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Playdate review: A magical, dev-friendly handheld bristling with possibility

After spending weeks with the Playdate, Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr tries to figure out what, exactly, Panic has cooked up.

What exactly is Playdate? I've spent the past six months chatting with developers who've been quietly creating for Panic's bright yellow handheld ahead of its upcoming launch in a bid to untangle that question, but now that I've finally gone hands-on with the device myself, the answer appears rather complex.

When Panic debuted the console in Edge back in 2019, it seemed like it had the potential to be everything to all people. A retro-infused handheld chock full of titles from some of the industry's most renowned creators, giving discerning players with a taste for short, sharp, and succulent indie morsels access to an expanding Criterion Collection-esque portfolio of games designed and built by the brightest in the biz.

For developers, the idea of a console that would come with a devoted audience (the Playdate sold through its first batch of 20,000 units in minutes), accessible tools geared towards both experienced and fledgling creators, and quirky hardware -- just look at that CRANK -- must have been equally tantalizing.

A launch delay caused by what Panic described as a "critical hardware issue" and the overwhelming air of secrecy surrounding the project, however, has allowed the Playdate to remain something of an enigma -- that is, until now.

The nuts and bolts (and cranks)

Let's get down to brass tacks, then. In incredibly literate terms, the Playdate is a novel handheld games console with two main A+B button inputs, a d-pad, and an analog crank. It's a delightful shade of bright yellow, boasts Wi-Fi support to let owners sideload projects and download titles as they're rolled out weekly as part of the console's seasonal release model, and has one USB-C port used for charging and connecting to other hardware.

Getting a bit more technical, Playdate has been kitted with a 180 MHz Cortex M7 processor that Panic describes as "peppy," a super-reflective 400 x 240 1-bit display (no backlights here), 16MB RAM, a built-in mono speaker alongside a stereo headphone jack, 3-axis accelerometer, Bluetooth support, and a battery that offers 8 hours of life when active or 14 days when in standby clock mode.

That's all bundled into a square(ish) case that measures 76 x 74 x 9 mm, and honestly, I'm still not quite sure how Panic managed to squeeze so much into something so damn tiny. For very important context, here's a picture of the Playdate next to my Nintendo Switch and Standard Issue Scaling Banana.

Playdate nestled next to a Nintendo Switch and banana

In-hand, the Playdate feels great. If you were concerned about the potential for pains and strains because of its diminutive size, you needn't worry. As someone with palms the size of Nevada, using the device never became awkward or uncomfortable -- even after longer play sessions. 

The crank, which can be folded away when not in use, also feels reassuringly sturdy. There's enough resistance when in-use that you never feel like you're in danger of damaging the hardware -- there are times when you'll really need to crank it -- and the Playdate itself has an industrial finish that suggests a certain level of durability. Of course, I still recommend looking after your device to the best of your abilities. Let's not tempt fate.

For those who want to add an extra layer of protection, particularly where the display is concerned, Panic will soon be launching an official Playdate cover that screws and secures itself magnetically to turn the device into an "electronic ice cream sandwich." That's a metaphor, of course -- please don't ingest it.

Close up of Playdate on wooden desk

At this stage, I only really have a couple of gripes with the hardware -- the most prominent being a d-pad that feels slightly cheap. Every button delivers a crisp 'click' when pressed, offering a pleasant amount of feedback, but the d-pad (on my console at least) seems to be slightly ill-fitted. It wobbles when not in use, and feels more fragile than every other button on the console. Practically speaking it hasn't been an issue (yet), but it's something that I became aware of as soon as I went hands-on, and I wonder if it's a problem that will become more pronounced as the device gets seasoned with some good old fashioned wear-and-tear.

There's also the screen. Despite being "super-reflective," the Playdate's display can be difficult to see in low-light conditions. The black-and-white images themselves are razor sharp, but the lack of a backlight means you'll need to actively tilt the device towards a light source at times. I found it particularly frustrating when playing in the evening, with the lack of natural light combined with the (incredibly tasteful) ambient lighting in my apartment often requiring me to sit directly under a lamp to get the best possible experience. It's a small niggle, but one worth noting -- especially if you're someone who, like me, is loathe to switch on the "Big Light."

Putting the 'Play' in Playdate

Video games are the warm, melty, bread and butter of any console launch. It doesn't matter how compelling your hardware offering is if your software lineup doesn't cut the mustard, and fortunately Playdate has something for everyone. That last phrase is admittedly a cliche, so I want to emphasize just how varied, madcap, and unashamedly barmy the 24 titles that comprise Playdate 'Season One' are.

Although press were granted access to the entire Season One collection ahead of time, those who nab a Playdate through more conventional means will receive two brand new titles every week for 12 weeks. You'll know it's time to download a new treat when the tiny light at the top of the Playdate begins to blink, beckoning you in for more fun and games like a miniature lighthouse leading sailors back to shore. You won't need to pay to access Season One, as the cost has been bundled into the $179 you'll need to fork out to grab a Playdate. As Panic says, this one's on the house.

As for the games themselves, it's difficult to explain precisely why Playdate's software lineup is so compelling without spoiling the bounty of surprises that make them such a thrill. It's clear, though, that those developers charged with leading the line have so much love and affection for everything the Playdate embodies. Having sat down with a few Playdate devs -- including Zach Gage, Bennett Foddy, and Keita Takahashi (more from them later this week)-- it's evident creators were raring to explore the shiny new playground Panic built.

Title cards for 15 early Playdate games, including Casual Birder, Execuitve Golf DX, and Flipper Lifter.

Will you enjoy every single game in Season One? Absolutely not. But even if one or two don't quite click, I guarantee there'll be something about each project that leaves you wondering "how on earth did they do THAT?" The quality of everything from the character animations, lean-and-mean game design, mechanical ingenuity, and audio work is bafflingly good.

There's one game, for instance, that asks you to use the crank and d-pad as a pestle and mortar and incorporates an impossibly satisfying tilt-to-pour animation. Another has you storming a castle as a ronin, cutting down foes with pinpoint precision in an atmospheric, isometric world that wouldn't look out of place on larger consoles. There are old-school RPGs, fresh takes on beloved classics that demand replay after replay, a pinball-infused narrative adventure that features some of my favorite writing of the year -- the list goes on and on.

In filling the Playdate with titles that lean into obscurity with giddy abandon, Panic has accepted there'll be weeks when some players feel sold short. If you're buying into the Playdate, though, I suspect you understand that's also part of the fun. After all, there's an excitement that comes with wondering what beautiful oddity lurks around the corner. Although I can't guarantee you'll adore them all -- hell, I didn't -- what I can promise is that by the end of Season One you'll have a handheld filled with some of the silliest, most ingenious, and unashamedly FUN projects in recent memory.

Pulp fiction

The truly marvellous thing about Playdate is that if there aren't any games that tickle your fancy, you can simply roll up your sleeves and make your own. This isn't another slice of my typically British sarcasm. I'm being deadly serious. Panic has gone above and beyond to ensure that anybody -- and I mean ANYBODY -- can design, create, and launch a Playdate project with minimal experience.

One of the most common plaudits I've heard from Playdate developers is the shared belief that a thriving development community is bound to spring up around the device, and that's because Panic has spent years putting an accessible and welcoming development framework in place.

More experienced developers can download the Playdate SDK for free and start creating in Lua or C right away (download it here). The SDK includes a rich set of APIs, a compiler, and reams of reference documentation to assist with programming, design, performance, and more.

Playdate SDK

Panic has also released a tool called Caps, which is an online bitmap-font editor that can be used to draw typographic characters, edit existing fonts, and kern and preview them. There's Playdate Mirror, a desktop app that mirrors the screen of a connected Playdate in realtime, which is ideal for streaming or recording gameplay -- handy for when you want to rustle up a launch trailer, no?

Then there's Pulp, a web-based game editor for Playdate that can be used to create a game with almost no coding experience. I took Pulp for a spin earlier this year, and as someone with zero experience in the trenches of development was staggered at how quickly I was able to create a narrative adventure (pictured below) that, while janky, actually worked.

Although more experienced devs might steer away from Pulp, for enthusiasts who want to take their first steps into the world of game creation, the in-browser tool is nothing short of miraculous. Within a few hours I'd created numerous NPC sprites (complete with unique animations), learned how to program variables to ensure pathways would only open after specific conditions were met, added a simple conversation system, and fleshed out a map using handmade world tiles that quickly taught me the basics of pixel art. Pulp also allows users to preview and test projects in-browser, meaning you can start creating for Playdate ahead of launch.

A short narrative game created by a non-developer within Playdate Pulp

Already, the Pulp developer forum has become a hive of activity, with would-be creators sharing tips and tricks as they get to grips with the toolkit. I was able to overcome some early -- and embarrassingly rudimentary -- programming issues with a quick visit to the forum. The community there has already proven itself to be welcoming and supportive, irrespective of whether you're a novice or veteran dev, and that itself is a huge win. It's not often you find wholesome places on the internet these days, y'know.

For the creators

Okay. Let's bring it full circle and ask that all-important question one more time: what exactly is the Playdate? From a consumer perspective, it's a twee slice of magic that'll engage and delight in equal measure. A glee-inducing console designed around a pick-up-and-play philosophy that'll elevate your coffee breaks to new heights. On it's own, that might be enough for some. But to suggest the Playdate is all about, well, playing, would be an absolute WHOPPER of a lie.

If you were to prize off that now-iconic yellow shell and gaze into Playdate's glistening, swirling core, what you'd understand is that the tinkerers at Panic have given us something infinitely more special than mere hardware or video games. They've handed over the delicate, priceless gift of possibility.

This is a console that screams "c'mon mate, I DARE you to create" and hands over all the tools you'll ever need to realize whatever half-baked concept you've got bouncing around that brain of yours. It's a teeny slice of pure inspiration. A golden ticket into the madcap world of game development. An excitable, accessible, toybox of a machine that strives to empower and captivate creators old and new. If you love to create, Playdate needs to be on your radar.

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