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When I unboxed the Playdate handheld on TikTok, a number of people asked if they could play old Pokémon games on the device. That makes sense because we’ve seen so many portables out of China that only exist to play old ROMs. The $179 Playdate, however, is something new. It combines low component costs (relative to the past) with modern indie-gaming sensibilities to produce a unique experience. That has led to a quirky-yet-cute portable console. And one that deliberately upends your expectations for how game distribution should work.
The Playdate is a small, 76-by-74 mm yellow handheld with a 400×240 black-and-white screen. That display does not have a backlight and is even more “black-and-white” than the original Game Boy. Playdate can only display 2 possible colors instead of the 4-way, 2-bit grayscale of Nintendo’s device. But the image is sharp and pretty easy to see as long as you have a light source. And the display refreshes quickly, so don’t expect any of the weird ghosting you might remember from using 1980s/90s handhelds.
As for input, you get a D-pad, two face buttons as well as buttons for Sleep and Menu, a 3-axis accelerometer, and a crank. And those controls are more important than the specifics of the internals. This is a system where how you play games is much more significant than the power of its CPU. But it is crucial that the device has Wi-Fi because that is how you’ll get more software.
And it’s that software that is the start of the experience.
Playdate is kind of a hipster’s handheld
Playdate doesn’t play Pokémon. Well, it probably will eventually — and Doom, as well. But its purpose is to deliver more than 20 new and bespoke games from modern indie studios. For all of these games, the developers built them specifically for the capabilities of the Playdate.
And what are those games? Well, they cover a spectrum of genres and play types. The arcade-style Whitewater Wipeout, which is a surfing game that you control primarily with the crank, is a standout. But I also enjoy DemonQuest 85, that has you summoning demons to solve puzzles, and the underground role-playing adventure Ratcheteer.
Most of the games are substantial in size and scope. Playdate includes multiple RPGs alongside its more arcade or minigame-style offerings. And that variety is part of the appeal.
But the other half of that experience comes in how Panic delivers the games from its indie partners. The company includes all of the games in the purchase price of the system. But instead of just presenting them all to you in a menu on day one, the system downloads them one at a time every week.
This is huge difference because it makes every game feel like part of an overarching whole.
You never know what game is going to unlock next. And the system does a great job of making it exciting when you get something new. Its always-on-screen will pop up with an alert that you a new game available. Once you download that software, it’ll pop up on your home interface in wrapping paper. And the animation to unwrap that present — like all of the UI animations — is slick and appealing.
But it is important to think about the Playdate as a cohesive whole, because it’s likely that many of the games won’t click with everyone. That means you might have a disappointing week with the Playdate, but that’s when you’ll probably go back to a previous favorite.
It’s great to crank
So yeah, the Playdate has a crank as a control input. And that is silly, but it’s also responsible for some of the best stuff on the handheld.
The reason the crank works is because it is super accurate. This means when you have it at the 6 o’clock position, the system treats that as true south. In Whitewater Wipeout, for example, this means your surfer will point straight down as long as you have the crank pointing down as well.
Not every game uses the crank. Not every game that uses it really needs to. But, like Wii motion controls, it occasionally makes an entire game work better than it otherwise would.
The screen isn’t a problem until it is
Panic is making decisions with the Playdate. Its monochrome display with no backlight is an aesthetic choice. But it is one that has practical concerns. You simply cannot play the system in a dark room. The system needs a light source. And then players will need to hold the device at such an angle that the light bounces off the screen so that it illuminates the action without reflecting the light bulb directly into your eyes.
It isn’t as much of a pain as it sounds like. I got used to tilting the screen slightly off axis relative to my head. And when it all works, the aesthetic choices pay off. The screen looks like it is from an alternative history where display technology didn’t advance alongside processing power. I really love that.
But it is slightly annoying when the sun goes down, and I need to go turn on the lamp to keep playing.
You know if the Playdate is for you
The reality is that you probably know if the Playdate is for you. Have you ever enjoyed discovering a small new game from developers like Bennet Foddy, Serenity Forge, and Zach Gage? You’ll probably get something out of the Playdate. I am.
But if your friends sent you a link to QWOP and it made you wonder what is wrong with them, then you’ll probably want to stick to your $200 million blockbusters.
The good news is that you don’t need to malign the Playdate just because it isn’t for you. Handheld gamers have more options than ever before. The Nintendo Switch dominates the space, but you can also get the extremely impressive Steam Deck for modern PC games. Analogue also has a Pocket for playing those aforementioned Pokémon games or other retro classics. And if you want something cheap, I love those Chinese handhelds that come with a legally dubious collection of ROMs built in.
Playdate stands apart from those but also in concert with them. I have and want them all. They all serve different purposes, and it rules that the Playdates isn’t like those other things. We should be using the awesome integration between hardware and software to experiment with new ways to play. And Panic and its dev partners have delivered exactly that.
Playdate is available to order now for $179. Panic provided a review unit to GamesBeat for the purpose of this review.