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Playdate preview: You won’t believe how fun this dorky, $179 game system is

Enlarge / On Thursday, July 29, you will be able to preorder the $179 Playdate game system. It is very, very yellow—and actually quite fun!
Sam Machkovech

Lately, I find myself reminiscing about the era when digital playthings looked like toys. You may rightfully question my nostalgia about Tamagotchis, handheld LCD games, and the purple, handle-loaded GameCube, but my line of work revolves mostly around testing products with mature aspirations. Sometimes, I want companies to lighten up and put the “fun” in “functionality.”

That bias contributes in some part to my interest in the Playdate, a $179 portable gaming system that errs on the side of childish, low-powered fun. I’ve spent three weeks testing the system’s “near-final” hardware ahead of preorders opening up on 1 pm ET on Thursday, July 29, and I can confirm that it’s indeed fun to look at. Luckily, it’s also fun, simple, and accessible to hold, play with, and share with every friend that I can.

Later this year, the Playdate will reclaim the ground once dominated by Nintendo’s ’90s “Play It Loud” Game Boys. This handheld looks like something you’d pull out of a Yo Gabba Gabba monster’s pouch: squat, thin, banana-yellow, and ready to be tickled with a twist of its built-in rotary crank. But make no mistake—the Playdate’s creators at the game-publishing firm Panic have taken this device’s fun very seriously, and the results have surprised me (especially in one key aspect).

I’ve yet to hand a Playdate to a friend without them remarking on how much they liked it. And usually, that praise comes with a statement along the lines of “this thing is way better than it looks online.”

A preview, not a review

The Playdate is a portable-only gaming device meant to run exclusive software coded to either Lua or C. There’s no TV dock, no way to add a second controller, and no slot to add a cartridge or SD card. The sticker price includes a “season pass” of games, which can be downloaded via Wi-Fi, though you can also use its USB Type-C connection to download compatible files from your PC.

And while I’d love to give you the complete run-through of the Playdate ecosystem, this is not a review. The console creators at Panic were kind enough to send us early hardware, which appears to be identical to what we’ll see when retail units ship starting later this year. That means weak processing power, a black-and-white display, a plastic shell, an array of buttons, and an endlessly windable crank.

Where the final system will differ the most is in its OS and software package, and Panic has asked critics not to describe any menu-related content until further notice. Fine by us, though I had no complaints there. Everything I’ve tested has worked fine with the exception of one small bug that the hardware maker has acknowledged.

We’ve previously written about the Playdate’s sales pitch, which goes back as far as a public splash at various expos in 2019. Its creators say they chose its most peculiar feature, a fully windable (and retractable) hand crank, to “break people of their touch psychosis.” The game-release strategy revolves around a stream of new, simple game downloads with an emphasis on “surprise.” Panic won’t tell system owners what they’ll get from its weekly game-launch cadence other than to expect two brand-new games per week for 12 weeks, all made by a mix of established indie creators and brand-new weirdos (more on those here).

These 24 games count as part of the system’s $179 package cost, and that’s the system’s first crucial distinction.

A lot of work went into this Playdate

You might think of building your own bundle of unique fun with $179 of hardware and compatible software, especially in a world full of Raspberry Pi options. But you may never find a $179 handheld built with such specific features and limitations—and with guaranteed, tailor-made software to match (much of which might never work the same on other hardware). Here is where my lengthy preview testing period comes into play; Panic was clearly confident with me living with the Playdate as opposed to offering the brief bluster of a convention hall demo.

This is a hardware-and-software ecosystem that delivers the newbie-friendliest pick-up-and-play game system I’ve ever encountered. Let’s break it down into discrete elements.

The body: At a diminutive size of 3″ x 3″ (74 mm²), the Playdate fits neatly in an adult-sized palm, which might lead you to expect claw-hand woes once you hold with two hands (think Nintendo’s Game Boy Micro). Panic avoids this pitfall with a few crucial design-language tricks, including thinness (9 mm), lightness (3.03 oz / 86 g), and adequate width. Combine those three factors, and the system lands in adult hands without requiring awkward weight bracing.

So the Playdate gets away with a smooth, rubberized finish like the exterior of a vinyl toy. This never felt “light and cheap”—since that lightness and cheapness are crucial to its handheld gaming comfort. Instead of including gamepad-like curves that fit into hands, the Playdate buttresses its four corners with mild curves, and these roll across a palm quite comfortably.

The screen: No, it’s not backlit, and that means the Playdate is a non-starter in very dim environments. But the Playdate confirms something I didn’t realize so many years after the original Game Boy launched: Black-and-white screens have come a long way in the past 32 years.

The Playdate’s 400×240 pixel resolution stretches across a 2.7-inch panel, which adds up to 173 pixels per inch (PPI). If you’re counting, that’s a bit more than four times the pixel density of the original monochromatic Game Boy. Interestingly, it’s a one-bit panel—as opposed to delivering programmable shades of gray—but the upside is that this technology offers an unbelievable contrast ratio on a black-and-white, no-light display. If you’re savvy about the modern panel-manufacturing universe, you’ll recognize this as a 2.7-inch Memory Display made by Sharp (like this $45 option from Adafruit).

So long as you have ambient light to work with, the Playdate delivers a far more intense default contrast ratio than you might expect. The above gallery demonstrates this as compared to an original, powered-on Game Boy system. (Thanks to Pink Gorilla Games in Seattle for loaning a spare.) For the most part, the Playdate is noticeably clearer and brighter than a late-’80s Game Boy, whether both systems are rich with ambient light or sitting in a dim place. However, like the Game Boy, the Playdate’s screen can look much dimmer if turned as little as a few degrees away from your nearest ambient light. As a result, I rarely but noticeably have to reposition myself to catch better ambient Playdate light.

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The biggest visibility issue came when I went to a bar to share the Playdate with friends. (Remember bars?) Despite a good amount of ambient light in the room, active games like Whitewater Wipeout suffered without a good light angle to play in. And if a second, curious friend peered over the player’s shoulder, that usually meant the observer got a less ideal light angle and couldn’t watch. So dark bedrooms and bars are bad, but comfortable sits on a living room couch or outdoors are fine. During my testing, I was more likely to remark on how good the Playdate’s screen looks all of the time than on how dim its image can appear some of the time.

The one-bit panel works in the favor of low-fidelity games, as these fill the pixel-rich display with a fine “dithering” effect to simulate lighter or darker shades of gray. Since it has a small screen, the Playdate favors lower-resolution games, and that means smaller pixels can alternate between white and black in ways that are nigh-imperceptible mid-game. The screen’s locked refresh rate and lack of pixel shimmering contribute hugely to its prettiness in action. Its panel is rated at 30 to 50 Hz, but it doesn’t appear to suffer from standard display flicker when it runs outside of a fixed frame rate multiple. That means it looks clear even with active, side-scrolling fare.

The crank: What if you could add the precision of an analog thumbpad to a tiny, portable game system, only without a nub sticking out at all times? The Playdate’s one-inch rotary crank accommodates this use case by offering a full 360 degrees of rotation sensitivity when retracted, and it neatly tucks into the system’s side when put away. The Playdate adds fun to the insertion-and-removal process by playing a delightful jingle when taken out and a satisfying digital “thunk” when put back in. (I’m a compulsive weirdo who likes flicking remote control battery covers on and off, so I’ve gotten hooked on doing the same with the Playdate crank.)

To understand how this mechanism might work in existing games, think of moving with an analog joystick in Super Mario 64. The Playdate’s crank could deliver the precise direction of Mario’s movement but not his speed. If you want to guide a video game character with a full range of rotation, the Playdate’s crank will do the trick, though a game may need to add a speed modifier via its d-pad or buttons. It’s arguably less ideal for a platformer and more for either a spaceship’s thruster direction (think top-down, like Asteroids) or a laser-shooting turret’s orientation.

This also ensures an easier guarantee of a full rotation as compared to doing the same with a joystick—and anyone who destroyed an N64 controller playing Mario Party‘s rotation-filled mini-games can attest to this issue. Thanks to the hardware’s lightness and pleasant grip, I like holding the system with one hand and the crank with another and getting into a comfortable groove rotating the crank back and forth. The tiny, yellow handle rotates easily enough that you can spin with wild abandon in a pinch, yet the action on its rotation is held by a mild sense of resistance—enough to guarantee that you can’t let go of the crank mid-rotation and watch it fly on its own like a child’s merry-go-round.

Depending on the game, the crank may be optional or entirely unnecessary. Out of the four Playdate games I’ve tested thus far, three include crank-only control sections, and one doesn’t use the crank at all.

The buttons: The screen has no touch functionality, so in addition to the crank, you’re limited to a d-pad, two action buttons, a “home” button, and a “lock” button. You have to tap the home button to adjust volume, since there are no volume buttons.

Enlarge / A good look at the Playdate’s button depth.
Sam Machkovech

You may see a picture of the d-pad and fear the worst, since it opts for a curved-edge aesthetic, but worry not. This thing is so clicky and responsive that it supports comfortable quarter-circle rolls, while it’s big enough to easily manage taps limited to the edges should you want to play a precise piece-dropping puzzler like Tetris.

I’m disappointed that Panic opted to put its B and A buttons on a straight line, as opposed to a thumb-friendly angle, and they’re a bit too distanced to be comfortable when holding one button while tapping the other (à la “B to run, A to jump”). They’re arguably arranged to encourage “one-button” games, but I have held the system and pretended like I was playing a classic Neo-Geo Pocket fighting game. I could imagine that working fine enough on the Playdate in a pinch.

The speaker: Lo-fi bleeps and chirps sound fine coming out of the Playdate’s tiny, mono speaker, but it’s definitely not loud enough to rise above the din of a crowded bus. Use a 3.5 mm jack to break audio out for headphones. (No Bluetooth support here, unfortunately.)

Four games down, twenty to go

As I mentioned earlier, the Playdate’s $179 package price includes a full “season” of downloadable games, and two games will appear every week after the retail launch as free downloads through the system’s built-in Wi-Fi. Panic has repeatedly stressed that it wants to provide a sense of mystery and surprise with its Playdate games—meaning there will be no advance access for press and no spoiler-filled videos showing exactly how its games work. When you buy a Playdate, Panic would like for you to expect surprising gaming gifts to open every week.

That policy isn’t in place just yet, however, leaving me free to describe the four games packed into my preview hardware. I assume this is meant to let me stress how the system works for anyone who doubts its quality—or who doesn’t give a flip about bite-sized indie game “surprises” on a weekly basis. If you’d like to fall in line with Panic’s sales pitch and remain unspoiled, look for the “no more game-specific spoilers” note below for a bottom-line summary of what I think of the games, their use of the crank, and the system’s power and usability.

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*** Beginning of game-specific spoilers ***

Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure: If you’ve watched previous reveal videos about the Playdate, you’ve likely seen Crankin, an unlikely gaming mascot created by Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy, Noby Noby Boy). Crankin gets his name from his reliance on the Playdate’s crank, as he’s frozen in time until you turn the thing forward and backward.

Each level in CTTA is a day in his life, and every day, he wakes up realizing he’s late for a date. His run-and-jump path to each date is set in stone, and you wind the crank to move him forward and backward along that path. Stop cranking and he remains frozen, even when he bows to sniff a flower or jumps to grab a pull-up bar—while everything else around him moves in real time. If any moving creature touches him, he returns to the starting point.

Winning each level, then, requires understanding how Crankin will react to static, harmless objects like tea tables and stairs, then going forward and backward in time so that he can “jump” or “duck” to avoid the harmful creatures coming his way. Is a butterfly moving toward you at head height? Crank backward to the point where Crankin had previously stopped to sniff a flower. Is something coming from behind? Crank forward to make sure your hero runs ahead of that danger.

This is arguably the most linear, puzzle-focused game ever made by Takahashi, and the method of surviving and advancing through levels is rarely more intense than “rotate until you find Crankin’s perfect animation spot to pause.” Plus, the pre-release version I’ve played is tuned for intense difficulty, arguably to make up for its brevity. The hardest levels require precise pattern recognition and careful cranking, but you’ll likely only need 2-3 hours of die-and-retry difficulty to get through the game—and much, much less to speedrun once you’ve mastered the levels.

Even so, this short-and-sweet experiment is a novel and compelling selling point for the Playdate hardware difference. Moving the character forward and backward through time is easier to perfectly control with a rigid crank than with either a joystick or analog triggers. The system’s limited processing power is enough to render this game’s small, cute, black-and-white characters, all coded with a mix of hand-drawn animation frames and sprite manipulation (thus looking smooth and artful, not like an old Flash game). And the high-contrast screen makes it easy to discern animations that range from adorable to hilarious. Like other Takahashi classics, CTTA‘s emphasis on humor is boosted hugely by a wacky sound design department, complete with Simlish jibber-jabber and judiciously placed fart noises.

Verdict: A good example of the “only on Playdate” philosophy, in both good and bad ways. Thumbs up.

Whitewater Wipeout: Time to hang ten on the Playdate’s waves with this simple-yet-addictive score-chaser, which largely resembles the surfing mini-game from the 1987 classic California Games. Thankfully, this incarnation includes modern physics and momentum systems to drive its core gameplay loop: build speed, catch big air, do tricks, and repeat.

As much as I like CTTA’s take on crank gameplay, WW has become my go-to showcase for Playdate crank newbies. Every round starts with the game asking you to aim your crank downward, and this movement corresponds to the exact direction your surfboard points (as seen from a classic, third-person camera angle). After this, tilt the crank leftward, upward, or at any angle, and your board aims accordingly.

The crucial part is that the crank remains fixed in the direction you’re moving in, as opposed to being set by a joystick that naturally retracts. This idea pairs well with a constantly moving mode of transportation like a surfboard, and I have found myself getting lost in WW because of how much I enjoy subtly nudging the crank to weave up and down a cresting wave and build momentum. There’s also the act of launching above the wave and spinning, which is where WW’s scoring system factors in. The only tricks you can pull off in WW are rotations, but interestingly, you’ll spin as many times as you turn the crank. If you want to safely land a single 360-degree spin, turn the crank roughly 360 degrees in real life. Same for a 720, 1080, or even the risky 1440.

I love this control combination—and its crisp execution by Chuhai Games—so much that I’ve personally forgiven how barebones the game is. This is a flow-state game that revolves around a simple jump-and-trick methodology in a repetitive, wide-open ocean, as opposed to a Tony Hawk-like playground of varied zones to goof off in. I would have loved for this solid arcade core to include more optional modes, whether they made players ride through Star Fox-like patterns of rings or do additional tricks via d-pad directions. Chuhai Labs says this is the final game, though, so my wishlist dreams are toast for now. Even still, there’s no getting around how rad the basic “crank to surf” system looks and feels.

Verdict: The best Playdate game in my preview batch, but also the thinnest. Thumbs up.

Lost Your Marbles: Compared to the above crank-heavy games, LYM is more selective about when and how it makes you crank. This is largely a visual novel, interrupted by hilarious sequences where you rotate the world to choose from dialogue options.

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This game’s off-kilter story centers on a wacky invention’s misfire. While its wacky-scientist creator intended to make an automated decision-making robot that could process thousands of options to help average people make better decisions, the invention turned out to be broken. When it afflicted an unwitting passer-by, it limited her choices to stupid and awkward ones. Not helping matters, this person is trying to find her lost dog.

Her search for pup now requires you to activate this broken invention to drive her silly, inconsequential choices. The invention, which appears whenever someone asks the main character a question, is a cross between a pinball table and a pachinko machine, seen from a 2D perspective. When prompted, you rotate the entire machine with the Playdate’s crank to direct a bouncing ball inside. Make that ball slam into a “dialogue orb” three times, and your character will say that orb’s phrase out loud as a response.

Each time you use the machine, its pinball-like bounce pads, walls, and hidden nooks are arranged differently, and its funniest and weirdest dialogue orbs are usually the trickiest ones to guide your ball into. As a result, the game’s “challenge” comes from how exploratory you want to be within each rotation-heavy mini-puzzle; the results affect the dialogue slightly, but not enough to feel too challenging for younger players. I like how this mechanic scales for however carefully or haphazardly you want to play this game, making it a delight to hand to players of any skill range.

In terms of the “Playdate difference,” however, having a rigid crank as a control option is nice, but due to its pace and forgiving nature, I’m not sure it’s better than doing the same with a pair of L and R analog triggers. This game’s hand-drawn characters are delightfully expressive on the clear, high-contrast screen, at least.

Verdict: A cute, light-challenge option for anyone interested in Steven Universe-caliber humor. Thumbs up.

Saturday Edition: This is the least interesting Playdate option in my early testing collection, mostly because it skips the crank and works like a classic Game Boy game. Yet it’s still a nice inclusion to demonstrate the scope and variety we can expect from the Playdate’s first “season” of upcoming games.

SE simplifies the classic point-and-click paradigm by removing a mouse cursor and a variety of “verbs.” Instead, your character walks around in slow, side-scrolling fashion while talking to people, examining nearby objects, and using a menu to combine things you’ve previously picked up. Your character may or may not have recently died, an idea that is blurred by a shifting timeline and the lead character’s not-so-clear grip on reality, and your brief-yet-touching journey revolves around making sense of an existential dilemma. That all plays out in lo-fi, pixelated graphics.

Considering the giddiness and family-friendliness of the other Playdate games I’ve tested, SE provides a welcome contrast. It’s by no means an M-for-mature take on mild puzzle solving. Rather, any kids who get their hands on a Playdate might think they’ve stumbled upon a grown-up secret hidden among the sillier games and catch the classic-adventuring bug. I’m hopeful that the Playdate’s first full season of content will include a few more short-and-striking games like this one, meant less to emphasize the crank and more to deliver tight, surprising throwbacks to what games can do within Game Boy-like technology limits.

Verdict: A slow-burn surprise, less about gimmicks and more about tried-and-true point-and-click weirdness. Thumbs up.

No more game-specific spoilers—what’s the software verdict?

Nothing I’ve played on the Playdate thus far screams “revolutionary” or “must-have.” Two low-powered CPUs, intentionally lo-fi hardware, and a single rotary crank can only combine to deliver so much. These four test titles likely lack the scope or depth that some gamers hope for in a brand-new system’s launch library.

Yet everything I’ve played on the Playdate has been accessible, amusing, and unique, and getting four games at once has distributed the fun factor around in a way that I really appreciate. Two of the games are built with replayability in mind—one as a score chaser, the other as a puzzle-minded platformer with speedrunning potential. The other two titles are more linear but focus less on challenge and more on atmosphere; these show what developers can do within a wimpy system’s limits to deliver their own comfortable, unique games on black-and-white hardware.

With all that playing, I still really like how the Playdate feels in my hand, and this is due to a few key aspects. First is the screen’s clarity. So long as it has decent ambient light, the Playdate’s sprite readability and contrast ratio are off the charts. Then there’s the size, weight, and comfortable feeling of the device in your hands. The Playdate obviously doesn’t clamp into palms like an Xbox gamepad, but it’s easy to brace the entire system with one hand while cranking with the other or reposition to hold it like an old-school Game Boy. (In the latter case, I put my index fingers on its sides to add some comfort to longer sessions.)

And I love that I can hand my preview Playdate hardware to someone without any instruction manual beyond me pulling the crank out and inviting them to test it out. All four games I’ve tested do quite well without guidance. New players only have two buttons, a d-pad, and a crank to fiddle with until figuring out what does and doesn’t work.

Remaining questions and thoughts—and why I’m preordering

Ahead of this article’s publication, Panic forwarded us a copy of the Playdate’s SDK, which includes a stern warning to devs: keep game sizes small. The company says its final hardware will include 4GB of storage, but system files will gobble up some of that, and there’s no SD card option to expand what’s here. We’re waiting to see how much space retail Playdate units will have for installable games, but in the meantime, the games I’ve tested measure between 20 to 60 MB in size. The Playdate likely doesn’t want its “first season” owners to have to delete any of those 24 games, so they’ll probably all hover around that range.

During the preview period, I needed that SDK to access the system’s memory via a connected computer—and that appears to be the case for anyone who will want to do the same with their retail Playdate. Panic has yet to confirm exactly how Playdate owners might purchase additional games, either through a built-in store or some sort of web portal, but they’ve made clear that support for more games will definitely go beyond the included first season of content.

Thanks to the system’s low power draw, I’ve estimated easily over six hours of play between full charges via a USB Type-C connection. I have only received the base hardware to test thus far and not the “clock radio” charging dock or the purple, custom-molded carrying case.

Panic is clearly confident enough in this device to hand it to me for so many weeks before its preorders go live, and in that time, I’ve tossed it into a bag (with my own custom case for the time being) and played it pretty much anywhere you could imagine. It has proven durable in terms of build quality, with no apparent issues with its body, screen, buttons, or crank. I have really loved the Playdate as an option on the bus, in the park, or while I wait for massive PC game patches to download, and I like that it’s wholly disconnected from my smartphone’s slew of notifications as an on-the-go gaming option (plus it doesn’t make me recharge batteries as quickly as most mobile systems do).

I’m also partial to experimental, quick-fire indie fare, which the Playdate is clearly tailored toward. This most often means lo-fi point-and-click adventures, arcadey score-chasers, and quirky platformers—either with a crank or without. If that sounds like a fresh breath of air—possibly akin to the earliest days of devs exploiting the novelty of touchscreens on either the earliest iPhone or the original Nintendo DS—then Panic’s hardware and software ecosystem will hold up their end of the bargain to affirm your bias. You’re an ideal Playdate owner and should probably preorder one next week.

But if your idea of great portable gaming requires nothing less than a Steam Deck’s power, touch-sensitive panels, and a massive software marketplace, on the other hand, the Playdate will likely leave you unmoved. You might prefer the Analogue Pocket, a portable, $199 machine that plays classic cartridges with modern flair and will launch later this year, though it’s unclear exactly when that sold-out device might open orders again. (As a reminder, Panic will not limit Playdate pre-orders when they go live next week. Place an order, and you’ll go into Panic’s manufacturing queue among one of 16 eligible nations, with the company pledging to ship roughly 22,000 Playdate systems this year—and more in 2022.)

Whether you buy the Playdate sales pitch or not, Panic already deserves credit for scaling its design vision to deliver a mix of solid build quality and diverse, built-in games at a $180 price point. This is how you compete with entrenched gaming titans: by putting accessible, unique whimsy into anyone’s hands without requiring an instruction manual, all while delivering a fair price-to-content ratio.