Handheld consoles used to be a large part of my gaming experience. The Gameboy, PSP and a multitude of other handhelds hold a dear place in my heart, not least of which because they existed at a time where Internet access wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today. Over the years, and in no small part due to the smartphone revolution, I found myself gaming on the go less and less. My handhelds packed away and those rare moments where I wanted to kill some time were instead filled with Reddit or some other distraction.

Enter Playdate, which managed to part me and my cash for a few reasons. Firstly it was co-engineered with Teenage Engineering, a group whose products I’ve lusted after for many years but always abstained since, you know, I’m not a music producer. Then there was the idea that a system with built in limitations: grayscale screen, low power processor and the inclusion of a…hand crank?!? would probably lead to some more interesting games than I’d probably expect. So I preordered in and got into Group 4 and so I’ve had the last couple months to put the thing through its paces.

There’s no denying it’s a well engineered piece of kit. The whole thing feels quite solid for its size, although I’m sure a good chunk of that simply the battery. The buttons are nice and clicky, feeling like a premium version of what I remember Gameboy buttons to be. The UI is incredibly smooth, something you don’t really expect from a grayscale, pixel art interface. Sound from the unit is really good as is the sound design work that went into all the interface elements. The corners are a little on the sharper side, something which becomes apparent after longer playing sessions when it starts to dig into the sides of your hands.

Then there’s the crank.

So just purely as a thing it does what you’d expect it to. The tracking on the position is quite sensitive, to the point where it feels like games that make use of that precision are quite finicky to interact with. Once you understand that though it then becomes a challenge of how fine grained your own motion can be which, if you’re like me, is probably worse than you thought. I’m also a tad worried about the longevity of the thing as whilst it started off feeling quite tight after a few…robust sessions with it I feel like some play has started to develop in a couple parts. Time will tell how that progresses.

Playdate had the admirable idea that, upon everyone getting their console, they’d do seasons of game releases that everyone could then enjoy together as a kind of community experience. This didn’t happen of course, but they still kept the season idea for each of the batches. What this means is that when you first get your console you’ll only have a couple games to play, with the remaining season’s worth of games drip fed to you over the course of a number of weeks. There is, of course, a store with a bunch of other games that you buy and should you so choose you can “spoil” the season and get everything right away if you’d prefer.

I’ll say that I was a little miffed with the season idea to begin with, mostly because the first couple games didn’t really hit the mark for me. Of course that meant I put it down for a week and then when it started chirping about new games being available I went back to it again. The following weeks had a few games that I actually enjoyed and that made the time between drinks feel a little bit shorter. Plus if you’re like me and get busy from time to time you’ll usually end up coming back to a number of games you haven’t played yet. So this is my long winded way of saying I’m on board with the idea now.

As for the games themselves? They vary wildly. Some of them are your typical indie-game affair wrapped in a different package, something that doesn’t necessarily suffer from the limitations of the platform. Some of these were great, like Pick Pack Pup, whilst others like the bird watching one felt like there wasn’t anything gained or lost from them being on this platform. The experience of playing them on this tiny handheld is somewhat novel, so they’ve got that going for them at least.

Then there’s novelty games which make use of the crank in some fashion. These were the kinds of experiments I was hoping to see and, for the most part, I think they achieve what they set out to do. Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure is a good example of this, one that takes a relatively simple idea and explores it through levels that you can get through in a handful of minutes. Root Bear is another good one, although I’ll admit I haven’t played that one as much as I thought I would.

The common theme through most of the games I played through was that they were the kinds of time wasters that you would expect to see on mobile gaming back in the day, minus the exploitative microtransactions. It definitely feels like that was the objective of the handheld itself too as it doesn’t really feel designed to be used for hours at a time. This isn’t to say that people aren’t attempting to work on a title like that, Lucas Pope’s Mars After Midnight comes to mind, but at least for now that seems to be where the games on this console want to be. That’ll mean different things to different people but for me at least it’s meant that my Playdate has spent more time staring longingly at me than it has been in my hands.

Which I’m not terribly upset about by the way. I wanted to invest in the idea because I was interested to see if a handheld still had a place for me and something like this, with its limited scope, felt like a good test ground for it. I mean, I’ve still got a switch behind me that’s literally seen only one game so the answer was probably clear, but it was worth the attempt at the very least.

Will you be seeing more of this platform on the blog? I dunno, the games themselves don’t seem to warrant more than a handful of paragraphs for a review and, bluntly, I haven’t seen anything that’s really made me want to go back on the platform in the last month or so. To be sure if Mars After Midnight comes out I’ll give it a whirl, but I’m not aware of anything that’s Playdate exclusive yet that I should be keeping my eye on. The Playdate then feels like a low-cost experiment, one that a dev might ply their hand at to see what they can do more than they would say, approach it as a serious platform that they want to sink a bunch of time into. For what the console is though I think that’s OK and I’m probably not the ideal demographic. Still I’ll keep it around, read the emails every so often and hope one day there’s an experience I can point to and say “You gotta play this, have a lend of my Playdate”.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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