Playdate Review | PCMag

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Written By Chris

Gaming handhelds often give attention to packing as a lot energy and performance as potential into a typical type issue consisting of a large, coloration display flanked by twin analog controls. The Nintendo Change is an instance, as is the Steam Deck. After which there’s Panic Inc.’s Playdate, which runs utterly in the other way. It’s tiny, it’s sq., it’s monochrome, it has a crank, and its RAM will be measured in megabytes, not gigabytes. The Playdate’s completely fascinating as a bit of idea tech and a growth playground, however contemplating its restricted energy and library, the $180 system is simply too costly.

Little. Yellow. Totally different.

The Playdate is an odd, however friendly-looking little system; a 3-inch, yellow, plastic sq. with rounded corners. It’s a scant 0.4 inches thick, together with the path pad and face buttons protruding from the entrance panel. It contains a 2.7-inch, 400-by-240 monochrome LCD display that is barely offset to the left, with a small speaker grille and menu button to the suitable of it. Recreation Boy-style controls, consisting of a path pad and A and B face buttons, sit under the display.

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The highest edge homes an influence button, whereas the underside edge holds a USB-C port for charging, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and holes for the built-in microphone. Steel grommets sit on the Playdate’s top-right, bottom-left, and bottom-right corners, and prolong via the system’s physique. A fourth grommet sits behind the display, on the top-left nook. These are presumably mounting holes for the non-compulsory stereo dock and canopy.


(Picture: Will Greenwald)

After which there’s the crank. A steel arm mounted to the Playdate’s midpoint folds out from its resting place to disclose a yellow, plastic tab. It’s a rotary enter for the system, offering single-axis analog management for Playdate video games. You may also crank it up and right down to navigate menus, if you happen to don’t wish to use the path pad. Regardless of making the Playdate resemble an emergency radio, the crank doesn’t cost the battery. Panic says that the battery offers eight hours of energetic energy (or 14 days in standby mode as a clock).

All of those bodily parts are immaculately neat, because of Teenage Engineering (makers of the Pocket Operator transportable synthesizers). Even with the Recreation Boy-like format, the Playdate seems to be wholly distinctive and seems like a premium system, all whereas remaining accessible and pleasant.

The Playdate’s display would possibly lack coloration and depend on dithering to provide grays because it’s purely monochrome slightly than grayscale, but it surely’s very sharp. At 400 by 240, it has 4 instances the pixels of the unique Recreation Boy (160 by 144), and appears good and crisp in that context. Smartphones virtually universally have a lot larger resolutions, and infrequently larger pixel density, however that is clearly not meant to compete with them, the Nintendo Change, or the Steam Deck. That is its personal distinctive system nearer in spirit to the Recreation Boy than these different gadgets.


(Picture: Will Greenwald)

Nevertheless, that nostalgia solely goes thus far, and whereas the LCD seems to be fairly clear, you will nonetheless have a tough time taking a look at it in lots of circumstances. There isn’t a backlight, and the display is kind of reflective. This implies you received’t have the ability to see it in any respect at the hours of darkness, and whereas it seems to be good within the solar, you have to fastidiously angle the Playdate to keep away from glare.

Internally, the Playdate contains a 168MHz Cortex M7 chip with 16MB of RAM and 4GB of flash storage, together with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. For comparability, the Nintendo Change has a clock velocity ten instances larger (roughly 1.7GHz) and a pair of,000 instances as a lot reminiscence (32GB). 

After all, as soon as once more, the Playdate isn’t actually meant to be straight in contrast with a “fashionable” gaming handheld or smartphone. It does make us query simply why the Playdate is so costly, although; Cortex M7 processors will be purchased by hobbyists for about $20 every, and the considerably sooner (however at the moment hard-to-find) Raspberry Pi Zero is a totally purposeful system with a 1GHz clock velocity, 512MB of RAM, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth for $10 MSRP. Even with the Playdate’s glorious engineering, the heart don’t measure as much as its worth.


The Software program Facet

The Playdate’s menu system is as easy and pleasant as its design. Video games seem in a single column of broad tiles on the principle menu, with every tile taking over practically the whole display. You possibly can navigate the titles by utilizing the path pad or crank, and begin any recreation by urgent the A button. Urgent the Menu button pauses the sport you are enjoying and opens a pop-up menu. The menu permits you to management the amount, discover system settings, or take a screenshot.

The settings menu in any other case sits on the backside of the sport checklist. From right here, you may join the Playdate to your Wi-Fi community, test the checklist of obtainable video games, obtain or replace video games, and alter a handful of different settings. You possibly can toggle the system’s auto-lock to make the Playdate routinely go right into a sleep mode that shows a clock; allow two accessibility choices that scale back display flashing or flip the display upside-down; and select whether or not you need crash logs and utilization analytics to be despatched to Panic. Lastly, a system sub-menu permits you to replace the Playdate, check its inputs, restart the system, or carry out a manufacturing facility reset.

Once you press the lock button, or if auto-lock is enabled, the Playdate goes to sleep and shows a clock (which will be set as digital, analog, or word-based within the settings menu). Urgent the lock button as soon as exhibits a easy pair of closed cartoon eyes, with one eye opening. Urgent the lock button once more makes the opposite eye open and wakes up the system. It’s a cute little contact.

Experimenting With Video games

Whereas the Playdate’s design evokes the Recreation Boy, the video games obtainable are much less Pokemon and Tremendous Mario Land and extra experimental recreation jam strangeness. That very strangeness begins with how the video games are distributed, utilizing a free seasonal mannequin. Once you arrange the Playdate, you may instantly obtain two video games, Informal Birder and Whitewater Wipeout. Each week after that, two extra video games unlock. The primary season may have a complete of 24 video games, which you’ll want to attend three months to totally entry.

On the time of writing, I unlocked the aforementioned two video games, together with Boogie Loops and Crankin’s Time Journey Journey. None of those video games are notably deep, however they’re all fascinating.

Informal Birder is maybe the longest and most advanced of the 4 video games. It’s a top-down journey recreation the place you attempt to {photograph} birds. Urgent the A button takes out your digital camera and shows a small rectangle of the present display you’re in. You possibly can transfer this rectangle across the display with the path pad, which could present sharp strains or fuzz. Cranking the Playdate focuses the digital camera, making photos within the foreground or background extra clear. Once you see a hen, body it with the digital camera and focus it, then snap an image.

This rapidly turns into extra sophisticated than it appears, since birds can fly round, conceal, and in any other case make capturing them fairly tough. You possibly can gather different objects, and speak to totally different individuals across the city and forest to unravel puzzles. These puzzles allow you to flush out birds for higher pictures, or discover new areas that comprise new birds. There’s a superb little bit of selection between totally different screens, with a unfastened and amusing story stringing collectively your quest as an off-the-cuff birder.


Whitewater Wipeout

Whitewater Wipeout is a a lot easier recreation the place you attempt to surf on a wave. Crank to rotate your surfer as he strikes, and that’s about it. Angle him accurately to fly out of the water and again down with out wiping out, and crank rapidly within the air to spin round for a stunt. This recreation is tough and finicky, reminding me of some NES-era browsing video games.

Crankin’s Time Journey Journey is a cute and distinctive expertise that cleverly makes use of the crank. You play a robotic who’s perpetually late for a date. Cranking ahead makes the robotic run to the suitable, and cranking backwards makes him transfer in reverse. Crankin is definitely distracted, so when he encounters flowers he bends over to odor them, and pauses to leap over hurdles and grasp from bars after they seem in his route.


Crankin’s Time Journey Journey

Whereas this controls Crankin’s private time, a timer is consistently ticking ahead and varied animals will flutter, fly, and run at their very own tempo to get in Crankin’s method. If any of those animals contact him, he has to start out over. Cranking ahead and backward to benefit from his distracted gestures lets him dodge his adversaries. For instance, you again as much as odor a flower, and keep bent over till a butterfly passes over his head. The timing required to keep away from these animals can develop into very tight, and a few ranges require pondering outdoors the field to get Crankin to his date earlier than she’s gone.

Lastly, Boogie Loops is a music sequencer with cute cartoon animals dancing above the grid. That is as a lot as I may glean from it, as a result of I’m very a lot not acquainted with sequencing music. With a path pad and two buttons, the controls are very restricted, but it surely’s nonetheless a neat little musical toy.

These are the video games I may entry via the Playdate’s season cross, which is the one present first-party technique of getting software program on the system; there’s no separate Playdate retailer. Nevertheless, there’s a painless sideloading course of the place you may ship any Playdate software program (in .pdx or file format) to your Playdate just by importing it via your account web page on Playdate’s web site. There’s additionally a available Playdate SDK for builders to work with, and is crammed with a number of dozen Playdate initiatives to obtain and even, in some instances, buy. It’s nonetheless a reasonably scant choice, particularly for a $180 system, however there are at the very least some choices. 

I downloaded and put in two items of software program from Coin Germs by Raspberrybrain and LlamaTonez by BleuLlama. They each rapidly and simply zipped from Playdate’s sideloading device to my system.


Coin Germs

Coin Germs is a straightforward arcade-style recreation the place you navigate a display filled with ladders and girders to gather cash below a time restrict. Germs seem on the backside of the display and shoot upward, and you must dodge them when you play. It seems like the unique Mario Bros., with a presentation just like the basic Recreation & Watch video games.



LlamaTonez is an attention-grabbing artifact of a bygone day. It’s an app for producing DTMF tones, which touch-tone telephones use. The display is a quantity pad, and deciding on a quantity and urgent a button produces that tone. DTMF remains to be utilized in telephony, and you need to use these tones to govern landline telephones and telephone messaging techniques that use numbers as a substitute of voice recognition. Nevertheless, these tones are largely hidden in mobile phone use outdoors of cues for the person to know that they’re manually dialing. LlamaTonez is a enjoyable little toy, however 20 years in the past when touch-tone telephone phishing was a factor, it might need been a genuinely great tool.

A Novel Toy and an Underwhelming Handheld

The Playdate is an intriguing tech toy that gives small, distinctive gaming experiences in a tiny, immaculately engineered bundle. It’s additionally an underpowered, monochrome gaming handheld that prices $180. If it was $50, this may be an unimaginable system for studying methods to develop video games with restricted energy and assets, and improbable gasoline for recreation jams and different experiments. Even at its full worth, Playdate would possibly function that for coders searching for a brand new playground to discover, in the event that they’re prepared to pay that a lot. As a gaming handheld, although, it’s underwhelming.

Nintendo Change Lite, an Editors’ Selection choose for gaming handhelds, prices simply $20 extra, and contains a larger, coloration display, far more highly effective graphical capabilities, and an enormous online game library. The Anbernic RG351P prices half as a lot because the Playdate, and contains a versatile retro gaming emulation engine. I’m curious to see how the Playdate scene develops from this level onward, however proper now, from a client perspective, it merely isn’t notably compelling. If in case you have the information and drive to dive into an SDK and see what you may make, give the Playdate a attempt. When you simply desire a pocket recreation system, look elsewhere.


  • Immaculately cute-looking, premium-feeling design

  • Fascinating idea

  • Consists of (finally) 24 free video games

  • Open ecosystem

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  • Costly, contemplating the {hardware}

  • Monochrome display is tough to see in sure lighting circumstances

  • Most video games are comparatively easy and small

The Backside Line

The Playdate is an intriguing, well-made gaming handheld that contains a crank and an open ecosystem that invitations experimentation. Nevertheless, it is costly for what you get.

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