Panic's colourful system brings some new flair to handheld gaming.
While it has become quite common to see new mini consoles launched, brand new systems are far rarer. Fortunately, the talented team over at Panic has seen that there's a bit of a gap in this market, and is soon looking to release the interesting and unique handheld system known as the Playdate. This little gadget features a small black and white 1-bit screen, and a basic processor capable of playing quick and usually quite straightforward games, but really sets itself apart with its ingenious controls, which includes a rotating crank that graces the right side of the device. With Playdates beginning to ship around the world soon, I've been playing around with this handheld system for a few weeks now, and have plenty of thoughts.
Before I get into the titles that the Playdate ships with, and how they actually perform on the device, let me start by looking into the Playdate's hardware, design and build quality. Clocking in at 76mm by 74mm, with a 9mm width, this is genuinely not a very big piece of tech. It's size reminds me a bit of Tamagotchi, in that you can easily carry it around in your pocket, but it is that sort of shape and size that is noticeable, in the same way that a phone is.
As for the actual build, the Playdate is made of a high-quality feeling plastic that comes in bright yellow, and is held together by various screws at three of its four corners, screws that have a hollow centre meaning you could theoretically have the device attached to a keychain if that was up your street. Otherwise, the Playdate has a 400 x 240p 1-bit display that takes up the majority of the body, with the rest of the front of the frame used to occupy a D-pad, an A and B button, an options button, and a little speaker. The crank sits on the right side of the Playdate and can be moved from a docked position to an in-use position, where you can rotate it a full 360-degrees when necessary in certain games. This crank, alike the rest of the Playdate, feels secure and safe albeit if the yellow handle does feel a little wobbly at times.
The only other thing to know about the build is that the Playdate features an on/off/standby button on its top, a USB-C port (the system comes with a USB-C to A cable in its box) and a microphone jack on its bottom, and a built-in 3-axis accelerometer, which is used to judge how the Playdate is being held - again, for use in specific games mostly.
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Looking under the hood, the hardware that powers the Playdate is very basic. There is a 180 MHz Cortex M7 CPU, which can run the basic games that are created with the Playdate SDK development engine, as well as 16MB of RAM, a 32KB L1 cache, and 4GB of storage, which should really be big enough to store 60+ games, when there are that many available. From my experience with Playdate's tech, this is more than enough for the system to work well. Games load quickly and generally don't have issues with performance (some do get a little sluggish when a lot is going on at once).
Otherwise, the Playdate has a battery that can last for 14-days on standby and eight hours when being played, which from my experience with handheld gaming systems, this is about standard, albeit in a more tuned down and far less technologically complex system than say the Nintendo Switch. Last of all, the Playdate does support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, meaning you don't need to connect the Playdate to a PC to download new games, you can simply do that via the system.
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For the most part, the Playdate is an impressive little piece of tech that is as adorable as it is fun. The crank can be a little finicky in games at times, and I have experienced a couple of crashes (mostly tied to the DemonQuest 85 game), but these are minor issues that only become noticeable with more time using the system. The one bigger area that I have noticed more problems with is the display, which works similarly to a Gameboy Colour and other older systems, in that in poorly lit environments it can be a real challenge to see what is happening. It doesn't seem to feature backlighting at all, and could do with one of those mini lights that slap on the back of the device and bend over and point at its display so you can play under your bed covers like an eight-year-old catching Pokémon past your bedtime.
As for the games, I've been able to explore the majority of what Season 1 is set to offer. That includes 24 games, each of which have a unique design and play a little differently. Some work really well out of the gate, and are explained efficiently or have such simplistic concepts that they really don't need explanation - Snak (essentially Snake), Pick Pack Pup (a match-three style of game), and Executive Golf DX (mini golf) are great examples of this.
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Some games are the opposite however, and are either poorly explained or the general design is complicated, making it very difficult to get into them and enjoy them. The peculiar Lost Your Marbles and the difficult to follow Ratcheteer are two examples of these. I will say to this point that while not every game was up my street, the majority of titles in Season 1 are pretty fun, and will engage players with their unique and entertaining premises, but at the same time, don't expect a lot of these games to hold your attention for hours, because many are very short, and many are also arcade titles alike Snake and Breakout.
But all in all, the Playdate is a curious system that is both unique, fun, and also well designed. It's not exactly cheap, as it retails for $179, but what you do get is a good quality system that has a very high potential, potential we'll see best when more talented individuals start working with the development engine and begin launching titles that can really use its ingenious control mechanics to its advantage.
8 / 10
Great build quality. Good performance. It's adorable. Available games are varied and fun. Solid battery life. Easy to set-up.
Display can be hard to see the finer details. Some games are very poorly explained and difficult to get into.