Playdate Platform Review
I was once a huge fan of handheld gaming. When I was a kid, it was so much fun to take the Game Boy along on long boring car rides or when I was spending the night with my grandmother. During the time of the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation Portable, I couldn’t afford a large HD TV (and didn’t really have space for one anyway), so instead I had to play 360 games on a small monitor on my desk. If I wanted to play on the couch or the bed, it would have to be a handheld. And I was fine with that! There were so many cool games coming out on the DS and the PSP, and their libraries offered more creative diversity than the consoles at the time which were being flooded by shooter games that were aping either the Call of Duty or the Grand Theft Auto formula.
Somewhere along the way though, I started making more money and moved into more spacious living spaces, and as a result gravitated more to console and PC gaming, since I actually had a TV appropriate for those kinds of games. It, of course, didn’t help that handheld gaming kind of disappeared. Sony no longer makes handhelds, and Nintendo consolidated its handheld and console business into the Switch. And gaming on a smartphone really isn’t the same. So those lazy, Sunday afternoons of lying in bed with the DS held close, stylus pinched in one hand, became a thing of the past.
But then the Playdate came along. An oddly niche little portable gaming machine, its made me realize what’s been lost along the way. And in a time when I’m struggling to find free time to actually play games, it’s made it really easy to just pick up a game, play it for as little as a few minutes, and then move on to whatever responsibility is calling my name next.
The central conceit behind the Playdate (beyond just the novelty of a dedicated handheld gaming device in the year 2022) is that games are released to players on a weekly basis (thus the name Playdate). When you first boot up your Playdate, two games are immediately available. On the next Monday, two more games are unlocked, and this continues on a weekly basis for another twelve weeks until all 24 games in the first “season” have appeared. The first season of games comes free with your device, so you don’t need pay anything additional to get these 24 games. Panic, the company behind Playdate, has suggested there might be future seasons, but has made no commitment to further releases, and I would expect that any future seasons would come at a cost to customers.
The thing to know about the Playdate is that it is a very idiosyncratic device. So much immediately stands out when you first look at it. First off, as well as a traditional d-pad and A and B buttons, it has a crank as an a control method. Some games actually make very interesting and perfectly logical use of the crank. It functions as a very unique analog control method. For instance, in Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, you’re tasked with guiding your character through scurrying patterns of oncoming enemies and obstacles. You make Crankin run faster or slower depending on how fast you spin the crank, and likewise you can send him in reverse if need be by simply rotating the crank backwards.
Other games completely ignore the crank, not finding a use for it in the style of game that its creators were trying to make. The crank is a neat little add-on to the Playdate that creates some opportunities for new gameplay ideas, but its not the point of the Playdate. Really, I don’t know if there is some grandiose core idea behind the Playdate other than just being a cool little handheld device on which to play games. If anything, I think the crank reinforces how “toy-like” the machine is. This is not meant to be the latest and greatest gaming platform for “serious” gaming. It’s just a fun little thing to carry around in your pocket or your backpack for when you need some distraction.
The other feature that immediately jumps out when you flick on the Playdate is its greyscale screen. Yes, greyscale in the year 2022. I don’t think this was a cost-saving maneuver on the part of the device’s manufacturer. Nowadays, mobile color LCDs are incredibly cheap and on virtually everything you buy that has any sort of electronic components inside. Rather, I think this was a clear aesthetic choice for the platform. By making everything greyscale, it gives a cohesive look to all of the machine’s titles, one that clearly marks them as being Playdate games. Some people will think this is a cool idea, others may think the Playdate is trying a little too hard to be unique. Personally, the more games I play on the thing, the more that I find that I like it. The lack of color is the type of restriction that forces game creators to get imaginative, and there is a lot of very creative art design in the games you find on the Playdate.
And despite its lack of color, I find that the Playdate screen really pops. The resolution is quite sharp, and even very tiny details on the already tiny screen tend to be legible as a result. In the right lighting, the contrast between black and white on the display actually looks amazing. I realize that you might be reading this thinking I’m crazy being so enamored by a tiny little black and white screen in the year 2022, but there’s something about it that’s just very eye-catching.
Of course, the key caveat above is in the right lighting. If there is a critical fault that I can find with the Playdate, it’s that the beautiful little screen lacks any sort of backlighting. Thus you need to play it with proper external lighting to really enjoy it. This means no playing in the dark while in the bed at night. It also means that if you’re in a dimly lit room, you have to hold the Playdate at an angle so it catches enough light from whatever lamp or light fixture might be in the room. Supposedly, the lack of backlight is a restriction of this particular high contrast LCD that they went with. But for as much as I love the Playdate, I find this to be an immense flaw. It really limits when and where you can play this thing. Not being able to play in bed in the dark is a huge bummer for me personally.
Playdate’s delivery method might also cause some problems for people. The prospect of getting 24 games along with the machine is hugely attracted. But those games are metered out on a schedule of 2 per week that starts when you register the device with Playdate’s servers. I can sort of respect that they slowly parcel out these games in an attempt to give them space for the player to try out. After all, if they just dumped 24 games on you from the start, it could be kind of overwhelming. But personally, I got behind on testing out each week’s releases, and now that I’m through the 12 week season, I basically have 24 games that I mostly haven’t tried yet, so I’m in that situation anyway. Additionally, I think this could create a “waiting game” for some players. For instance, maybe you didn’t like the releases in a given week, so you’re just stuck waiting till the next one for something to play. Or maybe you’ve heard about a really cool game on the Playdate, but you can’t play it yet since its one of the later week’s releases. The release schedule is really just another idiosyncratic decision that will either delight or baffle those who pick this thing up.
That said, Playdate fortunately has official support for sideloading unofficial games. There are actually quite a few Playdate games right now that are either free or purchasable on itch.io. You can go there, download a game and then upload it to your Playdate over wi-fi, and you’re good to go. The Playdate has a really cool sideloading system for games. You log into your account on the play.date website, go to the “sideload” tab, and then select the game on your phone, computer, tablet, whatever that you want to beam to your Playdate. Once uploaded, your Playdate will immediately begin downloading it from the servers, so it’ll be available to you right away to play. This method is actually really cool since it means I can download a game to my phone at work, upload it to the website, and then its waiting for me on my Playdate when I get home. No clumsy USB connection required like in the days of getting PS1 games onto the PSP.
Overall, I find the Playdate to be a really cool little machine. There are things that amaze me about it, and there are some things that annoy me about it (mainly the lack of a backlight), but ultimately it’s just fun to sit down with this little guy and relax. It has a pick-up-and-play quality that is missing from a lot of modern gaming hardware and software. You can play it for as little as a few minutes and still have a lot of fun. It’s the perfect little companion for your break times. And I just find it really cool that we live in a time when a small company can launch a niche device like this and find an audience for it.