The Playdate won’t be to everyone’s taste, but as an homage to retro gaming that offers fun, accessible experiences, breaking down the barrier of game design in the process, it absolutely nails its mission. The lack of a backlight will continue to be a thorn in the Playdate’s crown, but the console is just so charming that it’s hard not to root for it.
- An inspired celebration of retro gaming
- Perfect size for portable gaming
- A surprisingly varied array of games included
- The crank is fun to use
- No backlight
- No Bluetooth at launch
- Small chassis Fits in the palm of your hand
- 24 games includedDelivered over a 12-week period
- Includes a rotating crankUsed for interacting with games
Against the odds, the Playdate manages to be a console that celebrates the best of retro gaming while presenting a solid case for the reasons it deserves a place alongside modern-day tech.
On first laying eyes on the Playdate, you can’t help but be reminded of the original yellow Game Boy that went on to become one of the most recognisable icons of portable gaming. It’s hardly a coincidence either, since the device – jointly made by games publisher Panic Inc and manufacturer Teenage Engineering – clearly takes a cue from the portable consoles of old.
With its bit-tune melodies and monochrome graphics, the Playdate is definitely an anomaly against modern consoles such as the PS5 and Xbox Series X, both of which are more concerned with delivering high-fidelity graphics and blockbuster titles.
Instead, the Playdate is banking on its unique approach to game delivery, not to mention its eye-catching design, as a means of reeling in players.
The Playdate has a retail price of $179 and while international shipping is available, international pricing isn’t. Adding another spanner in the works is the current stock situation for the Playdate. Because of higher than ancitipated demand for the console, it’s only possible to order for delivery in 2023 at the time of this review.
- Small enough to fit in your palm
- Simplified control layout with a crank on the side
- No backlight for the display
The Playdate’s design may be eerily similar to that of the original Game Boy, but of most surprise here is just how small the console actually is. Weighing just 86g, the Playdate feels more like the Game Boy Micro in terms of how easy it is to slip into a pocket for on-the-go gaming.
During my weeks with the review device, I found myself whipping it out for a quick few minutes of gaming far more often than I ever have with the Nintendo Switch. For bite-sized gaming, the Playdate is just right.
As you can likely determine from the pictures, the control layout on the Playdate is relatively simple. There’s a standard D-pad alongside A and B buttons, with a home button in the top-right corner and a lock button on the top of the console. The main front-facing buttons display decent resistance, feeling far more tactile than the mushy controls of Nintendo’s original handheld. Of course, what you’re really wanting to learn about is the eye-catching crank that sits on the side of the Playdate.
It’s easy to write off the crank as a gimmick, and for some it may well be, but I found myself warming to it a great deal more than I anticipated. For starters, it works brilliantly – it doesn’t feel loose, delivering superb precision in the games that use it.
Difficult to appreciate until you have the Playdate in your hands, I truly believe that the comparatively limited control scheme is exactly what works in the Playdate’s favour. Ease of use is one benefit, but with fewer tools at their disposal, developers have been forced to think creatively within the bounds of these limitations which results in some tremendous innovation in the games included.
The only real disappointment here is the console’s display. In the right conditions, the 2.7-inch 400 x 240 screen is a joy to view; but it suffers from one major downside – there’s no backlight. I was amazed by the difference a backlight can make when the Game Boy Advance SP launched back in 2003; I didn’t expect to be yearning for the same feature nearly 20 years later.
The result of this is that unless there’s a decent light source in close proximity, it’s just too tricky to play on the Playdate. Having to crane my neck to try to make out what’s happening on-screen is one of the few memories of the original Game Boy that I certainly don’t miss, and I’m not sure of the reasons Panic Inc and Teenage Engineering felt that this made sense for what is a modern console.
- Games are delivered over a 12-week period
- Playdate Pulp allows for easy game creation
- Bluetooth functionality available, but not at launch
Before we get on to the games themselves, it’s worth noting the unique way that their distribution is handled. Instead of having a typical digital storefront, where users can purchase games at their leisure, there are actually 24 games included with the Playdate – but you don’t get access to them all at once. Instead, you’re sent two games each week over a 12-week period.
These 24 games are labelled as being part of the Season One collection, but the console does arrive with the option to purchase and install additional games. All you need is a PDX file containing a game’s assets, which can then be uploaded to your Playdate account and side-loaded to your console over Wi-Fi (wired transfer is also available).
The delivery of Season One titles may appear odd at first, but it does help to add some longevity to the Playdate’s lifecycle. With that said, it’s the ability to side-load additional games that will make or break the console’s future, and at least in that regard, Panic has made it as easy as possible to develop games for the device using Playdate Pulp.
This browser-based development tool has been designed as a gateway for inexperienced coders to create their own Playdate game, and in turn learn the basic concepts of game development. As a means of establishing the Playdate as the go-to console for learning, it goes one step further than previous failures such as the Ouya, which relied on experienced developers shifting to the console en masse. By comparison, the Playdate could be a breeding ground for new talent.
Panic Inc has also made the process of game capture and livestreaming incredibly simple with desktop application, Playdate Mirror. I encountered zero lag when using Playdate Mirror, and it even boasts the functionality to work with Xbox Series X and PS5 controllers, meaning that the Playdate could become a mainstay on streaming platforms if there’s a sizeable fanbase behind it.
It’s also worth mentioning that in spite of its small stature, the Playdate offers surprisingly decent battery life. As a result of the low-power display, the Playdate features a clock when in standby mode, which is quoted by Panic as offering a 14-day battery life – but how does this translate to real-world use? I found that with a decent dose of daily gaming, I was able to get through an average of five days before needing to top up – which is decent stamina, outpacing the likes of the Switch and the Steam Deck.
The Playdate features a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi connection for downloads and updates – but, rather annoyingly, support for Bluetooth connectivity – while present – isn’t available at launch. This definitely affected my use of the Playdate’s volume on public transport, and is something that’s worth bearing in mind if, like me, you made the switch from wired to wireless headphones years ago.
- 24 games included with the console
- Solid variety across different genres
- Inspired use of the limited control scheme
Up to this point, I’ve painted a fairly pleasant picture of the Playdate as a whole. However, as will be the case with any console, it’s the games that leave the biggest impact. I’ve had a chance to play all 24 of the games included in Season One, and I have to say that I’m very impressed by what’s on offer here.
Right off the bat, Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure is easily my favourite pick of the bunch, and given that the game has featured prominently in the Playdate’s marketing, I’m clearly not the only one with this sentiment. Featuring a basic premise of a man who’s constantly late for a date, it’s up to you to turn the crank to move Crankin forwards or backwards along a predetermined path, being careful to avoid obstacles as you go. Since the game uses only the crank for gameplay, it’s easy to get to grips with from the get-go; but you’ll be surprised by the difficulty of later levels.
Gamers with fond memories of classic arcade titles will love Hyper Meteor. Reminiscent of Asteroids, this game has you use the crank as your main method of steering a small ship, while the B button engages the thrusters as you try to ram down several meteors flooding the screen. It’s incredibly addictive, but it’s the thumping soundtrack and excellent sound design that will keep you coming back for more.
On the completely opposite end of the scale, I found myself really enjoying Saturday Edition – a sidescrolling adventure title infused with the energy of an old-school detective thriller. While this game barely uses the crank, it still draws upon art style and sound design to create a palpable sense of atmosphere, overriding any concerns over the limited control input.
These three titles are easily my favourites so far, but I’m highly impressed by the variety on offer here. The Playdate certainly already features a sufficient number of titles that will see me return to the console for some time to come, and that’s before factoring in the potential for development of future games down the line. Of course, as with any new console, the existence of those games isn’t guaranteed – but I certainly hope that materialise. Not least because the Playdate tears down the convoluted fixtures of modern gaming and replaces them with two happy alternatives: fun and simplicity.
Should you buy it?
You enjoy retro-style gaming For anyone who has fond memories of monochrome gaming, the Playdate is a blast.
Retro gaming doesn’t appeal to you If the thought of playing games in monochrome is enough to make you wince, then look elsewhere.
The Playdate is a strange console – in no small part as a result of the attached crank – but it’s one that I find myself drawn to, more often than I initially expected. As someone who grew up playing the original Game Boy, the rush of nostalgia that comes with the Playdate has been overwhelming – and the fact that it’s super-portable makes it a far more tempting option for on-the-go gaming.
With that said, the lack of a backlight does feel like an egregious omission in the modern gaming landscape, and it’s one that’s sure to put off younger generations who might have been interested to explore a simpler style of gaming. However, if you’re able to look past that then the Playdate’s varied library of games are well worth playing – and I, for one, fully expect to continue revisiting them for some time to come.
How we test
We tested the Playdate with early access to all 24 games included in the Season One collection of games, ensuring that our verdict more closely matches the consumer experience in the long term.
Tested over a two-week period
Played all Season One games
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Yes, there is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and Bluetooth connectivity is arriving at a later date.
No, it’s only possible to charge the Playdate via a wired USB-C cable.
The Playdate is priced at $179 (roughly £140).