Review: Playdate – Picking Things Up Where The Game Boy Left Off?

Playdate and Game Boy
Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran

Few could have seriously predicted the impact the original Game Boy would have when it was released way back in 1989. Sure, Nintendo’s commercial pedigree was pretty clear – it had conquered Japan and North America with its Famicom / NES console and made a success of its Game & Watch handheld range – but it was essentially walking into entirely new territory with the DMG-01, a true portable gaming system that used interchangeable cartridges but was saddled with a monochrome, unlit screen. Despite the reservations many had – even back in 1989 – it became a phenomenon, and arguably represents one of the most significant developments in the realm of handheld gaming.

Fast forward to 2022, and there’s another monochrome portable on the market. Panic’s $179 Playdate is perhaps the ultimate ‘hipster’ handheld, and it takes a fair amount of inspiration from Nintendo’s iconic system. It too has an unlit black and white display – albeit one which is many leagues ahead of that seen in the Game Boy (ironically, Sharp is the manufacturer of the screens in both systems, despite them being separated by more than three decades). It also has that familiar D-Pad and two-button control setup. However, beyond that, the Playdate has plenty of unique ideas – and while it may seem gimmicky initially, it’s actually a very exciting piece of hardware.

Playdate Box
Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran

Playdate Review: The Hardware

When compared to the aforementioned 1989 Game Boy, the Playdate is positively dinky. With measurements of 76 × 74 × 9 mm and a weight of just 89 grams, this is one seriously portable device – it’s smaller than your smartphone and will slip effortlessly into any pocket. The casing is fashioned from high-quality plastic which doesn’t flex or creak under pressure; while it would have been nice to see a metal casing, the Playdate doesn’t feel cheap. It’s also very comfortable to use, even for long periods of time.

Alongside the clicky and responsive D-Pad and rounded action buttons, your main interface is the crank on the right-hand side of the device. This docks into a little opening when not in use, and is one of the more unique aspects of the Playdate hardware. It offers analogue control, but in a way that hasn’t really been seen in the realm of games before (save for, perhaps, fishing rod controllers, like the one released for the Sega Dreamcast). You could argue that the disc on the Intellivision controller is a close match – or one of the many paddle controllers that have been released over the decades – but the ‘feel’ of using the Playdate’s crank is very, very different to what has gone before. There’s a tangible sense of joy when you see the effect the crank has in the various games you play.

Outside of these inputs, you have a power button on the top edge of the device and a ‘home’ button in the top-right corner of the console’s face. The bottom edge is home to the 3.5mm headphone jack and USB-C charging port, as well as the console’s microphone. It’s also worth noting that the Playdate has an internal accelerometer for motion control. The device’s speaker is located on the right of the screen and packs a surprising punch considering the thin nature of the unit.

We touched upon the Playdate’s screen earlier, but it’s worth a little more attention. The 2.7-inch 400 × 240 pixel 1-bit panel uses Sharp’s “Memory LCD” technology, which means it acts very much like an e-paper display; each pixel is capable of ‘remembering’ its current state, and that means improved battery life as certain parts of the screen don’t need to be refreshed until they ‘change’ their state.

On top of this, the viewing angles are excellent – although, like the original Game Boy, you’ll need to play it in reasonably decent light as the panel is non-illuminated. While the manufacturer claims that the Playdate’s display is visible in “edge-of-vision darkness”, we found that it was sometimes tricky to see unless we held it just right, even in relatively well-lit rooms. Despite this, it’s still an excellent screen and is incredibly sharp (no pun intended).

There’s 4GB of internal memory for games, and sadly no means of adding to that total, as the device lacks any kind of expandable storage. To be honest, the games are so small in size that it’s not likely to be a massive concern; the largest title is Echoic Memory at 158.7MB, while the smallest is Omaze, which is just 59.4KB in size. You can obviously delete and then re-download titles if you run out of space, but the first ‘season’ of games (more on that in a bit) will fit comfortably within the Playdate’s internal storage, with space to spare.

As for the battery, well, this is the component that triggered the system’s delay to this year. Panic claims that the device can last up to 8 hours during use, with a 14-day standby stamina. It feels like both of those claims are “best case” figures because we didn’t quite get to 8 hours before the unit required a top-up, but actions such as downloading new games (which should only happen once a week, as we’ll discuss shortly) obviously soak up a bit of juice. The games you’re playing will also tax the system’s processor in different ways, too. The Playdate’s staying power compares pretty well to other portable devices, at least.

Playdate Comparison
Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran

Playdate Review: The Software

There’s no physical media involved with the Playdate, so all games are downloaded from the internet. In a unique move, Panic has instigated a ‘Season’ of 24 games, which lasts twelve weeks from the moment you purchase the system and register it via the web.

Day one marks the beginning of the season for your Playdate, and you’ll get two new games every week for twelve weeks. These are downloaded automatically, as long as your Playdate is connected to your WiFi. Updates for these titles also occur automatically, when they’re available. In a neat touch, new games have to be ‘unwrapped’ before you can play them; a little animation plays out and the title is added to your main menu with some degree of fanfare. It’s a surprisingly joyful process that doesn’t get old, no matter how many times you see it.

The initial batch of 24 games is incredibly varied; some are small-scale, “pick-up-and-play” affairs that are focused on high scores and are ideal for portable short-burst play, while others offer deeper experiences that will soak up your attention for longer periods of time.

In the former camp, we have titles like Whitewater Wipeout from Chuhai Labs – a studio that includes the talents of one Giles Goddard, a former Nintendo staffer with credits such as Star Fox and 1080 Snowboarding to his name. The objective is simple – to score as many points as possible by performing stunts on a surfboard – but the depth is astonishing; you use the crank to steer your board and need to build up momentum to get enough air time to pull off 360-degree (or more) spins. Landing your board isn’t as easy as you’d think – especially when you’re aiming for 720-degree spins (or higher) as these require more turns of the crank – but the motivation comes from the fact that you can trigger score multipliers if you take risks and go for multiple revolutions whilst airborne. It’s incredibly addictive, despite each game only lasting a few minutes (if you’re lucky).

Other ‘quick fix’ titles are Snak (a new take on the Nokia classic Snake), Star Sled and Hyper Meteor, with the latter being a riff on Atari’s Asteroids. Crankin Present Time Travel Adventure is the brainchild of Keita Takahashi of Katamari Damacy fame and makes cunning use of the Playdate’s crank to challenge the player in their quest to guide their lovestruck avatar to a date with his girlfriend. The catch here is that the crank controls the character’s actions (so you can rewind his pre-determined jump animation, for example) but not time itself, so you’ll need to keep Crankin in the air to avoid incoming threats or make him crouch down to avoid aerial obstacles. It’s hard to explain without physically demonstrating the process, and another example of how the Playdate’s crank can deliver totally new gameplay experiences.

Elsewhere, Casual Birder calls to mind the ‘catch ’em all’ approach of Pokémon, while Ratcheteer looks and feels like Zelda: Link’s Awakening – however, its world is cloaked in darkness and you’ll need to use the crank to wind-up your lamp. Questy Chess, by dadako (Pirate Pop Plus), is an RPG-style adventure that uses the rules of Chess, while Inventory Hero takes the RPG template and simplifies it by only having you worry about what items your warrior chooses to keep and discard. All of these titles offer many hours of gameplay, and each one proves the Playdate isn’t just about short-burst entertainment and crank-based gimmicks.

While it might seem foolish to lock the Playdate down to the 24 titles in Season One, you can also side-load games onto the device. Indie developers can create new titles and share them freely with Playdate owners using this system; indeed, one game is already for purchase via this method. Bloom, developed and self-published by RNG Party Games, is a social sim about operating your own flower shop that runs in real-time; it can be purchased for $9.99 and side-loaded onto the device. Many other games are currently in development, including Daily Driver (Matt Sephton), Poly’s Roly Rumble (RNG Party), Mars After Midnight (Lucas Pope) and Direct Driver (DACvector).

The crank is used as the main control method for most of the Playdate’s games, but crucially not all of them; the supremely addictive puzzle game Pick Pack Pup is played using the D-Pad and buttons, for example. While the crank does open up plenty of possibilities when it comes to control, there are the odd occasions where it feels like a solution in search of a problem; for example, controlling your spaceship with the crank in Hyper Meteor takes a lot of getting used to, and there were times when we wished we could simply use the D-Pad instead. However, by and large, the games that make use of the crank do so in a manner that feels pleasingly unique.

Playdate Review: Complete Season One Software Lineup

Playdate Side View 2
Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran

Playdate Review: The Verdict

It’s refreshing to have a new piece of gaming hardware on the market that isn’t focused on pure processing power and instead aims to provide an experience and interface that is totally unique; while it might seem lazy to make comparisons between the Playdate and the Game Boy, it arguably feels just as exciting and innovative as Nintendo’s handheld did back at the close of the 1980s.

The Playdate’s form factor makes it ideal for portable play, and the selection of 24 games in Season One is remarkably varied and appealing; there really is something for everyone, and we personally love the visual language that’s been used in many of the games; it reminds us not just of the Game Boy but also of the Apple Macintosh and its iconic high-res monochrome display.

In a world where everyone has a gaming platform at their side thanks to the proliferation of the smartphone, the Playdate offers a genuine alternative to Candy Crush or Clash of Clans; it’s highly portable and easy to carry around with you (the same cannot be said of the Switch – or the original Game Boy, for that matter) and its games have clearly had a lot of time and energy spent on making them as appealing as possible.

While it remains to be seen if Panic’s gamble is going to result in a platform that can sustain interest from gamers and developers for years to come, we have to admit we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time with the system; it feels like a throwback to a time when handheld video gaming was a simpler, more innocent pastime, and every new experience felt fresh and exciting.

Thanks to Panic for supplying the unit used in this review.

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