Review: Playdate Handheld Video Game Console


Posted on April 21, 2024 by fncwill

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Playdate Handheld Video Game Console USD $199

Summary:

The Playdate handheld console has significant shortcomings that impact its user experience. Its screen quality is notably dim and lacks a backlight, making gaming challenging in various lighting conditions and diminishing immersion. Despite its promise of a unique gaming library, only a few games truly stand out as enjoyable and worthwhile. These issues in screen quality and game selection make it hard to recommend the Playdate, especially considering its $199 USD price tag, and I would not want to personally spend more than half of this price ($100 USD)on this console in its current state. If I were Panic, I’d focus on publishing video games like Firewatch from Camp Santo instead.

As the Gameboy celebrates its 35th anniversary today, April 21st, it’s hard not to reflect on its monumental impact on the world of gaming. This iconic handheld console, which first launched in Japan, revolutionized portable gaming and became a cultural phenomenon. Fast forward to today, and we have the Playdate, a handheld console that proudly wears its Gameboy inspiration on its sleeve. When the Playdate was first being marketed, I was excited to hear about a handheld reminiscent of the Gameboy, promising that old-school black-and-white classic gaming feel. I’ve been eagerly waiting for something to transport me back to the simple days of gaming. However, as I started to see what the Playdate looked like, its capabilities, and learned more about its hardware and games, my initial excitement began to wane. I found myself questioning whether the Playdate could truly capture the essence of those beloved old-school games while bringing something fresh to the modern age. Join me as we dive deeper into the Playdate and see if it lives up to its nostalgic promise.

In this review, I’ll break down the two main things that make the Playdate what it is, and rate the handheld on two main criteria: Hardware and the second being it’s Game Selection.

Hardware:

Playdate is a handheld gaming console made by Panic, that stands out with its distinctive black and white screen similar to the original Gameboy, which is super reflective rather than backlit.

Designed in collaboration with Teenage Engineering, Playdate boasts a vibrant and pocket-friendly design. The buttons are meticulously crafted to offer a satisfying clicky feel, while the crank, an unconventional feature, provides an analog control mechanism. Though not all games utilize the crank, titles like “Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure” make creative use of this unique input method. The crank however in my opinion isn’t all that exciting (I’ll go into this more in the games section)

I got to say though, although the black and white screen is nice and adds to that old-school gaming feel, HOLY GOD DAMN the playdate’s screen is not bright at all, it’s so dim sometimes I can’t even determine if it’s on or off, and in lots of environments, it’s impossible to read the screen.

Internally, the Playdate is Slightly more impressive though, featuring a 168 MHz Cortex M7 CPU, 802.11bgn 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi (I won’t give it too much hate for not having 5G but it would be a nice feature or option on a more premium model), and a surprisingly loud Mono speaker. An interesting feature of the console is that when not in use, the screen transitions into a low-power clock, adding a functional touch to its design, but since the screen again is so dim, it doesn’t do much as a bedside clock when the screen blends in with an already dark room. Bluetooth is coming soon , but what it will bring to the console other than use with the Bluetooth Dock coming soon, is probably nothing special.

NOTE: At the time of this review the Playdate Stereo Bluetooth Dock has not been released but the option of converting the playdate into a mini speaker with a small display is neat. If the option of satellite or internet radio is added this would make it a win in my book, but with just MP3’s, the console doesn’t have enough storage space to make it worthwhile, with only 4GB of Flash Storage.

Finally, the size of the Playdate is 76 × 74 × 9 mm (about 3 inches), which as a person with big hands, even the iPhone 15 Pro max looks small in my palm, the Playdate feels way too small. In comparison, the original Gameboy had a height of 5.8” (148 mm), width of 3.5” (90 mm), and depth of 1.3” (32 mm).

Overall I’m not overly impressed by the hardware, sure it does its purpose and feels like a wider but much smaller Gameboy, but it still could use a lot of improvement, to help set itself to be a breakthrough in handheld gaming, while remaining to stay in that black and white era.

Games:

When it comes to games on the Playdate there are two ways to go about getting new games:

Seasons:

The Playdate handheld console operates on a seasonal model for its free game releases. Each season on Playdate comprises 24 free games, carefully curated by both well-known developers and emerging indie talents. This mix ensures a rich and varied gaming experience for players.

Games are rolled out in a systematic manner, with two new games being released every week throughout the season. This consistent schedule means that players can anticipate a fresh gaming experience every week, maintaining high levels of excitement and engagement.

Once a season concludes with all 24 free games released, a new season begins with another set of 24 games. This cycle ensures that players always have something new and intriguing to look forward to, as the lineup of games refreshes regularly.

Catalog:

The catalog section is just like any other storefront for video games and offers all the paid games (as well as some additional free games). At the time of review, there is Approx. 181 games with an average game price of only $5.36 which isn’t outrageous … however … most of the games in the catalog are a horrible value, and I wouldn’t pay more than $1.99 for, with a few exceptions of course. In my opinion , There should instead by Two “Seasons” that run side by side one Free and one Premium paid Option, similar to an Xbox Game Pass where games get added and you pay a small subscription fee monthly, maybe with the option of selecting a few games to keep monthly after the season ends.

Speaking of games, let’s jump deeper into some of them:

First let’s start with one of the most well-known games on the Playdate, and one that utilized the unique crank input method, Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure.

In “Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure,” the crank is an integral part of the gameplay. Players use the crank to control the flow of time, manipulating the game world and its characters. By turning the crank, players can move Crankin through various obstacles, solve puzzles, and navigate challenging environments. The tactile sensation of turning the crank adds a tangible and immersive dimension to the gameplay, making each action feel more engaging and interactive.

The use of the crank in “Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure” also introduces a strategic element to the game. Timing and precision become crucial as players must carefully manage the speed and direction of their cranking to overcome obstacles and progress through levels. This innovative control scheme challenges players to think creatively and adapt their cranking technique to suit different situations, adding depth and complexity to the gameplay.

Although the crank isn’t overly more useful or as enjoyable in any of the other games that are currently available, rather than just using the standard buttons to move, I don’t think enough Developers for the playdate are really thinking about how they can incorporate the crank into their game.Personally, I think it would be interesting to see a proper showcase of crank-featured games or an incentive for developers to create games that use this input, as at the moment this feels like a forgotten feature of what could make the Playdate stand-out, versus those simple Android GameBoy Clones with ROM’s on them of Super Mario or PacMan.

Some of the games I did find somewhat enjoyable however were:

Rendsword – Rendsword is an exciting linguistic adventure where words transform into powerful weapons. As a player, you wield the legendary Rendsword through intense battles against waves of creatures using letter-based cards. With a variety of card types representing each letter of the alphabet and a collection of 32 unique relics with passive abilities, each gameplay session offers a fresh and strategic experience.

Diction – A captivating word-based puzzle game on Playdate that challenges players to transform a starting word into a different one by altering just one letter at a time. The goal is to craft as many unique words as possible, testing players’ vocabulary and strategic skills. The game offers two distinct modes: “INTENSE” mode, where players race against the clock to generate correct words and earn more time, and “CALM” mode, which provides a relaxed, timer-free environment but limits the number of chances available. Whether racing against time or taking a thoughtful approach, “Diction” offers an engaging word puzzle experience that celebrates linguistic creativity and adaptability.

Under The Castle – Under the Castle is a timeless roguelike game that invites you to delve into endless dungeons, defeat foes, collect Orbs of Light, and free captured villagers. Navigate the perilous depths using weapons, potions, magic scrolls, and even your trusty hat. Embark on your quest to confront the Evil Lord and emerge victorious from the challenging underworld.

There definitely are a lot more good things to say about the games for the playdate than the hardware, but there still are quite a lot of games that just aren’t fun or anything special, more so than ones that I actually found enjoyable.

Conclusion:

The Playdate handheld console falls short in some key areas that significantly impact the overall user experience. As mentioned,one of the most glaring issues is its screen quality; the display is notably dim and lacks a backlight, making it challenging to enjoy games in various lighting conditions. This limitation not only hampers visibility but also detracts from the immersive experience that handheld gaming consoles strive to deliver. Additionally, despite its promise of a unique gaming library, the reality is that only a handful of games truly stand out as enjoyable and worth the investment. While the console has potential and offers some interesting gaming concepts, these shortcomings in screen quality and game selection make it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend the Playdate to discerning gamers looking for a polished and engaging handheld gaming experience, especially at the $199 USD price tag. I would not want to personally spend more than half of this price ($100 USD)on this console in its current state. If I were Panic I would stick to Publishing Video Games like Firewatch from Camp Santo.

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