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Enjoying the morning.

Playdate impressions

May 8th, 2022

The yellow console arrived this week. There's lots to like, and a few things I find weird.

Screen

The Playdate's screen is my first time seeing a Memory LCD. It displays extremely fine and crisp detail, as though it was drawn with a 0.01 mm tip pen.

The way greys and half-tones can be approximated using pinstripes or half-tones has to be seen in person. When applied properly it has the same beauty as a fine miniature etching.

But all this beauty is completely at the mercy of whatever lighting you happen to be in, as the Playdate has no backlight. The screen also has this weird reflective curve, where the contrast is middling until you get just the right angle and then it suddenly looks incredible. But even while sitting under a bright lamp I've had to angle the screen just right to get the full beautiful crispiness the Playdate's Memory LCD is capable of.

The screen always looks great when you play it outside, especially on a sunny day. Unfortunately I do most of my game playing inside, and I live someplace with a lot of gloomy weather and dark winters. But summer's just arriving here and I guess I'll make the most of it.

Unfortunately I find myself playing in uncomfortable positions to see what I'm playing clearly: bending my wrists to angle the screen, and my elbows so I can bring the console closer to my face. Quite a few games graphics' are just... too small. I hope game devs are able to make more appropriately sized graphics now that the real thing is in peoples' hands.

It's a truly unique screen, but I kind of want one of those magnifying lens + lamp accessories the Game Boy used to have (preferably in purple). It's hard to imagine there won't be a Playdate SP with a backlight someday.

I've since learnt that the Playdate's screen can't be backlit. The Memory LCD's has an opaque background which gives it its brilliant reflectivity, but also stops any light passing through the back. Thank you for the heads up Matt Sephton!

Crank and Buttons

The crank feels good. It undocks from the unit with a satisfying swing, and has a good amount of resistance. Most of the crank is metal, with a small plastic piece at the end you use to turn it with. There's something about this small plastic piece which feels a little cheap. Maybe it's just my unit, but it wriggles a bit. It feels too light. I wonder if I'd like it more if it was metal like the rest of the crank.

The crank shines for games with fine, continuous controls. I think a lot of games would use accelerometer controls for this, but the crank blows that out of the water. I wish there was a way I could play it with my dominant left hand. But that's just life for us lefties.

The buttons feel good. They're in the right spot between clicky and mushy.

But I find the A + B buttons oddly placed. They're horizontal to each other with about a centimetre between them. I think this arrangement is weird because it makes them very hard to use at the same time. The Game Boy had a diagonal arrangement of A and B which meant you could use the tip of your thumb to press B, and roll your thumb slightly to press A. The perfect example of this is are Mario games where you could hold B with one part of your thumb and roll it slightly over A to jump at the same time. That kind of control scheme seems impossible with Playdate's spaced, horizontal arrangement.

System OS

Software is Panic's game, and the Playdate's OS oozes with care. You can tell lots of people worked on all of these elements of the OS until they were completely satisfied.

All the UI is fast, and always has personality when it adds something, and never where it doesn't (e.g. the games list).

There's a system menu common to all games when you press the Playdate's menu button. This menu can have items added to it by the game being played, and I like this a lot. It's got something of the feeling of the menu bar in macOS. I hope more games make judicious use of these system conventions. I'm glad that Panic is pulling from its roots as a Mac developer and providing OS built-ins like a crank prompt and software keyboard.

Distribution

Not enough is made out of the Playdate's ability to 'sideload' games. What kind of situation have we gotten ourselves into where this feels like something magical? How has it become so difficult to imagine distributing software outside of the auspices of some overbearing platform-holder?

And yet the Playdate can sideload games via USB or via your Playdate account. No signing, no review process, no membership fee. Just .pdx files that can get around however their authors please.

In my view, this is one of the biggest features of the Playdate. I'm pretty sure that there's always going to be something to play and check out whether small, big, or something you made yourself.

Cover

I also got a cover with mine. It's a wonderful purple, and makes the Playdate look like some kind of delicious biscuit.

It took me a little while to figure out how it should be used. I think this is because I'm a freak who never breaks the spines of their books while reading them, so I didn't bend the cover all the way around the back, and opted to just let it... hang. It would spring back. This is just me being daft though, as it's clearly meant to be folded over the back of the Playdate.

I've been ruined by iPad covers, and expect closing the cover to automatically put the system to sleep.