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.
Top 3 Tribute to the PlayStation Portable
As a follow-up to my Top 3 DS list from last week, I decided to make up a list for its oft underrated contender, the Playstation Portable. There was a time in my life when I was in a situation that led me to greatly prefer portables to consoles, and it was pretty fortunate that it happened to coincide with the handheld gaming golden age of the DS and the PSP. While it’s often considered to be far less successful than the DS, it actually sold 70+ million units and managed to amass a library that I think was quite respectable in its own right, although it’s too rarely recognized as such.
Before release, many thought the PSP would be a juggernaut that would eclipse Nintendo’s new handheld in the same way that Sony had bulldozed Nintendo’s console dominance. It packed considerably more advanced graphics hardware than the DS and used optical discs called UMDs. The UMDs were probably an inferior solution to the solid-state carts that Nintendo used for the DS, but CDs had given the PS1 the edge to dominate the cart-based N64, so many thought the same would happen in the handheld space. The drawbacks of the UMD were two-fold. Being optical discs, the UMD drive needed a small motor to spin, and this had a big impact on battery life. Also, it made an annoying screeching sound when it would load from the disc. The release of the download games-only PSP Go was considered a non-event by most, but it actually led to a huge number of games finally being offered for download through PSN, and I’ve always felt that PSP games are better played from the memory stick.
Out of the gate at launch, the PSP actually managed to offer up heavy competition to the DS, but after the release of the DS Lite and Mario Kart, it began to slip hard against its Nintendo counterpart. Western sales slowed to a crawl. Western publishers, who had initially been supportive of the platform, quickly abandoned the PSP, a move which was accelerated by profligate piracy on the system. However, in Japan, the enormous popularity of Monster Hunter Freedom gave the machine a huge second wind, and it managed to go toe-to-toe with the DS for the rest of its lifespan in that region.
Despite most gamers not taking it very seriously, I actually really enjoyed the PSP across its lifetime. Quantity-wise, it’s library couldn’t compete with the DS, but I found it did have a fairly respectable number of high quality releases. There were a lot of great games that trickled (and I mean trickled) out of Japan from the likes of Falcom (Ys series), Square Enix (Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts), Capcom (Mega Man, Ghosts n’ Goblins, etc.), Konami (Metal Gear series, Dracula X Chronicles, and Silent Hill Origins) and others. Also, unlike the Vita, Sony really hung in there with the PSP, releasing high quality installments of several of their big name series, such as Resistance, Killzone, MotorStorm, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Wipeout, and God of War. They also created a few new series for the PSP, namely Patapon and LocoRoco.
With so many great games available for the system, here are my personal top 3 highlights:
I’ve sung the praises of Half-Minute Hero on my blog before. The game stands out as a clever rethinking of the structure of your typical grind-heavy Japanese-style RPG. The idea is rather subversive for its genre. In most JRPGs, the hero is on a quest to defeat a single all-powerful villain attempting to end the world via an ostentatious, long drawn out, apocalyptic scheme. In Half-Minute Hero, the technique of an apocalyptic world-ending spell has been propagated through the world at large, so the game features a series of quests where the hero must fight a huge cast of evil lords who are in the process of summoning forward doomsday. The spell takes 30 seconds to cast (hence the title), which is a stark contrast to lengths the likes of Sephiroth and Lavos must go through.
The game plays out as such: the hero rolls up into a village and is alerted by his patron, the Time Goddess, that an evil lord has begun casting the doomsday spell in a nearby lair. The hero then has 30 seconds to quickly grind-up in the surrounding area to a level at which they can take on the evil lord. Random battles play out quickly and automatically, within a second or two, to facilitate the high speed of this entry into an infamously slow genre. One catch is that the hero can spend gold at the Time Goddess shrines in each village to reset the clock back to 30 seconds, so each quest will actually usually take a few minutes to complete.
It’s a relatively simple formula, but the developer manages to put a number of interesting twists on it during the course of the game. Despite the rapid-fire pace of the quests, the game finds ways to tell little stories during each quest and also fills them with clever secondary objectives that serve as side quests. And if I remember correctly, the game actually follows a few branching paths depending on if you complete these side quests. So while it seems like the formula would wear out its welcome quickly, through some inventive ideas, it keeps the player hooked.
And that’s only the first quarter of the game. After this mode (Hero 30), the game’s story continues across 3 other modes: Evil Lord 30, a Pikmin-style RTS, Princess 30, a shmup, and Knight 30, a monster defense game, with each of these modes similarly featuring 30 second stages. Needless to say, this game has a lot of content that is extremely refreshing in how it subverts genre conventions. And just like the gameplay, the story has a lot of playfulness and wit that makes it more than just a throwaway companion to the furious action.
Half-Minute Hero eventually saw a Steam release which goes on sale pretty often, so I would highly recommend it to the curious.
The PSP was inarguably a very poor platform for modern third-person shooters, as it possessed only a single analog nub. Modern 3D game design is based around using the left-hand to move and the right-hand to look/aim, and, on consoles, this is best accomplished with a dual analog setup. I always thought this was an odd oversight in the PSP’s design, as the importance of this controller scheme had already been established in game design by the time of its release, and the PSP was clearly designed for relatively high-end 3D gaming. A single analog nub may have been okay on the right side of the layout, so that the d-pad could be used for movement and the nub for camera controls, but this was not the case. As a result, many of the more advanced 3D games had infamously awkward “claw” controls, where the player had to manipulate the camera using their pointer finger on the d-pad while moving with their thumb on the nub.
With the control limitations in mind, I waivered a little on whether a third person shooter such as Resistance: Retribution should be included in my top 3. Retribution doesn’t require claw controls, but it does make use of the face buttons as a secondary d-pad, which is still not ideal. But I feel the game was designed with the controls in mind (it doesn’t require high accuracy aiming), and, consequently, plays pretty well.
Resistance: Retribution was the final PSP game released by Sony Bend, and it served as a culmination of their efforts to bring modern 3D action games to the PSP. Their other two PSP games were TPSes in the Syphon Filter series which were also very well received (especially the second game, Logan’s Shadow). These games represent some of the most advanced and smartly designed games on the system, meaning Sony Bend really knew how to work with both the PSP’s strengths and weaknesses. The Resistance series as a whole was a bit of a blur to me (I honestly only vaguely remember what happened in the third game), but I thought Retribution stood out for what it was trying to do with the PSP. It has the epic feel of a big console action game, but is also decently pick-up and play friendly. It’s also a killer looking game for the machine. Bend were able to push amazing graphics on this device, although I wouldn’t necessarily consider them the best. Others like Ready At Dawn (who did the God of War PSP games), Capcom (the later Monster Hunter games looked amazing) ,and especially Square Enix may have topped their technical prowess.
Sony Bend would go on to do Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the Vita, continuing their legacy of great handheld action games. Unfortunately, with the Vita being a low (read: non-existent) priority for Sony’s internal developers, they seem to now be working on a secret game for the PS4, but at least they’re still getting the chance to make great games (which is more than can be said for some other former Vita studios).
Mega Man Maverick Hunter X
I was somewhat conflicted as to whether to put this game on the list, as it is a rather faithful (but polygon-ized) remake of Mega Man X, and I didn’t know if I should count games that started off on other platforms. If I have to be honest, my favorite feature of the PSP was the ability to play PS1 games from the PSN store. I played so many great PS1 classics for the first time on this little device, including RE2+3, Parasite Eve, Dino Crisis, and Symphony of the Night, and a truthful list of the top 3 games I played on the PSP would probably be filled with these games. But that would only serve to highlight how cool the PS1 was, rather than the PSP, which is what I want to talk about. And if these PS1 games are going to be disqualified, maybe a fairly faithful recreation of a SNES game shouldn’t be included either. I don’t know, but I’m placing it here anyway, since this particular version is technically only playable as a PSP game.
Maverick Hunter X was actually my first encounter with a Mega Man game, and it was an incredibly enlightening one. As it should, since Mega Man X is well-recognized as one of the series’ best. It does a good job of representing what makes Mega Man a unique and beloved series. True to its counterparts, it’s not a game a player can breeze through. Each level and boss requires a fair bit of practice and can initially seem quite daunting when compared to the difficulty level of a standard platformer. But each time you die in these games, you hone your skills and learn a little bit more, and you’re able to push farther. And when victory finally comes against what seemed insurmountable, the satisfaction in such triumph creates a compelling catharsis for the player to throw themselves up against the next intimidating challenge. Needless to say, the game inducted me into the series, and I’ve been a fan since.
In addition to Maverick Hunter X, Capcom also remade the first Mega Man for the PSP as Mega Man Powered Up. Many actually consider this game to be the superior of the two Mega Man PSP titles, but I haven’t been able to spend as much time with it. (Unlike MHX, it’s not available to buy through PSN, and physical copies are somewhat rare.) Powered Up does more than just remake Mega Man 1. It adds two awesome new stages to the game, bringing the robot master count up to 8 (while the NES original only had 6, unlike the rest of the series).