Playdate Review: A Breath Of Fresh Air Incarnate
The Playdate is a weird system to review because it’s going to be a very different experience for very different audiences. For some players, this adorable little system would be a borderline waste of money. For others, it’s going to put a massive smile on their faces week after week and offer just the breath of fresh air they’ve been searching for. After a few weeks with my own unit, though, I can confidently say that for the audience interested in it, the Playdate lives up to its promise and offers precisely what you’re hoping for.
From the moment you open the shipping box, the Playdate’s personality is on full display. Even the packaging, a yellow box with cool textured lettering, put a smile on my face, and when you open it, you’ll see a message to have fun. The system comes with a yellow USB-C cable to match the system.
Upon getting your hands on the Playdate, you’ll find a very small system, but one which is comfortable to hold, at least in the short term. It’s small and light, but my fairly large hands still settled in nicely on it. It worked even better when my right hand was resting on the system’s crank and not on the buttons, but either way, it worked well. This isn’t a system I’d necessarily want to play for hours at a time, but that’s not what the Playdate is designed for.
Instead, the appeal here is mainly shorter play sessions, which you can jump in and out of at will. Sure, there are games you can put a bit more time into. In the early weeks with the system, I’ve played Casual Birder and Lost Your Marbles These aren’t just quick arcade-style titles, but they work great 10 minutes at a time.
When you jump into these short sessions, the system’s crank is obviously the main appeal here, offering a means of control that isn’t like anything else. There’s some similarity to spinner controls on older arcade games like Tempest (and while I’m saying that, someone, please make me a version of Tempest for this thing), but it isn’t quite the same feel. The crank allows for extreme precision in control, to the degree that actually took a minute for me to realize. When I first started playing Whitewater Wipeout, a surfing game that comes on the system, I was cranking for my life and kept crashing. Only when I realized how precise the controls were and that I really had to keep in mind the positioning of the crank did I start to succeed. It was a learning experience for what the system is capable of.
Cranking away has a fantastic feel, with little resistance but just enough that it doesn’t feel loose. The crank can hold its position and won’t spin without your effort, but you never feel like you’re fighting it even slightly. This is just the right balance the system needed. Even better, the crank folds up into the side of the system when not in use, which some games even use in gameplay, but more practically means that you don’t have to be afraid of it catching on something and breaking. The whole system feels very solid, to be fair, not the sort of thing I’d be too worried about breaking regardless, though I won’t be bouncing it off the ground or anything.
From an audio standpoint, the Playdate holds up wonderfully too. You can connect headphones if you like, but the system’s speakers are surprisingly clear for built-in audio. I was really impressed and have mostly not bothered with headphones as a result. The screen looks great, too, with incredible clarity for a system this size. Well, at least when you can see it.
The choice to not include a backlight in the Playdate has been defended by the developers as necessary with this type of screen. Backlighting would apparently make it less clear. That’s probably true if you’re in perfect lighting. To its credit, you don’t actually need a ton of light to enjoy the Playdate. Even with decent lighting, everything on the screen is perfectly legible. I’ve played it at night while my wife watches TV, with the only light in the room being a bit behind us and the room overall being dim. I could see everything without issue. You’ll need at least some light, though. Trying to play the system in the dark simply isn’t possible, and that’s a shame as someone who likes to enjoy my handhelds in bed at night.
I feel like most players can look at the Playdate and know if it’s for them. The thing is charming. It has fun games. It’s a breath of fresh air incarnate. It’s also not even trying to compete with something like the Switch, and if you’re someone who starts trying to compare it to that system when you look at it, you’re not the target audience. That’s okay, a system doesn’t need to be for everyone.
The Playdate, however, is for me. The team at Panic has created a charming ecosystem where I look forward to my game drops every Monday. An ecosystem where I am not only encouraged to sideload games but where Panic enable it wirelessly through their own website. Where there are multiple easily accessible public tools designed to let creators make their own games and express their own creativity. If all of that sounds appealing to you, I’d get an order in now. It’ll be quite the wait, with systems ordered now not set to ship until next year, but a wait worth your time.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail Playdate.