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Review: Playdate console offers pocket-sized gaming, a hand crank and nostalgia

Bright and cheerful, the Playdate fits in the palm of your hand.
Keller Gordon
Bright and cheerful, the Playdate fits in the palm of your hand.

I love unboxing a new console. The feeling of sliding a pocket knife through neatly taped packaging, the plastic cover that glides off the spotless black screen, new joysticks that haven't yet grown slack with use. It's an intimate experience, unwrapping a device that will occupy a significant portion of your days.

Unpacking my Playdate, the new handheld console by developer Panic, brought me instant joy. I grinned from ear to ear after carefully shimmying it out of its packaging, and as I booted it up for the first time, a sunshine-yellow device smiled back at me (literally).

The Playdate isn't anything like the Steam Deck, which has more power than I know what to do with. In fact, it's the opposite — it concentrates its tiny, adorable energy on tiny, adorable games like Casual Birder or Pick Pack Pup. The Playdate is a nostalgia trip; it reminds me of my first consoles, like the Game Boy Advance or Nintendo GameCube. While it can't run Horizon: Forbidden West or Elden Ring, it can make me feel like a little kid again.

Brimming with novel games

It also comes with an impressive suite of free games. When I first started using the little guy, I wrongly assumed that it would start with two or three games max. But each morning over the span of two weeks, a blinking light on the wake/sleep button alerted me to the release of another black-and-white treasure. Not every game entirely succeeds, but it's easy to find something you'll enjoy out of the dozens of games already released — with many more on the way (my favorite is probably Time Travel Adventures).

Designed by Teenage Engineering, a Swedish electronics manufacturer that focuses on music equipment, it's beautifully crafted, too. While its twee aesthetic comes with some ergonomic pain, they struck a sentimental nerve by evoking a simpler time in gaming. It's got a basic layout: a D-pad, an A and B button, a crank, a wake/sleep button, a reflective screen, and — wait, Keller, did you just say a crank?

Yes, I did! The Playdate has a beautiful, silky smooth crank. Use it to go backward and forward in time in Time Travel Adventures, circle your spaceship around stars in Star Sled, or focus your camera in Casual Birder. Some games use the crank more than others, but when the opportunity presents itself, it's a nifty experience. Who thought that a new console in 2022 would have a crank like some old emergency radio? At times it feels a little gimmicky, but it's thrilling when compared to console controllers that haven't changed much in two decades.

While the Playdate's crank makes it stand out, it's not the coolest thing about the console. Ever wanted to take a crack at designing a video game? The Playdate makes it easy. Right now, you can go online and download its software development kit for free. Experienced developers who want to take their creativity to the small screen can do so without paying licensing fees, and can even distribute their projects any way they please. Panic even has a web-based game editor (Pulp) that you can use directly from your browser. It is beyond refreshing to see a game company give freedom to aspiring creators in a world filled with intellectual propertylawsuits.

A selection of the many games already available for free on the Playdate.
/ Panic
A selection of the many games already available for free on the Playdate.

Cute and acutely inconvenient

I might be more inspired to put together a rudimentary game of my own if the Playdate felt better to hold. Despite its sunshiny appearance, I didn't always feel so sunshiny playing it for more than 20 minutes at a time. The sharp edges dig into my palms while I crank away, and I have to repeatedly readjust my grip on the tiny console.

It can also be hard to make out. The Playdate's black-and-white screen isn't backlit. I found myself constantly turning the console toward a light source, contorting my body and hands accordingly. I would be chilling in bed, ready to game, only to be foiled by the Playdate's dim screen.

All in all, the Playdate seems to be more of a collector's item than a staple gaming console. After spending tons of time with it at first, I soon left it unplayed on my desk with its convenient sleep-mode clock staring back at me. I don't know how much I'll be using the Playdate going forward, but I still admire it. An adorable, bright yellow, retro-esque console with a novel-if-inconvenient crank. As we inch closer and closer to VR, the metaverse, and Unreal Engines, it's refreshing to see a console go back to the basics.

Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join The Game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_

Copyright 2024 NPR

Keller Gordon
[Copyright 2024 NPR]