A nice looking toy with a real killer app
Novelty is a wonderful thing; be a novelty, less. And it’s really the accolade that will decide the fate of the Playdate, the new indie-minded handheld video game console from Portland-based designers Panic and Swedish electronics company Teenage Engineering. The brightly colored, lovingly designed and utterly charming portable system is tiny; that’s wonderful; it’s innovative. But it’s not yet clear if it’s also capable of going the distance in an increasingly crowded attention economy, or if it’s bound to be just, well…an interesting novelty.
First, some basics: Measuring 76 x 74 millimeters (and a surprisingly thin 9 millimeters), the Playdate fits well enough in the palm of a hand. Elements of its minimalist control scheme (minus the big signature feature, which we’ll get to in a second) are all usable but not flashy: a slightly stiff d-pad and two face buttons, plus a lock button at the top, and a menu button that sits to the right of the system’s beautifully monochrome LCD screen. Although it’s surprisingly light, considering its size, the overall ergonomics of the system exceed this point. repairable llevel; the overall size of this one can make its controls feel a bit cramped in larger hands, and the sharp plastic edges dig into our fingers uncomfortably at times.
And then, of course, there’s the crank.
Much of the marketing around Playdate has focused on the admittedly eye-catching decision to include a small metal crank on the side of the device, which pops out easily, and can be used as an analog control for all sorts of different games. Its uses are sufficiently varied for one to hesitate to qualify it as a simple gimmick… but hey, the word “gimmick” is appearing in this paragraph for a reason. In games that use it well, including surf-themed Chuhai Labs Whitewater cleaning, one of the first games Playdate owners will receive as part of the systems seasonal software distribution program – the crank may land somewhere in the neighborhood of truly transformative, evoking a rewiring of the basic relationship between the hands and on-screen action. In other games it’s basically a glorified text scroller, with added functionality apparently because, well, you have to crank it somehow, right? not ?
And this wide variation in Playdate’s initial software library is at the heart of the system’s biggest problems and massive (half-tapped) potential at launch. Along with its innovative control scheme, the main selling point surrounding Playdate’s $179 price tag is the fact that you’re not just getting a cute addition to your device collection; you also receive weekly game deliveries, two per week for 12 weeks, as part of the first “season” of Playdate content. The system goes out of its way to make these new deliveries feel like treats; its lock button glows a welcoming purple to announce newly uploaded arrivals, before inviting you to literally unwrap them like gifts from its menus.
A full review of all 24 games in Playdate’s Season One Collection is unfortunately beyond the scope of this review. (Although we will be update a separate piece with reviews of both games arriving weekly once the system officially lands in non-press hands.) But it’s important to note that the quality and depth of the games on display varied wildly, from legitimately interesting and long games on the one hand, to the glorified TI-83 calculator games on the other. That’s not an exaggeration either: they literally included a pretty simple version of the class classic goofing-off-in-trig Snake in the Season 1 collection. (You don’t even use the crank to control the snake!)
If there’s one damning thread running through all of these offerings, it’s a general inability to hold the player’s eyes or attention for more than a few minutes at a time. Sometimes it’s because there just isn’t much gaming out there: there are some nice arcade experiences on offer (including a clever riff bouncing off side-scrolling space shooters called Battleship Godios it would have blown us away slacking off in high school math class). But most of them pretty clearly raised their basic mechanics from elsewhere – and “To burst, but you use a crank to control the paddle” isn’t necessarily someone’s idea of a killer app.
The more robust games, meanwhile, suffer from the simple fact that the Playdate is beautifully crisp but toddler the screen is not necessarily an ideal setting for a long storytelling. (No backlight either; the screen handles low-light conditions well for action games, but God help you if you’re asked to read.) Leaning into this little device, squinting to follow the movements or read text… re play something really awesome, it’s hard to forget your game is filled, wholesale smartphone is there, waiting to relieve eye strain. The pick-up and lay-down nature of the Playdate could be seen as a plus for a system intended to slip easily in and out of the pocket. But the honest truth is, even when the games are good enough to deserve it, it’s a tough system to get lost in for an extended period of time.
(A few caveats about the Playdate review experience here, as they may impact your decision to try and seek one out. First: Press got an accelerated release schedule for Season 1, with two new games arriving every day, instead of every week—putting a little extra anxiety on the whole “unwrapping your presents on Christmas morning” vibe. Second: your reviewer turns 38 this week; any complaints about the Playdate’s incredible teenage text displays should probably be filtered through a basic understanding of its growing decrepitude.)
But even with all that said, it’s hard to undo the Playdate, especially aesthetically. The screen, for example, is really fair that clean and pretty, allowing games like the delicious Crankin Presents: Time Travel Adventure take on the look of a real animated film, or the cartoon of the pseudo-Amazonian employees of Choose Puppy Pack come to exuberant life. There’s also the intriguing fact that Season 1 is just a fraction of the possible content that could be rolling out to the system in the near future; Panic made it an open system and released both its development kit and a simpler game maker to the public. (They’ve also included an app that allows gamers to connect the Playdate to their computer and play through a monitor, increasing accessibility options and visibility quite seamlessly.) The potential for developers to create things really strange and interesting here is undeniable.
And all of that underpins the simple fact that the Playdate is, well… take care. It’s a beautiful object, in an industry that sometimes forgets that it can manufacture it. He never lets you forget that one of his main reasons for existing is to be charming, eye-catching and cute. It excels at all of these things, which unfortunately makes it a fascinating and somewhat expensive conversation starter. But it still has the potential to be more; we would be lying if we said that we are not looking for him to succeed in these higher purposes.