Review: The Playdate is fun but its quirks may wind you up

Apologies in advance, but allow us to get this word out of the way before this review begins: hipster.

Yes, it may be a little lazy to just throw that out there, but let’s face it, it’s likely what some people reading this may be thinking so we might as well just open with it.

After all, the Playdate is a small handheld with a black-and-white screen, delivers software in a strangely gimmicky way, is controlled with a quirky crank on the side of the unit, and was even made by a company from Portland, widely agreed to be the hipster capital of the world.

The only way the thing could be more hipster is if it also printed Polaroid photos that each had Zooey Deschanel superimposed onto them.

So, yes, if we had to describe the Playdate with only one word, that’s the first one that springs to mind. However, if we had more words to describe it – which, given that we have this lovely website here, we fortunately do – we’d also throw in inventive, charming and unusual… if a little flawed too.

The hardware

Playdate is a small handheld. It’s roughly the same size as the top half of a Game Boy Advance SP, although it’s thinner and has a smaller screen.

This screen will likely be the best or worst feature of the Playdate, depending on your own personal tastes. Its black-and-white display uses Sharp’s Memory LCD technology, which essentially acts like an e-book reader but with a much quicker refresh rate.

This means battery life is significantly longer because, as with e-readers, the display remembers whether each pixel is on or off and keeps it in that state until it needs to be refreshed, rather than constantly refreshing it.

The screen only has a 400×240 resolution but the small 2.7” display means it looks pleasantly sharp. With optimal lighting (more on that in a second), still images can look really impressive and the pixels are small enough that developers can produce effective mock greyscale by using a checkerboard pattern.

It’s not perfect, however. Some games display an odd shimmering and flickering effect when scrolling quickly between dark and light areas. This isn’t visible in directly captured footage (such as our video in the next section of this review), proving that it isn’t an issue with the games themselves but the way the display handles them. It’s not game-breaking by any means but it can be distracting.

The most obvious issue, however, is that the screen doesn’t have a backlight. It’s a reflective display, which in theory means it can be seen in a wide variety of lighting conditions, and we were admittedly surprised by how dark we could make the environment and still see the screen.

Naturally, if the room’s pitch black you can forget about seeing anything, but we tried the scientific method of waiting until morning and playing it under the bedsheets in a sort of makeshift tent, and we could still see it fine.

Review: The Playdate is fun but its quirks may wind you up
The scientifically proven VGC ‘putting the thing under the bedsheets’ test (patent pending)

The thing is, however, ‘fine’ won’t be good enough for some players, who have been conditioned to expect consistently high quality performance from modern electronics.

It goes without saying that the screen still looks its best when underneath a strong light source, and when we played in any other conditions we’d be lying if we said we weren’t constantly tilting and adjusting the thing to try and make the screen look as clear as possible, something made trickier when you have to operate some games with a crank and are naturally moving the device as a result.

Speaking of the crank, it’s obviously the Playdate’s most unique feature and it works well for the most part. It tucks away neatly inside a slot in the console and can be pulled out and turned whenever needed, then put back in its little nook, ensuring it isn’t always sticking out and prone to accidentally snapping off.

The crank itself is loose enough that it’s exceptionally easy to turn, which will be useful for games where it has to be rotated quickly (not that many of those released so far need that), and it’s very responsive in all the games we’ve played that support it.

That said, we would’ve preferred some sort of resistance, or maybe even a little clicking effect sort of like a fishing rod, to make it a bit more tactile. This is obviously down to personal taste (and we’re sure clicking would annoy people nearby) but the fact the crank is so loose did give us a slight disconnect from the experience at times: it doesn’t provide that tactile impact that pressing a button or moving a stick to its limit does.

The crank aside, everything else is designed as well as could be expected. The D-Pad and the two face buttons are pleasantly clicky and comfortable, and battery life is good.

Considering the display never actually turns off – you can only press a sleep button which displays a clock – you can leave it lying for quite a few days before needing to plug the thing back in (much like an e-ink version of a Kindle), and it recharges fairly quickly too.

The sound quality is also decent, which is useful because many of the games we played so far have fantastic soundtracks. Some can sound a little distorted if you turn the volume up to the maximum, but there’s a headphone port too, which lets you enjoy the audio at its best if you like it loud.

The games

The Playdate doesn’t have a built-in store, and there are no slots for physical media (though it’s possible to sideload it with user-created games).

The main event, then, is the console’s ‘Season One’ content, which consists of 24 games which are regularly delivered to the Playdate in the form of little gift-wrapped presents that appear on the main menu.

These games are released over the course of 12 weeks, with two games arriving each week on a certain day (a ‘play date’, if you will).

We were given access to all 24 games at an increased rate so we could cover them for the purposes of this review, and we were generally pleased at the diversity and quality of titles on offer.

Naturally, the main gimmick here is the idea of having a nice surprise when a new game is delivered, so we do understand if you don’t want to find out about the games included, especially if you already have a Playdate pre-ordered.

However, if you’re curious about what Season One has in store, we put together this hefty 24-minute video showing you all 24 games in action:

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While we were generally happy with the quality of the games on offer, it should be noted that there are no standout killer apps as such.

The indie nature of the Playdate seems to have ensured that no one game is given prominence over the others, and while the games are released in a set order, there’s no logical sequence that we could determine – it doesn’t appear that the handheld’s creator Panic is trying to open with a bang, or finish on a high, or anything like that.

The fact that players only get two games for the first week with their Playdate also means they may find themselves in a strange situation where they’re twiddling their thumbs waiting for more things to do with their $180 handheld.

While there are already a few developers who have created games that can be sideloaded, there aren’t exactly a wealth of these at the moment, meaning it’s likely that players may get bored with the initial two titles (one of which is a pretty basic mini-game), and may start to find themselves frustrated by the process.

“The fact that players only get two games for the first week with their Playdate also means they may find themselves in a strange situation where they’re twiddling their thumbs waiting for more things to do with their $180 handheld.”

This frustration will likely be intensified when the second week rolls along and one of the two new additions is a strange music sequencer gizmo instead of a game.

We understand that this is the console’s gimmick, and as such there’s no option to speed up the process – everyone has to wait three months to get all the games they paid for, because that’s just how it works.

However, the fact that the 12-week process starts for each player when they first turn on their Playdate means it’s not like everyone is getting the same games on the same date, so the idea of releasing them in a staggered manner can feel arbitrary, and like it’s being quirky for quirkiness’s sake.

We can see situations where players who only just received their Playdate have to sit there jealously, as others who received theirs earlier are on social media sharing pictures of games they won’t be able to get until two months down the line.

Indie games often thrive on word-of-mouth leading to impulse purchases: someone tweets about a cool game they’ve played, and other players think “I like the look of that” and immediately head off to buy it. That won’t be possible here, so we’re curious to see how social media discourse goes, especially with those just finding about the Playdate for the first time.

The verdict

The Playdate is a curious little system with some interesting ideas, some of which may prove contentious depending on your own personal tastes.

Ultimately, it feels like the system will live or die by how well its community supports it with further sideloaded games. The 24 titles included as part of its first season are entertaining enough, but as with any collection of games you’ll get hits and misses, and combined they may not quite justify the $180 cost of the unit.

In an ideal world the Playdate will gain plenty of support from indie developers and will eventually build up a nice little library of quirky and experimental games to download and sideload, but time will tell whether this actually plays out in the long run.

Review: The Playdate is fun but its quirks may wind you up

The Playdate pre-orders follow a first-come first-served system, and at the time of writing the first batch has just started to ship to early adopters. If you’re reading this review and you’re tempted to pre-order, be aware that you won’t get it until 2023.

This may actually be a blessing in disguise, however, because by the time the backlog has been cleared the state of the Playdate’s community will be more clearly defined.

We’ll know how many other people have created games to be sideloaded, and we’ll know how well Panic plans to spotlight these games and make them discoverable.

We may also know if a Season Two of games is coming, and whether Panic plans to charge for it this time.

We absolutely welcome the Playdate’s presence. The games industry needs more curious little gizmos like this to spark creativity and make sure we don’t spiral entirely into a world of cookie-cutter predictability.

“We absolutely welcome the Playdate’s presence. The games industry needs more curious little gizmos like this to spark creativity and make sure we don’t spiral entirely into a world of cookie-cutter predictability.”

However, given its quirky control system, its love-it-or-hate-it divisive display and its as-yet unknown level of support, the Playdate isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, especially given that it isn’t exactly cheap for what it offers.

At a price of $179, this monochrome handheld only costs $20 less than a Switch Lite in the US, and may cost substantially more than one in other countries when you take shipping and customs duties into account.

It’s very much the definition of an acquired taste, then, but chances are you already know if the Playdate’s design and delivery model are something you like the sound of. If you’re sold on the concept, we’re happy to confirm that the execution works exactly as promised.

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