Playdate review: “Tiny, mighty, unfussy fun”

Portland-based indie publisher Panic used to bill its adorable crank-operated handheld as a “pick-up and play” solution to the lulls in between playing games on a home console and fiddling with your phone. These days, it simply calls it “something different.” And the truth is, Playdate is both of those things and so much more. It’s a joyful alternative to wasting time on social media, an enchantingly charming innovation in the handheld gaming space, and a portal into an ever-expanding world of unique games you can’t play anywhere else.

Calling Playdate an antidote to doomscrolling sells the device and its diverse, largely clever, and exclusive slate of games pretty dang short. While yes, Playdate beats browsing through Twitter by a country mile on its worst day, I’d argue that that isn’t a particularly high bar to clear. Panic’s ludicrously cute gadget isn’t just keeping my hands off of my phone, it’s also pulling me away from my usual rotation of big-screen games like Pokemon Legends, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, and yes, even Elden Ring.

Don’t talk to me or my Playdate ever again

Aesthetically, handhelds don’t get cuter than Playdate. The gorgeous black-and-white screen takes up most of the device’s otherwise matte yellow real estate, with only two glossy buttons and a d-pad nestled underneath. Its pullout crank rests neatly to the side and its screen has eyes that blink open cheerfully when you tap the unlock button twice. There’s an anthropomorphic quality to the design that makes me unusually protective of my precious little Playdate, to the point where I’ve already ordered a first-party carrying case. Though, at $179, I suppose it’s only reasonable to be protective.


(Image credit: Future)

To that last point, I’d like to say that Playdate feels every bit worth its price. Not only does it snuggle itself into my hands with a pleasing weight and solidity, but actually playing it is physically satisfying to the senses. Its crank glides silky smooth through a perfectly circular motion and its buttons elicit subtle clicks when you press them. It’s also a rugged piece of kit. Now that I’m over that phase of new device ownership where you cradle it like a delicate infant child, it’s clear Playdate is built to last. I’ve cranked the shit out of this thing for many hours now, and it hasn’t shown the slightest sign of faltering.

Excuse me, can I have the window seat?

Playdate crams 400×240 pixels into its 2.7″ black-and-white Sharp Memory LCD screen, and the result is stunning when you let it bask under a good, bright light source. One complaint I have about Playdate itself is that it doesn’t have a backlight, which is kind of a fun novelty until you want to play something in a dimly lit room. 

I loved my Game Boy as a kid, but I liked my Game Boy SP even more for the simple fact that I didn’t need to gun it for the window seat whenever I was gaming on the go. Otherwise, games look great on Playdate, with a sharper image and faster refresh rate than you’d expect. The best way I can describe it is, the graphics look like how you remember your Game Boy games looking, which is a lot better than they actually looked at the time. It sounds better too, with a speaker that cranks out shockingly loud, clear sounds.


(Image credit: Future)

As close as Playdate comes to perfection, I’m not entirely without concerns. Battery life is good, but not great. Playdate says it’ll run for 8 hours while gaming, but mine seemed to drain down to about 10% in just a few hours – that could be a problem in long flights. Though, it’s worth noting that my device was on a condensed delivery schedule for games, which could’ve helped burn through my battery faster than Playdates on the usual weekly schedule. Either way, I had it fully charged in a little over an hour thanks to the included USB-C cord (which is banana yellow too, of course). 

Accessibility settings are fairly limited right now, with just two options to reduce flashing and turn the screen upside down. Of course, that can be added upon in software updates, but in its current state I wish there were a more robust selection in that regard.

All about that crank

Onto the crank. Ohh, the crank. If it weren’t for its conspicuous steel appendage, window shoppers would be forgiven for dismissing Playdate as yet another generic, albeit attractive emulator styled like a retro Game Boy. To be clear, it’s the crank and the way the vast majority of its games utilize the crank that earns Playdate an enthusiastic recommend from me. 

Panic’s developer-friendly software development kit (SDK) is already paying dividends, as Playdate’s first season of 24 games is bursting with surprises from new and established developers alike. Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, from Katamari Damacy director Keita Takahashi, tasks you with cranking a sleepy hero toward a date with a very unhappy girl. Trouble is, there are obstacles including birds and pigs that you’ll need to ever-so-carefully avoid, using the crank to wind your character backward, forwards, over tables, and into ducks just low enough to let birds pass by overhead. It’s incredibly simple, but it’s just challenging enough that you’ll quickly find yourself abusing the phrase “gah, one more try!”

Crankin's Time Travel Adventure

(Image credit: Panic)

It helps tremendously that the crank is meticulously sensitive, reacting appropriately to the tiniest movements. In Whitewater Wipeout, another one of my favorites, you need to approach waves with finesse or the tip of your surfboard will poke into the water and plunge you to your death (I’m assuming these are shark-filled waters.) Once you’ve got the swing of things, you can shoot up from the waves and challenge yourself to do tricks in the air, earning you points toward a high score. Again, a simple concept masterfully executed thanks to the designers at Chuhai Labs and Playdate’s ever-capable crank.

Speed dating

There’s a huge variety of games in Playdate’s first season, and naturally your mileage will vary depending on your favorite genres. For example, fans of match-three games will probably get a kick out of Pick Pack Pup, but I couldn’t get into it. Questy Chess is another one I knew from the get-go I wouldn’t love, but it’s the obvious choice for fans of Chess. Likewise, certain Playdate games are better suited for short bursts of pick-up-and-play sessions, while others are perfect for extended stays on the couch. 

Star Sled, for example, tasks you with using the Playdate’s crank to encircle and capture sparks from a little spacecraft. Missions take no more than 5 minutes to complete, sending you into progressively more challenging levels until you reach the boss fight. It’s the perfect game for when you’re waiting in a lobby or at an airport terminal with just a few minutes to spare. Same goes for Hyper Meteor, where you ram your ship into meteors to progress; and 360, which is kind of like a cross between Pong and Galaga. I’m probably beating a dead comet at this point, but it really is striking how perfectly these games manage to capture that classic arcade experience; immediately enrapturing, challenging but not punishing, and endlessly replayable.

Whitewater Wipeout

(Image credit: Panic)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are games like Sasquatchers, from Chuck Jordan, a veteran game dev known for The Curse of the Monkey Island, the Sam & Max series, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Sasquatchers is a meaty turn-based strategy game inspired by Advance Wars and, as you might’ve guessed, the fabled Bigfoot. Ratcheteer, a top-down RPG with roots in classic Zelda games, was another one that impressed me due to its sheer scope, which I didn’t fully expect from the plucky little Playdate. Casual Birder, which is exactly what it sounds like, is a more laid back affair, but still one with plenty of layers to peel back during longer stretches.

The full list of games includes a side-scrolling platformer where you outrun forest fires, a wicked slick strategic Samurai game, a golf game set in urban environments, a visual novel about friends and demons in the ’80s, and more. How cleverly each game incorporates the Playdate’s crank varies – a few don’t use it at all – and not every game is my thing, but there are no clunkers in Playdate’s season one. Every game I played felt polished and like it was lovingly made.

Chef’s choice

My favorite kinds of restaurants are the ones with the “chef’s choice” option; because it makes me feel like a professional is in charge of my experience. I feel the same way about Playdate games, which are automatically delivered to your device over WiFi every Friday, ultimately comprising a season. Sure, you get to choose between the games you’re given, but there’s no digital storefront where you’ll need to nervously deliberate over where to spend your money. Playdate is a one-and-done purchase, and after that you can let the trained game curators bring you fresh new surprises every week, and they’re even wrapped up in little gift boxes with ribbons you can tear open like it’s your birthday.


(Image credit: Future)

Panic says two new games will be airdropped to Playdates every week for 12 weeks, meaning each season should have 24 games. The pocket-sized handheld is launching with a stellar mix of games from indie royalty, from bite-sized asteroid blasters to fully-fledged RPGs, and I’ll admit I’m slightly anxious to see how well it manages to continue that momentum into its second, third, and fourth seasons, and beyond. And keep in mind that the first season of games swallowed almost half of the available 4GB of storage, so you’ll undoubtedly need to clear out space for future batches of games. Though, even with just the two dozen games in my Playdate’s library currently, I think there’s enough fun here to justify the cost of the device already, especially if you’re looking for something new.

I love the philosophy behind Playdate too. There are so many moments in our always-online world where we instinctively reach for our phones to find that dopamine “hit” we crave when things go all silent, and I’m just saying if I could train myself to crank on my Playdate instead, I’d probably be a less stressed-out person. Playdate is tiny, mighty, unfussy fun that asks for as little or as much time as you can spare to give it. 

Playdate won’t be replacing any of my home consoles or gaming PC, but it’s confidently wiggled its way into a tight little niche among those platforms, offering something truly innovative that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s old-school, it’s new school, it’s retro-chic, it’s ready to rumble, and these wrists will go arthritic before I stop spinning that damned glorious crank. 

The Verdict


4.5 out of 5

Playdate review: “Tiny, mighty, unfussy fun”

Playdate beats doomscrolling by a country mile, but surprisingly, it also often punches far above its weight

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