GameCentral reviews the new indie-powered portable console whose main selling point is that you can control its games with a crank.
There isn’t any way to explain this that is going to seem sensible, but Playdate is a portable console, the size of a beermat, with a black and white screen and a crank on the side that is used to control some, but not all, of its games. You don’t buy the games separately but instead get a ‘season’ of 24 titles that are delivered at a rate of two per week. We’ve been sent them all at once, along with the console itself, and it sure is something different.
As you might guess, the games in question do not include the latest Call Of Duty, or anything approaching a big name game, but are instead exclusive indie titles made specifically to take advantage of the Playdate. We’ve described them all below but in a way that is a spoiler, as part of the appeal is getting a new game out of the blue and booting it up for the first time.
That is quite the novelty, as it’s impossible to predict what each game might be, with those in the first season ranging from simple puzzle and action games to more complex narrative led titles, turn-based strategies, and Zelda style adventures. We’ll review each of them in brief below, but we really would caution reading up too much about them, as that does risk spoiling the appeal of the whole concept.
In terms of the device itself, the Playdate has a black and white screen, two action buttons, and a D-pad. The crank on the side is used by the majority of the games but for a wide variety of purposes. Sometimes it’s merely a novelty and sometimes it’s an intrinsic part of the control system, such as one game where you’re trying to draw circles round collectible objects and another where you’re rotating an eyeball through maze-like puzzles.
We have to admit, we were expecting the crank to feel a little more tactile and crunchy than it does, but it is surprisingly precise, with many of the action games requiring you to be very accurate in unusual ways. We never felt the hardware let us down though, even as we were trying to wrap our head around playing a Breakout clone with a paddle that can rotate around the whole screen.
The Playdate also has motion controls, although very few games use the feature, and an impressively loud speaker, given its small size. It’s a very nice piece of hardware but with one intractable problem: the screen is not backlit and needs a light source shining on it for you to be able to see it properly. (You can connect it up to a PC to play through a monitor but that defeats the whole point of it being portable.)
This is essentially how the old Game Boy consoles used to work and while the Playdate’s much more modern screen doesn’t need as much light, we still ended up playing it inside with the lights on, despite broad daylight outside, to make sure we could see it properly. Playing at night, in bed, is a particular problem and needs some preparation to work.
Obviously, it could have had a better screen and backlight if creators Panic had chosen to include them but the Playdate is already $179 (there is no UK price but that works out as £138). That’s not cheap but since the games aren’t paid for individually the price includes all 24, which begins to make more sense.
A second season of games is being contemplated but is not yet confirmed, so while there probably will be more that’s not yet guaranteed. Although, even if there’s somehow not a second season the console is an open system, with a freely available SDK that encourages people to make their own games and play them by sideloading – which is definitely something that’s going to happen, including unofficial emulation.
The fact that the Playdate is currently completely sold out, and even if you buy now you won’t get one until 2023, suggests it’s already been plenty successful. And it deserves to be.
The Playdate is purposefully odd, and so are all of its games, but if that idea appeals to you then you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy it. Not all the games are winners, but few are outright stinkers and even if they are there’s always next week’s to look forward to – which you can guarantee will be something completely different.
So if all this madness sounds like a good idea to you we’d stop here and just pre-order now, without reading up on any of the games. If you’re an indie fan and you miss the days of dedicated portable consoles then you can be assured that Playdate is going to be right up your alley.
The greatest compliment we can give the Playdate is that Nintendo would love it, and if you miss the days of discovering and importing strange new games on the Game Boy Advance and DS then Playdate will scratch that itch with a loving combination of modern and retro sensibilities.
Playdate portable console complete games list
If you’ve ignored our advice about not reading further, we would add that the games below are in order of release, so that’s two at a time every week. That means those at the bottom of the list will take a long time to get to, so we’d be especially hesitant about reading about those (not that they’re necessarily better or more unusual than the rest but it just spoils the surprise even more).
This is a weird one to start with because it’s easily one of our least favourite games on the console and a very frustrating introduction to the crank. It’s a surfboarding simulator, visually similar to the mini-game from California Games, where you turn the crank to speed up and rotate it to perform tricks. It’s very difficult though and unless you have an interest in surfing there’s not much incentive to persevere. What is interesting, though, is that developer Chuhai Labs is run by 1080° Snowboarding programmer Giles Goddard, one of many celebrity indie developers contributing to the device.
This is a good example of some of the longer form Playdate games, with the premise basically being Pokémon Snap as a 2D Game Boy game, except where the pokémon are ordinary birds and you use the crank to focus your photos. The simplistic graphics do hold the gameplay back a bit, but the script is fairly amusing, with an agreeable number of bird puns. Plus, there’s lots of different locations to hunt your quarry and pick up hints and useful equipment.
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure
This is nominally the Playdate’s killer app, as it’s been developed by Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi. It definitely is one of the best ones too, as you try to help the hapless Crankin on his date, where he’s constantly menaced by wildlife on his way to meet his would-be love. You have to avoid enemies by rewinding and forwarding time, via the crank, so that Crankin is always ducking down or otherwise out of the way of the menacing critters. It’s tricky, with almost zero margin for error, but it’s very funny and made more so by being on the Playdate.
Not a game but a music sequencer that allows you to create your own songs and loops, which is definitely the sort of thing that used to appear on the Game Boy Advance and DS. This is nowhere near as interesting as Jam With The Band though, with bland music samples and no attempt at any structure or reward system. It doesn’t even use the crank.
Lost Your Marbles
So dialogue heavy it’s basically a visual novel, Lost Your Marbles’ unlikely plot involves a broken science experiment that’s meant to help you make quick, sensible decisions but at the moment only encourages silly ones… by playing a Cameltry style puzzle game where you rotate little pinball like tables around with the crank in order to hit a ball into your desired choice – the sillier ones being the hardest to reach. The script isn’t quite good enough to match the concept but it’s still a fun little diversion that’s clearly had a lot of effort put into it.
Pick Pack Pup
There are no fancy 3D graphics with Playdate games but many of them still have some very nice 2D animation, and in that respect Pick Pack Pup is one of the best. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly unremarkable match-three puzzler. It works well enough, but it makes no use of the crank or any of the Playdate’s other unique features.
One of our favourite Playdate games for its elegant simplicity, this has you operating a lift for penguins at a hotel. Naturally, all the guests want to go to different floors all the time and planning out your trips to collect and drop off the maximum number at a time results in a great bit of time management gameplay that’s very reminiscent of early arcade games. Do well and other environments and obstacles are introduced, in what is an amusingly difficult bit of nonsense.
Sadly, this is another dud, as you try to match sounds by just listening to them and later by twiddling dials with the crank. It’s as uninteresting as it sounds, which is a shame as a lot of effort has gone into the backstory about you working in QA for a new line of high-tech listening devices similar to Amazon Echo. However, the writing is far too on the nose to make the story worth putting up with the gameplay for.
Not a complex idea, since it’s basically Asteroids (or Super Stardust, if you prefer) except you have to ram space rocks instead of shooting them. It is a fun illustration of how versatile the crank can be as a control device though, and the challenge of hitting the rocks at the right point, missing their invulnerable armoured side, is harder than it sounds.
We don’t know if there’s going to be more documentation for these games online somewhere, but a lot of them don’t come with any clear explanation for how they work, which Zipper suffers from more than most. The idea is that you’re a samurai moving around a grid-based map, who can dash forward in a straight line to take out enemies to the side or directly in front. However, any you leave will move the same number of squares as you did. What the game doesn’t tell you is that if you turn the crank you can see the end result of your pending move before you to commit to it, which is super useful and makes what is definitely one of Playdate’s best games a lot more manageable than it first seems.
Demon Quest ’85
Another of our favourites, this is based around those weird demonology books that someone at school always seemed to have, and which provide detailed instructions on how to summon various dukes of Hell. Doing this within the game involves finding a friend with attributes that will please them and then working out a food tribute and their favourite kind of music. A lot of the Playdate games attempt a similar style of whimsical humour but this is the only one that’s actually funny, even if the gameplay is a bit obscure.
One of the best puzzle games in the season, this one actually benefits from a lack of instructions, as you work out how to use the crank to move an eyeball through a series of circles and towards the goal. This quickly gets enjoyably complicated, with deadly obstacles and rotating circles that you only have partial control of. The graphics are very simple but that doesn’t stop it being one of the most enjoyable games on the system.
Executive Golf DX
A very literal name, as you start off in the basement of a skyscraper, playing golf amongst the cleaning trolleys and trying to advance yourself up the corporate ladder/floors of the building. It’s a neat concept, but the side-on view doesn’t feel much like golf and it’s very hard to plan your shots. The levels are too cramped and the whole game overly difficult and frustrating – with no proper way to anticipate what a swing will do.
There’s a good idea here, about trying to make a puzzle adventure out of controlling chess pieces using their usual movement rules, but Questy Chess makes poor use of the concept. Rather than allowing you to flex your strategic muscles there’s usually only one way to compete the levels and you can easily get stuck with nothing to do but restart the whole level, which quickly saps your will to continue.
This arcade style actioner is somewhat similar to Hyper Meteor, as you fly your little spacecraft around trying to collect objects by encircling them with… whatever it is that’s supposed to be coming out of the back of your craft. It sounds simple but your ship’s turning circle is quite wide and because you can only snag one object at a time it requires a lot of careful cranking and forward planning. The graphics are incredibly simplistic but this is still one of the best action games on the system.
Never mind a visual novel, Saturday Edition is a full-on LucasArts style point ‘n’ click adventure in the palm of your hand, and in black and white… with a crank. It’s another game that offers no explanation for itself, although in this case in terms of both gameplay and premise. Your main character may have died and gone to heaven/been abducted by aliens/suffering a nervous breakdown and you have to help them sort themselves out. The interface and puzzles are simple but the attempts at storytelling more serious and engaging than the other games.
If you remember playing Snake on your ultra high-tech Nokia phone back in the early 2000s then Snak is the game for you. It’s basically exactly the same game but with the twist that you can jump over your body instead of having to just avoid it. This also enables you to grab… whatever it is that jumps on your body and crawls up towards your head (we can’t quite make out what they’re supposed to be). These are fun additions to the original gameplay but that doesn’t stop it being basically the same game and there’s no attempt to use the crank.
An Advance Wars style turn-based strategy game where you’re trying to photograph cryptids for a Twitch style livestream is certainly an idea, but as bizarre as it sounds Sasquatchers works very well. Each member of your team has very different skills and abilities, as you stalk bigfoots and other critters in an attempt to nab a clear picture. The scope of strategies expands nicely as the game progresses and it’s fun to see such familiar mechanics used in such unfamiliar ways. It’s just a shame about the mercilessly unfunny script and unlikeable characters.
We feel we almost predicted this game’s existence the other day, when talking about the Resident Evil 4 attaché case puzzler, as this is yet another attempt to turn a mundane bit of gameplay – organising your inventory – into a whole game. It almost works too, as you swap in new armour and weapons, and administer health potions, while your characters fights enemies automatically. The problem is it’s too easy, with no real skill or strategy required. Which is a shame as things like having to remove quickly breeding rabbits or use leaking potions are neat ideas.
Speaking of games based on a single mechanic, this is basically a crafting game, where you start off as a witch making a pot of coffee and gradually progress towards making more complex and powerful spells. This is another game where the lack of instructions works to its advantage, as you work out how to prepare items using the crank – smashing beans with a mortar and pestle or slicing up ingredients before stirring them in a pot. The problem is that once you do discover how it all works that takes most of the magic out of the game and it becomes a lot more mundane just filling out orders.
A clever 2D shooter where the gimmick is that you drop a bouncing ball bearing which can devastate enemy spaceships if it gets inside and pings around their pinball table like innards, but where you still have to retrieve the ball afterwards or you’ve got nothing to shoot (although replacements are fairly frequent). It’s a concept that could do with some refinement, with short levels and some no-win situations, but rewinding time to the exact point you want using the crank is a cool idea.
Forrest Byrnes: Up In Smoke
Firewatch co-creator Nels Anderson is clearly obsessed with forest fires, as this side scroller involves running away from one that is always encroaching on the left-hand side of the screen, as you try to rescue people along the way. It’s the Playdate’s sole platform game but it’s not very well thought out, as there’s no real point in picking up the collectibles and the procedurally generated levels are never very interesting. It doesn’t really use the crank either, except for rescuing children and other objects from a well.
The ‘b’ here clearly stands for Breakout, the classic video game block buster. Slightly younger gamers may know the concept better from Arkanoid but either way you’re controlling a paddle to hit a ball against a number of destructible blocks in the middle of the screen. The trick here is that instead of just moving left and right at the bottom of the screen you’re rotating around 360° using the crank. That’s a fun extrapolation of the original concept but it’s also a lot harder, so it’s no wonder it’s been saved till the end when you’ll be a bit more used to using the crank.
Arguably the best is saved till last with the Playdate, as Ratcheteer is a much more substantial game than most of the rest and obviously heavily influenced by the 2D Zeldas. The main gimmick is that you’re carrying a lantern that has to be constantly powered up by turning the crank, helping you to deal with various light sensitive enemies. It’s a nuanced tool though, that is also used to search for hidden secrets and herd monsters to where you need them. There are other items and weapons too, which sees the game lean more into the Zelda formula and tropes. It’s rather short but this is a clever and entertaining homage that also has plenty of unique ideas of its own.
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