Playdate review: a handheld hero for indie makers

Panic and Teenage Engineering’s cranky console wonder is a pocket full of sunshine

The publisher behind Untitled Goose Game has designed a handheld video game console with the help of Teenage Engineering, the Swedish musical hardware company responsible for the OP-1, your favourite indie musician’s favourite synth. It sounds like a match made in heaven, and for the most part, it is.

The Playdate — which costs £137 ($179) and is shipping to consumers with pre-orders now — is a minimalist, bright yellow device that fits in your pocket. The 1-bit screen takes up the right amount of space and delivers eye-popping fluidity. It also features a speaker that doles out the kind of loud, crisp sound you’d expect from a device made by Teenage Engineering. There’s a USB-C port for charging, a headphone jack and a microphone. As for the inputs, you’ve got a nice, clicky D-Pad, A and B buttons, a menu button for hopping in and out of games, and a crank.

A crank? Yes, you heard me right. If you know Teenage Engineering, you know there’s always something quirky going on with the company’s hardware, and the Playdate is full of such lovely surprises. The crank tucks into the side of the console and can be pulled out and uh… cranked to and fro for interacting with menus and games. The accompanying sound effects make it just as satisfying as docking a Nintendo Switch Joy-Con, but it does feel like it’s missing a haptic element to add some resistance and elevate the input into feeling more like a taut fishing rod.

Playdate: Mars after Midnight
Playdate: mars After Midnight. Credit: Panic, Lucas Pope

I was expecting a little bit more from the physicality of the crank, but its application in the Playdate’s games is awesome, which makes up for any quibbles about its implementation. Every week you’ll get two new bespoke games to play, designed for the console by talented indie developers. They’re delivered over WiFi, and you have to unwrap them like presents on the home screen.

I got two games every day instead of every week, experiencing an accelerated version of what Panic is calling Season One, where retail consumers will build up to a library of 24 games on the Playdate as the weeks go by. My partner and I came to love this part of the day when the Playdate would emit a purple light and feature a little pop-up on the display.

Before you get scared of the console’s longevity, it’s worth noting that you can sideload games outside of Season One onto the Playdate. The community is being encouraged to use Panic’s open-source Playdate development kit to create and sell games for the console, which is an awesome prospect for creatives and budding developers. I was sent a sideload game to check out during the review program, and I’m sure there are many more in the oven already.

But are the games any good? I’ve played all 24 Season One games, and the experience was delightful but inconsistent. Some of them I absolutely loved and have come back to frequently, whereas others I played for ten minutes or half an hour and never touched again. It’s going to vary depending on your tastes, but the fact that there’s always something new around the corner steels you to any bum notes.

Playdate
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure on Playdate. Credit: Uvula, Panic.

Not to spoil the wonder of receiving and playing cool new games on the Playdate, let’s hone in on a select few. Keita Takahashi’s game, Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, best epitomizes the beauty of this ditty little console. A robot is late for an important date and using only the crank, you must move them back and forward to rush to their love interest. However, on the way are obstacles, so you have to carefully rewind or fast forward time with the crank to avoid them, positioning dopey Crankin so that they sniff a flower or leap over a hurdle to avoid pigs and butterflies. It’s deeply goofy but a lot of fun, and a heck of a challenge eventually.

Lost Your Marbles was my absolute favourite, though. This irreverent adventure is about a person with a broken decision-making system trying to find their lost dog. Incredibly written and complemented by gorgeous pixel art, the pup search is complicated by the fact that whenever you’re asked a question you are booted to a screen where you must deftly roll a pinball between a set of smashable dialogue prompt lightbulbs, using the crank. This section is pure chaos, as the most normal answers are hard to get to, and your decisions – whether you meant to make them or not – are final. Suddenly you’re making a poster out of sandwich paper and putting protein powder in a sandwich. Genius narrative design that could only exist on the Playdate!

playdate console
Playdate Credit: Panic

The only problem with losing hours to a good game on the Playdate is that it is hard to play in low-light conditions. The battery life is awesome but the screen isn’t backlit, so you’re best off playing it in direct sunlight. It’s a handheld console, after all, so you’re meant to take it outside, but a lot of us are still in goblin mode. This makes it tricky if you want to hunker down with it at night and appreciate the finer details of the console’s games. Outside of gameplay, the general UI of the Playdate is smooth, and the storage size seems great. I have all 24 games downloaded and there’s still 2.5 GB left to fill. I’m not all that keen to keep the games I didn’t like on it anyway.

Panic could have easily centered everything around it, but over time the Playdate did distance itself from its gimmick and delivered a surprising amount of genre variety. Suddenly I had a music-making tool and an anticapitalist puppy packaging adventure. One day I was playing a point-and-click before checking out a smart take on Snake. Not all of these games were all that fun or deep, but their existence pleased me regardless. Some days the Playdate feels like a bootleg 52-in-one Game Boy cartridge – and on other days it feels like The Orange Box.

When the new game from Bennet Foddy (Getting Over It, QWOP) dropped after a dull day, suddenly I was sucked into a gripping samurai puzzle game that could stand on its own on any platform. But crucially… it doesn’t. I guess this emblemizes the promise of the Playdate, and in the end, I was happy to take the rough with the smooth.

The Verdict

My favourite thing about the Playdate is how it pierces through the cynical fog that tends to coat the modern games industry. Constructed well and full of exciting games from smart independent creators, Panic’s console is a wonderful ode to free-spirited creativity, warts and all. Some of its parts and some of its games could have been better realised, but here’s a console that feels like an exciting movement rather than a cash grab.

Makers and tinkerers would do well to adopt early, but those of you obsessed with indie games or nostalgic for bite-sized handheld joy will get a lot out of it. Don’t write it off due to its small stature – the Playdate has plenty of power under the hood, and Season One proves that the device is more than capable of delivering a wide variety of avant-garde games to the masses. Whether it sticks around is up to Panic and the community of makers that form around it, but I’ve left the review program hopeful and excited for its future, which feels as bright as its yellow casing.

Pros

  • Awesome fluid visuals and superb sound
  • Pocket-sized but sturdy and powerful, with clicky inputs and a cool crank
  • Your purchase opens the door to an exciting creative community

Cons

  • Difficult to play in low light conditions
  • Game quality is inconsistent
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