All 24 of Playdate’s included games, reviewed

This is your last chance to turn back before finding out what all these Playdate game icons mean.
Enlarge / This is your last chance to turn back before finding out what all these Playdate game icons mean.

Panic / Sam Machkovech

If you’re reading this article before perusing my full Playdate hardware review, stop right now. Click that link, read today’s hardware-specific review, and get the context for why this portion has been broken out to its own space.

Okay, cool. You know what you’re in for: a full spoiler-rama overview of all 24 Playdate-exclusive games that come as part of the quirky system’s $179 price tag. As an additional spoiler, these titles are listed in their unlock order, since Panic mandates that the games appear on owners’ devices as part of a two-per-week download process. (The main system review explains why you might not want to know this stuff just yet, and it includes a spoiler-free breakdown of the system’s included games.)

The number next to each game name designates its unlock week, not its rating. (Thus, if you want to spoil only the first four weeks of games, stop once you reach the “5”s.) Ars doesn’t score game reviews, but since there are so many titles to pick through, I’m opting for a simple set of distinctions: “thumbs-up,” “shoulder shrug,” and “thumbs-down.” These labels apply to both a game’s fun factor and its Playdate uniqueness.

These are miniature reviews, owing as much to the number of games as to their general brevity. If you’re looking for massive games, Playdate is not for you. But if you’re looking for a massive overview of a system’s launch library, strap in.

1:Whitewater Wipeout
Made by: Chuhai Labs
Fun factor: Thumbs-up
Playdate uniqueness: Thumbs-up

Playdate’s first unlock for new owners makes sense as a splashy “launch” game. Whitewater Wipeout relies on the crank in a way that would be difficult to replicate with a joystick. The game runs smoothly, and it looks good in black and white.

It also sets Playdate’s tone. WW is one of many games in Playdate’s first season that revolves around a 1980s arcade mentality of quarter-munching, score-chasing action. Every session begins with your character catching a wave, steering a surfboard, and balancing speed, jumps, and mid-air tricks as you steer away from the wave’s dangerous crest. This is all seen from a top-down 2D perspective that resembles the classic surfing mode in California Games, only much smoother. Every session inevitably ends with the wave’s crest overtaking you, usually within 90 seconds.

The goal, as with other good quarter-munchers, is to score as much as you can before the wave catches up, which you do primarily by spinning the crank during mid-air wave hops. Rotate your real-life crank 720, 1080, or 1440 degrees, and your surfer will respond in kind (so long as the surfer has enough air and speed; it doesn’t move one-to-one with your crank). You can rotate the crank over 2,000 degrees in real life in the time it takes your surfer to more realistically turn 1080.

Thankfully, it’s easy to decipher the disconnect between those speeds and adjust accordingly, so basic gameplay feels fun and fair. It’s not like a frantic Mario Party mini-game that might aggravate you for not recognizing your frantic joystick turns. Playdate’s crank is precise. Unlike WW‘s preview build, the game now offers trick tweaks via the D-pad, and these add spice to the basic gameplay. But I’m still sad that Chuhai Labs didn’t add an additional mode to exploit the crank-to-surf mechanic. I previously suggested a “surf through rings” approximation of Wave Race 64, which could’ve been fun.

But in the Playdate first-season universe, content-filled patches are unlikely for this or any other game. That might be your cup of tea, in terms of games landing as “finished” nuggets of fun instead of stuttering out of the gate with missing content, but younger players should brace themselves for older-school content expectations.

1:Casual Birder
Made by: Diego Garcia, Max Coburn
Fun factor: Thumbs-up
Playdate uniqueness: Thumbs-up

In this Pokemon-like RPG, you take photos of birds, solve mysteries, and tap through conversations with off-kilter NPCs. The game’s writing reeks of Gen Z attitude, what with its frequent texting shorthand of phrases like “IDK,” and that levity matches the game’s art style and “find all the birds” whimsy.

To fill out your bird-o-dex, solve simple puzzles to get birds to fly to convenient points on a screen, at which point you’ll tap a button to pull out your camera. Playdate’s crank works as the camera’s “focus,” and the game’s 2D world will suddenly take on 3D depth in the form of a pixellated blur for nearby or distant objects like signs and trees. Having never seen “focus” as a mechanic in a 2D game before, I have to say, I am impressed at how nimbly these devs implemented the system.

This is a fantastic first-week unlock for Playdate, owing to its chill pace, charming script, and one-more-bird prodding to keep taking photos and solving puzzles.

2: Crankin’s Time-Traveling Adventure
Made by: uvula (Keita Takahashi, Ryan Mohler), Matthew Grimm, Shaun Inman
Fun factor: Thumbs-up
Playdate uniqueness: Thumbs-up

Legendary game-maker Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy, Noby Noby Boy) has returned with his best game in years, and it’s Playdate’s most recognizable game thus far. It was the first game demonstrated during a series of 2019 Playdate expo appearances. It looks cute. And it is as close as Playdate gets to a “mascot” game.

Crankin gets his name from his reliance on Playdate’s unique control method, as he’s frozen in time until you turn the physical crank forward and backward. Each level in CTTA is a day in his life, and every day, he wakes up realizing he’s late for a date. His side-scrolling, run-and-jump path to each date is set in stone, and you wind the crank to move him forward and backward along that path. Stop cranking and he remains frozen, even when he bows to sniff a flower or jumps to grab a pull-up bar—while everything else around him moves in real time. If any moving creature touches him, he returns to the starting point.

Winning each level, then, requires understanding how Crankin will react to static, harmless objects like tea tables and stairs, then going forward and backward in time so that he can “jump” or “duck” to avoid the harmful creatures coming his way. Is a butterfly moving toward you at head height? Crank backward to the point where Crankin had previously stopped to sniff a flower. Is something coming from behind? Crank forward to make sure your hero runs ahead of that danger.

This is the most linear, puzzle-focused game ever made by Takahashi, and the method of surviving and advancing through levels is rarely more intense than “rotate until you find Crankin’s perfect animation spot to pause.” But that’s okay: CTTA does time manipulation in a different way than I’ve seen since Braid‘s launch, and most levels are easy to appreciate as standalone puzzle boxes. A few exceptions will push your crank-turning tolerance, however, so be prepared to securely brace your handheld system when, say, a sounder of swine start chasing your hero at ridiculous speeds. Overall, at least, the game’s insane difficulty spikes have been smoothed since its pre-release testing period—while challenge seekers can try to speedrun the game to accumulate “stars.”

Moving Crankin forward and backward through time is easier to perfectly control with a rigid crank than with either a joystick or analog triggers. The system’s limited processing power is enough to render this game’s cute black-and-white characters, all coded with a mix of hand-drawn animation frames and sprite manipulation (thus looking smooth and artful, not like an old Flash game). And the high-contrast screen makes it easy to discern animations that range from adorable to hilarious. Like other Takahashi classics, CTTA‘s emphasis on humor is boosted hugely by a wacky sound design department, complete with Simlish jibber-jabber and judiciously placed fart noises.

2: Boogie Loops
Made by: May-Li Khoe, Andy Matuschak
Fun factor: Thumbs-down
Playdate uniqueness: Thumbs-down

In Boogie Loops, move a cursor with Playdate's D-pad to select and adjust various melody and drum sounds. By manipulating these, you can create an oft-repeating loop of chiptune music or just modify any of the three built-in loops that come included with the game.

In Boogie Loops, move a cursor with Playdate’s D-pad to select and adjust various melody and drum sounds. By manipulating these, you can create an oft-repeating loop of chiptune music or just modify any of the three built-in loops that come included with the game.

Boogie Loops is a music sequencer for the young set, and its limited sound bank and lack of real-time modulation controls make it hard to recommend as a serious sound toy. Use the D-pad and A button to select and change drum and melody sounds on individual loops, then sequence those loops to make something resembling a longer, ever-changing song.

Though Playdate includes both a gyroscope and a crank, Boogie Loops doesn’t take advantage of either for trippy, real-time sound-effect options. I’d honestly love to see a DJ or electronic musician take Playdate onto a concert stage and apply turntable-like effects to its sounds via the crank, but Panic representatives made it clear that this is a simple, button-only music app.

As one of Playdate’s earliest unlocks, Boogie Loops may benefit from players sticking with it in a form of Stockholm syndrome. Think about being a 1990s kid and only having Mario Paint as a way to express your musical creativity; Boogie Loops will likely charm younger players in a similar way (and they’ll arguably do a better job tolerating the app’s lack of instructions).

2022-04-18 17:00:13