium to large hands like mine. I wouldn’t want to play for hours on end, but that’s not the point here.
The crank feels great, smooth and is remarkably accurate in games that use it, giving an almost analog level of precision. There’s enough friction that you’ll never move it more or less than you want, but it’s easy enough to turn so you can do full loops without a hitch.
Where there is a bit of trouble is how exactly to hold the thing so you can press the A and B buttons while turning the crank. I’ve found something that works more or less for me, but eventually you put your hand on the knobs themselves a bit to get the leverage needed to turn, or vice versa. It’s not ideal, but thankfully few games require this level of dexterity.
The 400×240 screen is a mixed bag. Without a backlight, you depend on ambient light to see it, but because it’s glossy, you’ll get reflections from the window or lamp if it’s in the best position. I’ve played a lot without swearing or really being bothered by it, but there’s definitely a certain level of “OK, I need to turn my chair and hold it here, tilt it now…perfect” so that you’re in that sweet spot. coming. (It’s also incredibly difficult to photograph well. But screenshots don’t capture the feel of it.)
Those quirks aside, the graphics are sharp, fun, and quite expressive. Each developer has found different ways to make the 1-bit look work, with an overall aesthetic like that of old Mac Classic games. If you were concerned, everything would be stick figures and text… rest assured that there is a lot of creativity and fun on display here. And they all play fluently and responsively.
The sound is pretty good too – the graphics make you expect the kind of peeps we got back in the old Mac days, but there’s great, modern (or modern retro) sounding music and sound for every game. For some, the sound is inextricably linked to the gameplay, such as one where you have to link short music clips together.
But is it fun?
There are 24 games in the first season, which will trickle into each Playdate twice a week for 12 weeks. (Reviewers had let them arrive for more than 12 days.)
I won’t go through the whole list – part of the fun is waking up and seeing “New game available!” and then check it out as you enjoy your morning hot beverage of choice. But it’s fair to say that sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised and busy all week, while other times you’ll think… “wait, what? I don’t get it.” Or ‘is that it? Weak.”
In general, the games for me fall into one of three categories: My Jam, Cool But Not My Jam, and Eh.
One of the first games to be unlocked, Casual Birder, is My Jam. It’s a weird little RPG full of charming interactions and a lot of birds to take pictures of. You focus with the crank while framing with the D-pad, but it makes things feel pleasantly frenetic when you’re following a flying bird to its nest, rather than frustrating.
Another one I really liked is Flipper Lifter, where the crank controls the position of a lift that penguins want to line up to use (and they’re really in a rush, my god). When I “unwrapped” it (there’s a charming little animation that removes the paper from each game) I planned to try it real quick to get a feel for how it controlled, and ended up playing for 20 minutes straight because it felt so good . And that was only on the first level! Definitely my jam.
Then there’s another early game, Whitewater Wipeout, which is Cool But Not My Jam. You control the direction of your surfer with the crank and can adjust his movement with the D-pad. Seems like I can’t get my brain around the rotation and end up being wiped out unexpectedly even when I’m walking well. It’s much more arcade-y, but after getting a decent score I felt like I had “consumed” this particular game. But it would be nice to go back and forth trying to beat a score, and others might mind Their Jam.
Then there’s Boogie Loops, a sort of sequencer (I think) that could be fun to play with if I had any idea what one of the buttons, switches, or dots on the timeline was doing. It took me 2 minutes to figure it out and then I stopped. uh.
I’d say the breakdown of the 24 games is about 25% My Jam, 50% Cool But Not My Jam, and 25% Eh. I feel like that sounds bad, but I really enjoyed trying them all and seeing how they used the crank in a new and interesting way. Some are puzzles, some action, some puzzle action, some adventure, and not all of them have some kind of gimmick. One is just a variation of Snake. What is it doing here? It’s fun, and Zach Gage is awesome… but it’s actually Snake.
What is noticeably absent is any sort of “traditional” Mario/Kirby/Gradius-style action or platformer – there are a few focused on reflexes and positioning (depending on your pendulum facility, this could be thrilling or maddening) , but for the most part these are a bit more funky and slower. I can’t wait to spend more time with some of the RPG games.
Playdate’s main value proposition is the 24 games you get in the first season. And for some, that and the uniqueness of it all justifies the $180 price point. But the idea is that Playdate will be supported further than it is now, primarily with a likely second season of games (there aren’t any concrete plans, but it’s implied) for sale as a bundle.
More directly there’s the Pulp game creator, which I haven’t even tried (without any creativity or skills in that area) but could be a source of many an unofficial game – other development methods are also supported, this is just their own platform. It’s easy to sideload these through the SDK and simulator – a little more complicated than drag and drop, but not much.
I added the extra game Bloom this way and it worked perfectly. The game also seems to be My Jam: you plant flowers to sell in your shop, but they really take time to bloom, so you have to come back to them every day. Cute! This could be the kind you get as a Patreon reward or downloaded from Itch.io or something similar.
The hope is that the Playdate can become a mini-scene for indie game developers looking for a built-in audience, a bit like the Pico-8 community. I would love to have a real Pico-8! While I don’t expect the next Elden Ring to come out on this handheld, it’s very possible that a lot of fun games will be made or ported to the platform.
Is all this enough to pay $180 for a Playdate? The fact of the matter is, most people broke that pre-order button pretty much unseen because they love the idea so much. I’d say you’re probably already on it or not, but if my opinion has any value here and you’re in doubt, I’d say maybe wait a few months to see how the first season of games is received, and whether the community of fun new experiences begins to pump out. I suspect the Playdate more than justifies itself in the end, but caution is understandable given the “surprise” nature of the games.
In its current state, the Playdate is a somewhat expensive but absolutely unique experience, one that is clearly appealing to many people, but whose charm may elude others. In a few months, when more games, accessories, and other perks roll out, that equation will likely only change for the better.
This post Playdate is a refreshing and unique gaming handheld, but keep your expectations weird – TechCrunch was original published at “https://techcrunch.com/2022/04/18/playdate-review-indie-gaming-handheld/”