In the late 1970s, a designer for then toy company Nintendo noticed a business man on a train playing with a pocket calculator to pass the time. This inspired Gunpei Yokoi to create a small, pocket sized device that could serve as both a small but fun game and a clock, that could appeal to children and busy professionals to enjoy on the go. Thus creating the first original piece of gaming hardware for Nintendo, the Game and Watch.
Nintendo has gone on to become one of the most well known gaming companies with their current console, the Nintendo Switch, selling record breaking units in both hardware and software. Handheld gaming has been around since the dawn of video games, but it’s evolved quite a bit since the days of Game and Watch. However, there’s a relative newcomer to the handheld gaming world that is very reminiscent of the older handhelds, but with a few modern twists, that being Panic’s Playdate.
In this review I will go in depth on the features of the Playdate, as well as the unique method of game delivery, to help you decide if you want this console to become a mainstay in your pocket.
- Fun and friendly design
- Unique control scheme with crank
- 24 games come free with the console
- Long battery life
- Super reflective screen
- Uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time
- Screen has no backlight
- 24 games free with each unit
- Unique crank for game control
- Super reflective black and white display
- Online community
What Is Playdate?
Playdate is a new retro inspired handheld gaming console made by the company Panic, who were responsible for the hit Untitled Goose Game. Playdate is different from the current handheld consoles, like Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck, in the way that it celebrates and embraces simplicity.
Very reminiscent of how Nintendo used to develop handhelds under the leadership of Gunpei Yokoi, Playdate makes the most out of simple technology, having developers work in and around hardware limitations to deliver fun and interesting games.
The Playdate isn’t the most cutting edge game console in terms of technical specs and the game library doesn’t include well known franchises like Mario, Sonic, or even my personal favorite MegaMan. But Playdate delivers on providing unique and bite sized experiences to both gaming enthusiasts and busy professionals who want to keep a small diversion on them in their pocket at all times.
As stated above, the Playdate isn’t the most cutting edge or powerful gaming console on the market, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot for a handheld. The original Gameboy from 1989 had a monochrome screen that was difficult to see at times and had fierce competition with the much more powerful Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx. Despite its shortcomings, the Game Boy is still one of the best selling consoles of all time, going on to start a whole line of successful handhelds.
The Playdate is very similar to that original Game Boy, but with some more modern bells and whistles to make the experience much better. Like the Game Boy, Playdate has a black and white screen, though it is super reflective and much easier to see than its ‘89 predecessor.
The screen isn’t backlit in any way however, which is a major downside to the device. While much better than the screen from the Game Boy, gamers might still have trouble seeing the screen in less than optimal lighting conditions. I feel that a backlit option would really help the Playdate with a revised model or a sequel console.
As for controls, the Playdate features a fairly responsive and nice feeling directional pad and two action buttons, much like the Game Boy. Unlike the Game Boy, or any game console however, the Playdate has a small hand crank on the side, which several games use in new and interesting ways, both as the main method of control and as a supplement to the button controls.
The crank is by far the most unique aspect of the Playdate and makes for some interesting gaming experiences you can’t find on any other console. Small gimmicks like this are lost on modern handhelds, like the Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck, as those consoles try to capture the home console feel in a portable form. It’s nice to see a handheld like the Playdate try something new and fun that only a handheld can do.
When not in use, the Playdate can function as a low power clock, sort of like the Game and Watch series. The console also features a decent speaker, wifi, and bluetooth capabilities, all for $179.
How Can You Use Playdate?
I haven’t mentioned how any of the games work on Playdate yet and that’s because the method of delivery is different from any other gaming console ever on the market. Playdate doesn’t feature any sort of cartridge slot nor an online store to purchase games, rather 2 games are downloaded to the console per week for 12 weeks, totalling to 24 games at no extra cost.
This justifies the $179 price tag for the Playdate as these games come free to all Playdate users. No need to go to a physical or digital storefront for the latest games. All Playdate users will receive the same 24 games, creating a real sense of community among Playdate users.
The games themselves vary wildly in style and presentation. Playdate has action games that use the crank exclusively, like Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, puzzle games that use only the buttons, like Pick Pack Pup, and games that use a combination of both like White Water Wipeout. Everyone is sure to find a game that meets their specific tastes with Playdate.
The 2 games per week model helps to create a sense of anticipation among users while also not overloading them with too much too soon. I also really like how these 24 games are available to all Playdate users with no extra purchase, almost as if you’re buying the games and not the console.
In certain conditions, the Playdate screen can be hard to see. Luckily, Panic has a Mirror software for Playdate which you can use to play or simply display your playdate games on a computer monitor or capable TV. You can even pair a controller, with the analog stick serving as the crank.
A selection of user made games can also be downloaded to the Playdate online and you can even make your own games for the device. This way you can play hundreds of fan made games outside of the official 24.
Who Is Playdate For
I think that Playdate best suits gaming enthusiasts who maybe don’t want to lug around a Switch or a Steam Deck with them wherever they go. Chances are, if you look at the Playdate and think it looks cute or interesting, you’ll probably enjoy playing on the device.
If you want the most high tech games with the best graphics from well known studios and franchises, I would suggest sticking to the Nintendo Switch or the Steam Deck. Playdate is more for fun diversions, something to keep in your pocket in case you get bored on a car ride or in a doctor’s office.
I personally have had a lifelong fascination with handheld electronics, game consoles specifically, so Playdate appeals to me quite a lot. I really admire how Panic is creating a new market to cater to, much like how Nintendo did in the 80s and 90s with their Game and Watch and Gameboy systems.
I do wish there was a revised or additional model that was easier to hold for long periods of time and with a backlight option for the screen, but as it is right now I believe that Playdate serves its purpose.
Web Infrastructure / Branding
The official website for Playdate is easily one of the best I’ve seen. Huge props goes to the simple fact that there’s no promotional pop up that appears upon entering the site that try to upsell you or offer some discount. These types of ads have become common among product sites and I’m very thankful to not see one on the Playdate site.
Everything you need to know about the Playdate is right on the home page, including technical specs, the game library, links to the developer kit, pricing, extra products, and more. Everything ran smoothly with no errors and the site itself was bright and colorful, matching the fun and casual vibe of the product.
Playdate definitely appeals to a different market than other gaming consoles, focusing first and foremost on the fun one can have with the product. Colors are bright and vibrant, matching and complimenting the neon yellow of the device itself.
One thing though I wish Panic offered with the Playdate was additional colors for the console, rather than just the bright yellow. The yellow looks great, but I personally find myself drawn to handheld devices with shades of blue or, in the case of some of my Nintendo handhelds, whatever Legend of Zelda themed option is available.
Playdate’s marketing is very impressive, creating a unique and fun atmosphere that unites users in a wonderful environment. While I wish more products were available, and stock of the Playdate consoles is frequently an issue, I’m excited to see what Panic does with Playdate in the future.
Should You Buy It
Chances are, if you are remotely interested in Playdate, you either already own one or you have one from the next batch pre ordered. Playdate appeals to a niche market of gaming enthusiasts who are content with having a wonderful selection of fun indie games in their pocket at all times.
If you’re expecting to use the Playdate to play the latest and greatest hit games from triple A publishers, then you will be sorely disappointed. But I think that the Playdate is a neat little device, reminiscent of the original Gameboy and Game and Watch devices, using less than cutting edge technology to deliver a fun and unique experience.
Where to Buy
Unfortunately, the first wave of Playdate consoles has already shipped out and there won’t be any more until early 2023. However, you can pre-order the next wave of consoles from the official Playdate website.
Nintendo has been the king of the handheld gaming market since the debut of the GameBoy in 1989. Other companies, like Sega and Atari, have tried to dethrone the creators of Mario, but none have been all that successful. Nintendo’s latest venture in handheld gaming is the Nintendo Switch, which is available in 3 different models and can be used as both a handheld and a home console.
The Switch is wildly popular, with such exclusive games like Super Smash Bros. and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, portable variations of 3rd party titles like Sonic Frontiers and Overwatch, along with a wonderful selection of critically acclaimed indie games like Shovel Knight and Azure Striker Gunvolt.
If you’re a more hardcore gamer who wants to play your favorite games, both modern and retro, on the go then I would highly recommend the Nintendo Switch. You won’t be able to play the same games that are available on Playdate, but the extensive library of both 1st and 3rd party titles more than makes up for it.
Alternatively, you could grab an old GameBoy console and load it up with classic games from an extensive library, but this is becoming more difficult as the years go on. Even the original GameBoy from 1989 can cost a pretty penny now, and certain classic titles are no cheaper. The screens on these consoles were also never the best and are frequently difficult to see.
You could get a custom modded gameboy, but that can actually cost more than the Playdate console. Still though, the GameBoy, GameBoy Color, and Gameboy Advanced systems have a stellar collection of games from some of the most well known franchises.
Playdate is a very interesting console. While I frequently compared it to the Nintendo Gameboy in this review, it does enough to really stand out and create a new market to cater to.
The Playdate is not without its faults, however. While much better than the Gameboy, the screen is still less than ideal, and the small and flat form factor make it uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time.
Still, I’m excited to see what Panic does with Playdate in the future. I would very much like to see a revised model with some of the flaws fixed. But Playdate is truly something new to the world of gaming, one that I hope is around for years to come.