Playdate Hardware Review – An Amazingly Fun Little Device with One Huge Drawback

Over the past few years there have been two gaming consoles that I have been unbelievably hyped for: Panic’s Playdate and Valve’s Steam Deck, and let me tell you, these two things could not be more opposite from each other. Steam Deck is a full-blown gaming PC in handheld form that’s capable of playing thousands of full-blown AAA PC games without breaking a sweat. It’s an awesome piece of modern gaming technology. Playdate, on the other hand, is going for something very different. It’s a tiny handheld gaming system not much larger than a credit card and it purposely features some low-tech components like a black and white screen and just two face buttons and a d-pad. Oh, and it also has a fold-out crank.

It’s that crank that really made a lasting impression on the world when the Playdate was first announced way back in 2019. Immediately the system became divisive amongst gamers and the world at large. Some labeled the Playdate as some overpriced hipster garbage that only idiots would buy to try and impress their hipster friends. Haters gonna hate. Seemingly far more people saw the Playdate for what Panic seemed to envision it as: Something different. Something quirky. Something actually fun. We tend to take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes (okay, A LOT of the time) in the world of video games, and Playdate represented something lighthearted and even silly in the face of the typical technical arms race of the PC and console wars space.

Obviously this resonated with quite a few people, and Playdate sold out of its initial allotment of 20,000 units in a matter of minutes when pre-orders went live in July of last year. Beyond those 20,000 the Playdate is back-ordered through the rest of 2022, so if you order one right now the earliest you’ll see it is sometime in 2023. So yeah, love it or hate it, there’s no doubt that the Playdate has proven majorly popular and has been generating buzz ever since its first unveiling, and now at long last this weird little yellow square of fun is finally launching. Panic was gracious enough to send us a review unit, and so for about the past month I’ve been able to experience what Playdate is all about, and I have… a lot of thoughts.

First off, the Playdate hardware itself is fabulous, and was actually co-developed by Panic with Teenage Engineering. The little unit has a decent amount of weight to it, and while plasticky, it doesn’t feel cheap. The overall finish has a bit of texture to it which feels nice, and in contrast the d-pad, face buttons, and menu button are shiny and smooth. All the buttons have a really satisfying clickiness to them. Then there is the famous crank. Its handle is the same yellow matte finish as the body of the Playdate, and its arm is made out of metal and feels really solid. It rotates smoothly, and when you’re not using the crank it can fold down kind of into the body of the unit to tuck itself out of the way. Panic has often stated how important it was to get the crank *just right* and to ensure it was solid enough to stand the test of time and thousands upon thousands of cranks. I think they nailed it.

Rounding out the hardware is a power/sleep button on the top, and a USB-C port and headphone jack on the bottom. Playdate also features some more modern amenities on the inside like Wi-Fi and an accelerometer. There are screws at the 4 corners of the unit which hold the thing together, but also are cleverly used to attach the Playdate magnetically to accessories like the previously announced Stereo Dock and Playdate Cover. The screen is somewhat oddly offset on the face of the device, which leaves room on one side for a surprisingly good-sounding and decently loud speaker.

So yeah, the screen. I’ve been kind of avoiding getting to this point, but besides the crank, the screen is one of the biggest standout elements of the Playdate. Much hay has been made over the choice to go with a black and white 1-bit screen and, more importantly, a screen with no backlight. Panic’s reasoning has been that the particular screen they found is super high-contrast and super power-efficient. There is no denying those two things. This is one of the most striking screens I’ve ever seen, even in black and white (or grey more accurately), and no picture or video can really do it justice, you really have to see it in person.

Also, in a world where just about everything we own needs to be charged on a daily basis, there is a lot to be said for a device that can go weeks without a recharge. In fact, as best as I can tell, there is no “off" state for the Playdate. It literally gets delivered to you with the screen on and displaying simple instructions on how to unlock the unit and get started. The power button on top is more accurately a sleep and wake button only, as when you click it once to put the unit to sleep it will display the time on the screen until you unlock it again. And the battery in this thing, when not under heavy use or doing a lot of downloading, will last for days and days even with that screen never turning off. It’s quite refreshing.

That said, a non-backlit screen in 2022 is just… difficult. The Playdate really needs direct light to be able to see the screen clearly. Even just being in a very well-lit room might not be enough. This won’t be a problem if the typical places you like to game are places with a light source directed at your playdate. A comfy piece of furniture that backs up to a window, or perhaps a dining room table with great overhead lighting. The problem is that the main two places I personally play handhelds in my home are on the couch and in bed, and in both of those places I can’t see the Playdate screen well enough for it to be playable. Even during daytime, with all the windows open, or with all the lights on at night. The only way it works is for me to uncomfortably tilt my body so that my nightstand light shines directly on the screen, or lean uncomfortably forward on the couch so that the room’s overhead light shines down so I can see what I’m doing.

Now, if I want to sit at the dining room table, or at the kitchen counter barstools, both of which have recessed overhead lights above, things look fantastic. Outside on a sunny day, the Playdate looks fantastic, as long as there’s not a direct glare from the sun. There are a few other spots around my house that I’ve noticed are lit well for Playdate playing, and while I’m not one to go out much lately, I imagine a well-lit place like Starbucks or similar would be a fine place to enjoy the Playdate as well. The problem is that I don’t like being forced into specific situations in order to fully enjoy the Playdate. Probably 95% of my gaming is done on the couch or in bed, THOSE are the places I want to play Playdate the most, and I really just can’t.

It’s frustrating because I’ve lived through the before times of unlit screens like the Game Boy line and original Game Boy Advance. Crappy Tiger Electronics LCD handhelds? Yeah man, I had tons of those. Game & Watches, you name it. But ever since the Game Boy Advance SP launched with its backlit screen, rechargeable batteries, and svelte clamshell design, I’ve known that handheld gaming could be more than what we’d all been putting up with for the past couple of decades. Handheld game systems could fit into my lifestyle and not the other way around. Playdate, in all its desire to embrace a retro spirit, has also embraced one of the biggest negative aspects of the technology from that earlier handheld era.

The other frustrating thing is that this isn’t something that can be fixed with a version 2.0 Playdate that simply tosses a backlit screen into the mix. The playdate uses a Sharp Memory LCD, a very specific type of panel that’s more similar to an e-ink display than anything else. It really needs to be lit up from the top, not from the back. As silly as it sounds, I’d love for someone to step in and create something like the Light Boy peripheral for the OG Game Boy that could attach (perhaps to those previously mentioned magnetic corners?) to the Playdate and offer a better lighting situation when needed.

I’m realizing that I’ve spent more than half this review bitching about the screen situation, and while it is my absolute number one gripe with the Playdate, it’s also pretty much my only gripe. I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t like the Playdate, because that’s not the case at all. In fact I love this crazy thing. I haven’t even touched on games yet and that’s really the heart and soul of any game system. In fact, physical attributes like the crank and screen aside, how Playdate is going about its game library is also one of its more unique aspects. Your purchase of a Playdate includes an entire “season" of games, which equates to 24 different titles, many of which are developed by some very famous names in the video games industry. The Playdate website has a list of 21 of those titles (gotta keep a few as surprises, you know) as well as the names behind them, if you’re curious.

My advice though is to avoid as much as you can about the first season of Playdate games. Once you turn on your device for the first time, the season starts and 2 games unlock right away. From then on every 7 days 2 more games will unlock until after 12 weeks you’ve unlocked all 24 from Season 1. One thing I didn’t mention about the Playdate hardware is that there’s a purple light built into the system’s sleep button on top, and it will pulse pleasingly whenever there are new games to download. The games themselves show up on your device as wrapped presents which you’ll then “unwrap" with the touch of a button. I’d be lying if I said that seeing that purple light blink when I woke up in the morning didn’t give me a rush of excitement.

Then there’s the fact that side-loading games onto a Playdate is not only easy, but is encouraged by Panic as a way to install whatever the heck you want to your system. They have gone out of their way to produce multiple ways to create software (not just games) for the Playdate. Hit up the developer section on the website and discover the official Playdate SDK where you can code games in Lua or C, and if you have no coding experience at all you can use the browser-based Pulp app to create games in a more drag-and-drop fashion. Pulp will obviously offer more limitations than something coded from the ground up, but it’s kind of amazing that literally anyone can make a game for Playdate with almost zero experience, and that any Playdate unit can download and try those creations. You can learn a lot more about Pulp and the SDK in the latest Playdate Update video.

Also, the fact that the initial 24 games that ship with Playdate are referred to as Season 1 suggests that there will be a Season 2, and perhaps even more seasons of “officially sanctioned" Playdate games. I’m purposely not going into much detail about Season 1 games because the surprise factor is such a big part of the enjoyment, but I will say you will find an extremely eclectic mix here. Some are quick-hit arcade-style games, some are beefy, story-heavy affairs. Some can be beaten quickly, some will take many hours. Some aren’t meant to be beaten at all. Some games use the crank heavily, some not at all. It really is a fantastic collection of games, and even if you ballparked each game at being $5 apiece, which in my opinion is lowballing, that’s still about $120 worth of software that’s included in the $180 asking price of the Playdate, making it not seem like such an overpriced thing after all.

I hate that I have such a negative view on the screen situation because overall I really love the Playdate. It’s fun in a way that video game systems just aren’t anymore. With its strong first season of games, the potential for future seasons, and not to mention the unlimited potential of community-created games through Pulp or the official SDK and the easy and clever way which you can wirelessly sideload them onto a Playdate through the website, I think there is a very strong future ahead for the Playdate system as a whole. Yes it can be inconvenient to play sometimes if you don’t have proper lighting, but it’s not the end of the world, and when you do have proper lighting that screen looks absolutely gorgeous.

Units are already starting to ship for those who pre-ordered back in July and are in “Group 1" with news about “Group 2" coming up shortly. If you haven’t pre-ordered yet, the entire allotment for 2022 is already spoken for, and the list for 2023 is filling up fast. You can pre-order, as well as find out tons and tons of additional information, on the Playdate website. It certainly won’t be for everybody, but if the Playdate has captured your attention and imagination at any point over the past 3 years since it was first unveiled, then I think you are the target market and will be pleased when you receive your pre-order. Just be aware of the screen lighting situation and you’ll have a good time. For me I’ve adjusted to that limitation and now look forward to seeing how the Playdate and its ecosystem grow now that units are finally being shipped.