Teensy indie game console Playdate is a beautiful toy—but it could be so much more


imageNovelty is a wonderful thing; being a novelty, less so.And that, really, is the distinction that will decide the fate of the Playdate, the indie-minded new handheld video game console from Portland-based designers Panic and Swedish electronics company Teenage Engineering.The brightly colored, lovingly crafted, utterly charming handheld system is tiny; it is gorgeous; it is innovative.But it’s not clear yet whether it is also capable of going the distance in an increasingly crowded attention economy, or whether it’s doomed to be just, well… an interesting novelty.

First, some basics: Measuring at 76 by 74 millimeters (and a shockingly thin 9 millimeters thick), the Playdate fits fairly neatly into the palm of a hand.

The elements of its minimalist control scheme (minus the big signature feature, which we’ll get to in a second) are all serviceable but not flashy: A slightly stiff directional pad and two face buttons, plus a lock button up top, and a menu button that sits to the right of the system’s gorgeously monochrome LCD screen.

While it’s unsurprisingly light, given its size, the overall ergonomics of the system top out at that serviceable level; the overall size of it can make its controls feel a bit cramped in larger hands, and the sharp edges of the plastic occasionally dug unpleasantly into our fingers.

And then, of course, there’s the crank.

Much of the marketing around the Playdate has focused on the admittedly attention-catching decision to include a small metallic crank on the side of the device, which pops out easily, and can be used as an analog control for all sorts of different games.Its uses are varied enough to make us hesitate in labeling it as a mere gimmick… but, well, the word “gimmick” is appearing in this paragraph for a reason.In games that use it well—including Chuhai Labs’ surfing-themed Whitewater Wipeout, one of the first games Playdate owners will receive as part of the systems’ seasonal software distribution scheme—the crank can land somewhere in the neighborhood of genuinely transformative, evoking a rewiring of the basic relationship between the hands and the action on the screen.

In other games, it’s basically a glorified text scroller, with functionality added seemingly because, well, you gotta use the crank somehow, right?

And that wide variance in the Playdate’s initial software library gets to the heart of both the biggest issues, and the massive (semi-tapped) potential of the system at launch.In addition to its innovative control scheme, the biggest selling point surrounding the Playdate’s $179 price tag has been the fact that you’re not just getting a cute addition to your device collection; you’re also getting weekly deliveries of games, two per week for 12 weeks, as part of the first “season” of Playdate content.The system goes out of its way to make these new deliveries feel like treats; its lock button glows a welcoming purple to announce the newly downloaded arrivals, before inviting you to literally unwrap them like presents in its menus.

A full review of all 24 games in the Playdate’s Season One collection is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this review.(Although we will be updating a separate piece with reviews of the two games arriving each week once the system formally lands in non-press people’s hands.) But it feels important to note that the quality and depth of the games on display varied wildly, from legitimately interesting and lengthy games on the one hand, to glorified TI-83 calculator games on the other.That’s not an exaggeration, either: They literally included a fairly barebones version of goofing-off-in-trig-class classic Snake in the Season One collection.(You don’t even use the crank to control the snake!)

If there’s a damning common thread for all these offerings, though, it’s a general inability to hold the player’s eyes or attention for more than a few minutes at a time.Sometimes, that’s because there’s just not a whole lot of game there: There are some nice arcade experiences on offer (including a clever, ball-bouncing riff on sidescrolling space shooters called Battleship Godios that would have blown our minds while slacking off in high school math class).But most of them have pretty clearly lifted their base mechanics from elsewhere—and “Breakout, but you’re using a crank to control the paddle” isn’t necessarily anyone’s idea of a killer app.

The more robust games, meanwhile, suffer from the simple fact that the Playdate’s beautifully sharp but tiny screen isn’t necessarily an ideal setting for longform narrative.

(No backlight, either; the screen handles mid-light conditions okay for action games, but god help you if you’re being asked to read.) Hunching over this petite device, squinting to track movement or read text… Even when you’re playing something genuinely great, it’s hard to forget that your game-packed, big smartphone is right there, waiting to alleviate the eyestrain.The pick-up-and-put-down nature of the Playdate could be spun as a plus for a system meant to slip into and out of the pocket with ease.But the honest truth is that, even when the games are good enough to merit it, it’s a hard system to lose oneself in for any prolonged period of time.

(A few caveats about the Playdate review experience here, since they may impact your decision to try to hunt one down.First: Press got an accelerated release schedule for Season One, with two new games arriving every single day, instead of every week—imposing a little extra anxiety onto the whole “unwrapping your presents on Christmas morning” vibe.

Second: Your reviewer turns 38 this week; any complaints about the incredible teensiness of the Playdate’s text displays should probably be filtered through a base understanding of his advancing decrepitude.)

But even with all that being said, it’s hard to write the Playdate off—especially aesthetically.The screen, for instance, really is just that sharp and pretty, allowing games like the delightful Crankin Presents: Time Travel Adventure to take on the feel of a genuine stop-motion film, or the cartoon pseudo-Amazon wage workers of Pick Pack Pup to come to exuberant life.There’s also the intriguing fact that Season One is only a portion of the possible content that might roll out for the system in the near future; Panic has made this an open system, and released both its developer’s kit and a more simple game-maker to the public.(They also included an app that allows players to hook the Playdate to their computer and play through a monitor, increasing accessibility options and visibility fairly seamlessly.) The potential for developers to crank out some truly strange and interesting stuff here is undeniable.

And underpinning all of that is the simple fact that the Playdate is, well… neat.

It’s a lovely object, in an industry that sometimes forgets that it can make those.It never lets you forget that one of its base reasons for existing is to be charming, attention-grabbing, and cute.It excels at all of those things—which, unfortunately, rounds up to making it a fascinating, somewhat pricey conversation piece.But it still has the potential to be more; we’d be lying if we said we weren’t rooting for it to succeed in those loftier goals..

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