Feature Article

Playdate Hands-On Confirms It's The Charming, Unique Handheld You're Hoping It Is

We got to try out Panic's unique handheld and came away charmed.

In many ways, Panic's Playdate feels like a device from a different era. Thanks to its simple layout and non-backlit screen, playing the handheld conjured up memories of the original Game Boy, as I jumped between its black-and-white games and maneuvered the system around until I found the ideal lighting. That, of course, is all part of the Playdate's charm, and it makes the system feel unique in an era of ubiquitous handheld games.

Panic provided us with a preview unit of the upcoming system, which included work-in-progress versions of four of the 21 free games coming as part of season one. Even before booting it up, the system feels very charming and playfully designed. Unlocking it to access the main menu requires two clicks of the lock button, each click causing a cartoony eye to open on the screen as if the handheld were waking up. It's a clever and endearing touch that illustrates how much thought has gone into the system's design. The handheld also boasts a small slot on its side, allowing you to tuck the crank's handle neatly inside when you aren't using it.

The aforementioned crank is the Playdate's most distinctive feature, and it's used cleverly in most of the included games in our preview unit. Whitewater Wipeout, for example, is a surfing game in which you move the crank back and forth to ride waves and pull off tricks once you've built enough momentum. It's a straightforward but satisfying high-score chase, and it utilizes the crank well.

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Crankin's Time Travel Adventure is a bit more unusual. This game centers on an eternally tardy robot who needs to meet his date on time, but some obstacles inevitably arise to delay him, be it stray butterflies or wild pigs. Rotating the crank forward causes the robot to run toward his destination while rotating it backward rewinds time and causes him to move in reverse, and you'll need to figure out how to take advantage of that to avoid the obstacles that pop up in your path. It's a silly conceit, and I found myself often laughing at some of the unexpected hurdles the game threw at me.

The other two games in the preview unit were more narrative-driven. Saturday Edition is an amusing classic-style adventure game in the vein of Thimbleweed Park, with some humorous writing. Lost Your Marbles is also very funny. Much of the story here is choice-driven, but you make choices by guiding a marble through different mazes and smashing different options. This results in some often inadvertent but comical choices. At one point, you need to select a photo of your missing dog to use on a poster along with what you want to write. Thanks to my very clumsy maneuvering of the marble, my poster ended up featuring a photo of the dog's butt with a vague "Help!" written at the top.

Whitewater Wipeout, a surfing game that uses the Playdate's crank
Whitewater Wipeout, a surfing game that uses the Playdate's crank

While we've only sampled a small portion of the games coming to the Playdate, they illustrate the handheld's charm and potential. At a time when handheld games are more prevalent than ever thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and consoles like the Switch and upcoming Steam Deck, it's refreshing to see a portable system with more modest ambitions, focusing solely on offering some genuinely clever experiences. I was intrigued by the Playdate when it was first unveiled back in 2019, but going hands-on with it has officially won me over.

The Playdate still doesn't have a firm release date, but Panic has confirmed that preorders for the handheld will open on July 29 at 10 AM PT / 1 PM ET. The system itself will cost $179, while a bundle with a protective case will run for $199. The 21 season one games will be released weekly over the course of 12 weeks after the system launches at no additional cost.

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kevknez

Kevin Knezevic

Kevin Knezevic is an associate news editor who has been writing for GameSpot since 2017. Star Fox Adventures is good and he will die on that hill.

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