We were almost not expecting Playdate anymore.
Initially announced in 2019 by Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game publisher Panic, the handheld device suffered from a few delays.
The launch was initially due in early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back, with pre-orders ultimately announced for July 2021 and a release expected by the end of that year. Its first batch of consoles, 20,000 units, sold out in less than 20 minutes.
Later that year, Playdate was delayed to early 2022 due to a "critical issue" with the device's battery life, leading the company to replace all of the existing batteries with brand new ones.
But finally, on Monday, the console started to ship to players who were part of the first round of pre-orders. People ordering now will have to wait until 2023.
Playdate, a small 76 x 74 mm handheld device with a distinctive yellow colour and a crank on its side, was manufactured in partnership with Teenage Engineering, a company known for its quirky designs.
It sets consumers back $179, with the launch device also including its first season of games (more on that below) in the price.
"It's a surprisingly versatile bit of kit, the Playdate, and one I feel will enchant and enthral anyone who has a deep and inherent love of all things games"Katharine Castle
And despite delays and a lot of interrogations about whether or not the console would live up to expectations, it sounds like it does: reviews so far are extremely positive, with critics praising its original design and its novel approach to delivering and playing games.
"It is extremely rare to have a new device come into a space and feel like it's changing a lot of ideas around how games are played, how you deal with different kinds of input, how you give folks a different space to be able to think about how you make games, and also do all of that while having fun, be interesting, be revolutionary, and also be something that is going to get a lot of people talking," said Kahlief Adams in a review for his YouTube channel, Spawn On Me, adding that it's "one of the coolest experiences [he's] had in gaming in a very long time."
The sentiment was echoed by editor-in-chief Katharine Castle in her Playdate review for Rock Paper Shotgun.
"It's a surprisingly versatile bit of kit, the Playdate, and one I feel will enchant and enthral anyone who has a deep and inherent love of all things games," she wrote.
Playdate has a screen resolution of 400 x 240, a D-pad and two face buttons (A and B), allows for bluetooth and wifi connections, and also has a headphone jack port. And of course there's the crank.
"You can satisfyingly pull out and rotate [the crank], giving you a new way to interact with many (though not all) games on the system. Paired with the beep boops of the gameplay and the striking yellow colour of the case, the Playdate has a quirkiness that makes it unique," wrote reviews editor Julian Chokkattu in his writeup for Wired. He gave Playdate a 7/10, praising a fun and creative device, but regretting the very long shipping times and absence of backlighting.
"You'll only be able to see the screen with a nearby light source, making it impossible to use in the dark before bed," he said. "My apartment isn't very bright, so I frequently had to position myself awkwardly toward a lamp just to see what I was doing. Paired with the small screen, you may find yourself holding the Playdate really close to your face."
"It is extremely rare to have a new device come into a space and feel like it's changing a lot of ideas around how games are played"Kahlief Adams
But beyond that, Chokkattu said the Playdate is "awfully pretty" and almost like it's "meant to sit on my desk as a nifty, retro clock instead of a portable handheld."
"One concern I have is with quality control," he continued. "My unit has a visible scratch on a corner of the inner glass. Panic offered to replace my unit but didn't mention what might have caused the scratch. Inspect your Playdate whenever you get it."
Castle admitted in her reviews that she "was a little worried" about the quality of Playdate before receiving hers, based on the previews published over the past year.
"There were concerns over its cheap-feeling, plasticky build quality, its long-term comfort, and whether its 1-bit display's lack of backlight would prove unusable in low lighting conditions. I never saw or held those early preview units, but after tinkering with a final consumer version of the Playdate for the past couple of weeks, many of those early fears have been allayed. Admittedly, no backlight does still feel a bit antiquated in this day and age."
She continued: "Luckily, the Playdate's display has the kind of contrast and deep, pin-sharp blacks that the Game Boy could only dream about, making it much easier on the eyes in everyday use. The screen is also super reflective, meaning it really catches the light regardless of whether you're playing it in bright sunshine or cosied up under your duvet next to a bedside table lamp. Yes, this isn't a console for playing in the dead of night or (as was often the case when playing my old Game Boy) while you're driving through tunnels in the backseat of the car, but if you can get over those limitations, then the Playdate really is a stunning thing to behold."
She added that "its plastic chassis doesn't feel nearly as cheap as [she] was expecting" and that it's "got a decent heft to it."
In terms of input, Adams noted that the buttons have a nice "tactile clicky feel" and that the device feels nice to hold as well. But it might need some getting used to if you have larger hands.
Chokkattu said: "The inputs are reliable, but some controls can be awkward -- in a puzzle game called Omaze, for example, you need to use the A and B buttons with the crank, not the D-Pad, leaving you with a slightly odd hand placement (it just takes some getting used to).
"The crank, while fun, can also be a smidge hard to use in situations that require precision, and there are quite a few games where you'll need to be very accurate with your movements. Part of the fun is mastering this new control, but there's a learning curve."
Castle added that the console's "hard edges aren't necessarily built for hours and hours of play, but then neither are most of its games," adding that "for the most part, the Playdate was comfortable to hold for the 30-odd minute sessions [she] tended to play for."
"The most beautiful part about the Playdate so far is that it feels like all of the developers were really thinking about how [they] can bring folks at home some joy"Kahlief Adams
Games for the Playdate will be released in seasons. Season One features 24 games, and they'll be launching in batches of two per week, across 12 weeks. For the purpose of their reviews, writers got an accelerated release slate, with one new game every day.
"When I would wake up I would look at my device and it would be really exciting [because] you have this little package on your screen that, when you hit the button, it does this really nice animation that's untying a bow and giving you this new game every day," Adams said.
"It's really nice touches like that that make this experience something different than what we've seen in the past with other kinds of devices where you had to go buy a cartridge, or you had to download something. When you're buying into this ecosystem, you're buying into this really nice marketplace of games that you'll be able to enjoy."
He continued: "A lot of the games feel innovative, reminiscent of stuff that we've played before, but it has this new twist with the way you're using the crank to input different ways to play these games and it just makes me really excited to see what's going to come down the pipe on the Playdate."
Reviewers all have been echoing this impatience to see what comes next for the Playdate, with the games all offering different kinds of experiences and innovative ways to play.
Adams said that "each one of them is tailored to someone," adding: "I think that's the most beautiful part about the Playdate so far is that it feels like all of the developers were really thinking about how [they] can bring folks at home some joy."
Castle argued that "even if the Playdate's wider indie scene doesn't end up materialising, the first season of games alone offers a strong argument for the price of admission." She played 14 of the 24 games during her time with the handheld.
"Under normal circumstances, that's just under two months' worth of interesting curios to dig into, which, when you really get down and think about it, is arguably a much higher hit-rate than your average new console launch. Heck, I don't think there are even eight PS5 games to even buy right now (and I mean proper exclusive PS5 games, not upgraded PS4 ones) although maybe that's an unfair comparison. Instead, perhaps a better way to think about it is like an upfront, ultra indie version of Game Pass, only you get to keep these games forever and add new ones to the mix whenever you like."
Chokkattu also praised the variety of titles available in the launch line-up: "The games I've come across are inventive and fun enough you'll wish everyone carried one of these pocket-friendly yellow squares around.
"Almost like how everyone watches each new instalment of Moon Knight at the same time, it feels like Panic wants to build the kind of social engagement you typically see when a TV episode airs"Julian Chokkattu
"I've played a roguelike game as a samurai, a point-and-click adventure game where you have to figure out whether the aliens that kidnapped you decades ago really have returned, and even Snake -- er, Snak as it's called here, since it's not an official port of the classic Nokia title. At a time when you can download hundreds of games at a whim and play them on your smartphone with top-tier graphics, it's enamoring to see the skill that game developers can exhibit on a system that lacks the same luxuries."
The wide array of genres means that some can be a bit hit and miss depending on your preferences, but it doesn't take anything away from the experience, reviewers said, especially since the games are quite bite-sized.
"Even if its fate is to be nothing more than a one-hit wonder, it's still a lovely and incredible little thing to own and experience," Castle said, adding that the Playdate games all "feel like they couldn't happen anywhere else."
Chokkattu wondered about the wider Playdate ecosystem and what its seasonal offering could look like in the future.
"Almost like how everyone watches each new instalment of Moon Knight at the same time, it feels like Panic wants to build the kind of social engagement you typically see when a TV episode airs. I'm not sure I see that happening; many of these games don't have the kind of depth that would warrant that sort of collective excitement. But it is a way to keep the Playdate feeling fresh, with something new waiting around the corner -- for three months, at least. There's no word on whether there'll be a Season Two, but a Panic spokesperson says if there are additional seasons, they likely won't be included in the console price the way Season One is."
There's also an openness to the Playdate ecosystem that comes in two forms: the Playdate Mirror app and its game creator tool, Pulp.
The former lets players capture gameplay and connect the device to an external monitor, so it can be played with a traditional controller (or the Playdate itself, still).
"Obviously, bringing another control scheme into the mix does mean you lose that joyous little crank motion somewhat," Castle said. "Twirling an analog stick on a controller just doesn't offer quite the same level of precision or fine motor control as the Playdate's native crank, for example, and in the version of Mirror I was using for review there wasn't an option to assign the crank function to anything on my keyboard either (not even my mouse wheel), rendering many of the games unplayable with that particular input.
"I should note that Mirror is still in development at the moment, so this kind of functionality may well exist further down the line. And, of course, you can still just use the default Playdate controls if you prefer, even when it's plugged into your PC."
Playdate's game creator tool, Pulp, lets you write games using lightweight programming language Lua, with the system making it very easy to load any game onto your handheld.
"If you have fond memories of toting around a Game Boy as your mom dragged you through the mall, you'll feel right at home"Julian Chokkattu
"All it requires is for Pulp makers to export the game as a PDX file, which can then be sold or shared with players," Castle explained. "Once you've got the PDX file, it's then simply a matter of uploading it to Playdate's website through your account settings' Sideload option, and then popping into the Games tab of your Playdate's Settings menu to automatically start downloading it."
Adams said that it makes it a fantastic tool for developers of all types, newcomers or veterans.
"You can sideload any projects that you or a friend might be making and say, 'I have this idea for a thing that I've been trying out, I've been prototyping it, let me give you the game file', check it out, play it and if it's really good then figure out good ways that you'd want to distribute that stuff," he pointed out.
"It really brings to the forefront the idea of just how they're thinking about game development for everyone and thinking about ways that you can be involved not only from the consumer side of it but from the person who wants to tinker, the person who wants to learn about game development, the person who was trying to figure out how far they want to go with game development. It's really cool to be able to see all of those layers fit within that ecosystem and things that you can be able to do with this device, not only on the playing side, but on the development side."
Concluding her review, Castle said that "if you enjoy the thrill of seeing what comes down the digital pipes and are willing to approach said games with an open mind, then the Playdate is an easy (if mildly indulgent) no brainer."
She continued: "Both the hardware and its surrounding ecosystem seem sound and well-supported, and I'm confident the foundations are there to hopefully support this strange yellow square well into the future. It will be a shame if it flops, but even if it does, what a mad, lovable little experiment it's been all the same. There's still a bit of work to be done, to be sure, but if you love indie games and what they stand for, I think you'll find a lot to love in Panic's Playdate."
Chokkattu added: "The Playdate is just a fun, snazzy-looking console that doesn't cost very much; it's a great way to pass some time on your commute. If you have fond memories of toting around a Game Boy as your mom dragged you through the mall, you'll feel right at home. Well, as long as you're patient enough to wait until your Playdate actually ships."