In an age of 4K vision, 3D spatial audio, and sprawling open-world designs, it’s refreshing to try new handhelds that try to emulate the experience of the earliest Game Boy and Game & Watch. Playdate is a retro-inspired standalone handheld that offers novel experiences in a completely portable form. From the bright and friendly look to the often whimsical gameplay, it’s clear that Playdate’s name has a purpose. Like a reunion between childhood friends, it’s an experience that recalls youth and simplicity. It is designed to please those who accept it through a series of small entertainments.
Playdate makes an excellent first impression. The attractive yellow handheld device may be small, but it feels sturdy in the hand. The buttons feel snappy and responsive, and the side crank (the system’s most important innovation) turns satisfactorily after lap. The included speakers are crisp, clear, and capable of delivering punchy volume for their size. Alternatively, you can plug your preferred headphones into the included jack. The small reflective black and white screen outlines the nostalgic vibe it seeks, immediately reminiscent of those first successful handheld games that older gamers may remember from their youth.
However, the small screen and lack of backlighting are also the Playdate’s biggest flaws. While it might offer a throwback experience, I don’t think I ever found myself missing those days of dizzying eye discomfort trying to read tiny text or constantly tilting my device to capture the best light. Playdate has to solve both of these problems. Playdate is at its best in bright outdoor sunlight. But indoors or late in the day, a nearby direct light source is almost essential. Even with good vision, I need regular breaks to prevent severe eye strain.
The UI is simple when needed in menus and setup scenarios, but fun when possible. A seemingly eager-to-please robotic sidekick handles the introduction and subsequent single-game navigation. When you double-tap the button to wake the machine, its eyes open happily. When new games arrive in your library, they come in the form of wrapped gifts, and the bot pulls the ribbon to reveal the new game.
The game in question was downloaded over a WiFi connection, and the initial release included full access to all 24 games in the first season. This naming convention of course implies future extensions. But even before the late season that was hinted at, the device was especially geared towards creators. It fully supports sideloading new games through an easy-to-manage process; the review pack includes an option to load a fun game called Bloom, about running a flower shop. While I don’t have the expertise to build anything of value myself, Playdate’s SDK is free to download, so enterprising programmers should have little trouble creating something unique.
Playdate’s developer, Panic Inc., has brought in an eclectic team of indie game creators to its initial catalog. Most bite-sized items represent an impressive mix of genres and play styles. Many of these games use an analog crank as an input method, whether for simple manipulations like advancing text, or actual navigation tools for movement and action. I love the novelty, but in terms of its usefulness for precise control, I haven’t sold it on a crank.
By its very nature, the included games arrive in small batches within a few days of your Playdate purchase, making it clear that Playdate is designed to be experienced as an incremental pleasure. It would be a shame to spoil a personal experience too much. Every player may be attracted to a different game. The best value is a game with a simple and retro design, albeit with some neat modern twists.
Spellcorked lets players stir reagents to make magic potions with crank twists. Battleship Godius is a variant of the 2D space shooter, but it has a crank to rewind time when things go wrong. The Executive Golf DX lets you play golf on the proverbial corporate ladder where tables and copiers are obstacles. Not every game clicks for me, but that’s the point; each of these little concept games is an experiment, probably just to grab the attention of some players. However, the fun of discovering these unknown items can easily be halved. Even better if you have a few favorites on the other side.
The glamour and nostalgia of a black-and-white screen wears off after a while, and low light ruins the fun. But strong battery life (rechargeable via USB-C plug-in), sturdy construction, and good game openings are reasons to jump on the Playdate bandwagon. Even if not all of the initial games are winners, they are all surprising and will make you smile.