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Playdate Preview: You will not believe how much fun this dorky $ 179 gaming system is

On Thursday, July 29, you can pre-order the $ 179 Playdate game system.  It's very, very yellow - and actually quite funny!
Enlarge / On Thursday, July 29, you can pre-order the $ 179 Playdate game system. It’s very, very yellow – and actually quite funny!

Sam Machkovech

Lately, I find myself reminiscing about the time when digital toys looked like toys. You can rightly question my nostalgia for Tamagotchi, handheld LCD games and the purple, handle-loaded GameCube, but my line of work is mostly about testing products with mature ambitions. Sometimes I want companies to light up and put “fun”

; in “functionality.”

This bias contributes to some extent to my interest in Playdate, a $ 179 portable gaming system that fails on the side of childish, little-driven fun. I’ve spent three weeks testing the system’s “almost final” hardware before pre-orders open at 1pm ET on Thursday, July 29th, and I can confirm that it’s really fun to watch. Fortunately, it is also fun, easy and accessible to hold, play with and share with all the friends I can.

Later this year, Playdate will regain the ground once dominated by Nintendo’s 90s “Play It Loud” Game Boys. This handheld looks like something you want to pull out of one Yo Gabba Gabba monster bag: squat, thin, banana yellow, and ready to be putty with a twist on the built-in rotating crank. But make no mistake – Playdates creators of the game publishing company Panic have taken the fun of this device very seriously, and the results have surprised me (especially in one key aspect).

I have not yet given a Playdate to a friend without noticing how much they liked it. And usually that praise comes with a statement in the direction of “this thing is much better than it looks online.”

A preview, not a review

Playdate is a portable only gaming device that is meant to run exclusive software encoded to either Lua or C. There is no TV dock, no way to add an extra controller and no slot to add a cassette or SD card. The sticker price includes a “season card” with games, which can be downloaded via Wi-Fi, but you can also use the USB Type-C connection to download compatible files from your PC.

And while I would like to give you a full review of the Playdate ecosystem, this is not a review. The console creators at Panic were kind enough to send us early hardware, which seems to be identical to what we see when retail units are shipped from later this year. That means weak processing power, a black and white screen, a plastic shell, a series of buttons and an infinitely swivel crank.

Where the final system will vary the most is in the operating system and software package, and Panic has asked critics not to describe any menu-related content so far. Nice of us, although I had no complaints there. Everything I have tested has worked well with the exception of a small error that the hardware manufacturer has acknowledged.

We’ve previously written about Playdate’s sales pitch, which goes as far as a public splash at various exhibitions in 2019. The creators say they chose the most distinctive feature, a fully swivel (and extendable) hand crank, to “break people off their touch psychosis. The game release strategy is about a stream of new, simple game downloads with an emphasis on “surprise”. Panic will not tell system owners what they get from the weekly cadence for game launches, except to expect two brand new games per week for 12 weeks, all made from a mix of established indie creators and brand new weird (more on these here).

These 24 games count as part of the system’s $ 179 package cost, and it’s the system’s first crucial difference.

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