Two years with the little yellow inspiration machine

Playdate came out two years ago, and it’s still miniscule and yellow with a black-and-white screen and a delightful crank on its side. Today, the device has a built-in library of more than 100 titles, none of which are Call of Duty, Dark Souls, The Last of Us or any other big-budget, mainstream game — and this is precisely what makes it so damn charming. The community that’s sprung up around this palmheld is lively and creative, and scrolling through the Playdate tags on or github feels like hanging out in a friendly underground clubhouse populated by crank-obsessed video game freaks.

It’s less disturbing than it sounds, I promise.

For real though, Playdate has only gotten cuter and more relevant with age. Firewatch publisher Panic and hardware studio Teenage Engineering unveiled the device in February 2019, pitching it as a sub-$200 handheld with a monochromatic screen, a crank and seasonal drops of free games. Pre-orders for Playdate opened in July 2021 and the plan was for shipments to start by the end of that year. However, in November, Panic discovered in its production line and the company was forced to swap suppliers and delay the release. Playdate officially landed in players’ hands in April 2022, and overall, reviewers found that it was .



Playdate shipped with 4GB of flash storage and 24 free games, including Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure from Keita Takahashi’s studio uvula and Zipper by Bennett Foddy. Playdate has always supported sideloading, too, meaning it’s easy to get titles from and other distribution sites on the device. In March 2023, Playdate’s Catalog went live, offering a curated selection of 16 games for purchase. Panic also upped the price of Playdate from $179 to $199 at this time, citing rising manufacturing costs.

Today, Panic has sold roughly 70,000 Playdates and its Catalog features over 100 games, with more added regularly. Panic held a software showcase in February and the headliner was , a Playdate-exclusive project from Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn creator Lucas Pope. Mars After Midnight came out on March 12, and Playdate had a that week, just like a grown-up storefront would.

Two years post-launch, it’s clear that there’s no single formula for a Playdate game. , for instance, turns the Playdate on its side and uses the crank as a helicopter-style rotor, spinning the propeller cap on a demon trapped in a gothic tower. Cranking controls this horned dude as he slices through flying enemies, leaving bits of meat and bone to fall out of the narrow frame. And then there are titles like , a simple yet addictive letter-shifting game that I would recommend to all Wordle fans. Playdate supports first-person shooters, detective mysteries, bullet hells, shoot-em-ups, puzzle games, RPGs, pocket pets, rhythm situations, action-adventures, racing sims and all manner of subgenres, including some that have been invented just for the platform.

Root Bear

Root Bear by TEAM ROOT

Across Playdate’s UI and games, the crank transforms into hundreds of different tools. There are the standard iterations like crank to scroll and crank to buy, but there’s also crank to pour a drink, crank to fly, crank to fish, crank to spin a record, crank to build a city, crank to control time, crank to crank, crank to survive. Literally every game on Playdate reveals a new use case for the crank or helps demonstrate the absurd level of detail possible on a 400 x 240 1-bit display. Many games do both of these things — and Mars After Midnight is one of them.

As the creature in charge of a community room on a Martian colony, Mars After Midnight players crank open an observation window and identify the correct aliens for each session, while also providing snacks, cleaning up with two long tentacles and planning future support groups. Players use the crank to slam the room’s peephole open and shut, but the game also fully incorporates Playdate’s A and B buttons, D-pad and speaker, rolling out fresh mechanics at a steady pace. The game is populated by adorable, bumbling aliens and cartoonishly cute set pieces, and it even introduces an entire language.

Like the vast majority of Playdate games, Mars After Midnight doesn’t feel like a pared-down version of a bigger idea; it was simply meant to be a colorless, crank-powered experience.

Mars After Midnight

Mars After Midnight by Lucas Pope

I’ve encountered one consistent issue with Playdate, and it’s something that I didn’t think would be a huge problem when I first reviewed it in 2022. The lack of backlight in its display is noticeable and occasionally annoying, particularly in low-light spaces. I often find myself tilting the screen toward a nearby window or lamp, and the device is pretty much unplayable on a dark plane or bus, or without a light source after sunset. If you remember trying to play an original Game Boy at night in the backseat of your parents’ car, waiting for the street lights to flicker past the window at regular intervals, it’s a lot like that. There’s a tinge of nostalgia here, but it’s mostly just kinda frustrating.

Playdate’s biggest issue, however, might be the Stereo Dock. Panic unveiled the Stereo Dock in mid-2021 — it’s a truly adorable charging stand, Bluetooth speaker and pen holder that matches Playdate’s pleasant yellow hue. I’ve wanted to plop one on my desk since it was announced, but the Stereo Dock has been “coming soon” for two years now.

It really is still coming, Playdate Project Lead Greg Maletic told Engadget.

“We apologize to everyone with a Playdate who has been waiting patiently for the Stereo Dock; it’s been a trickier project than we anticipated and we had a few false starts,” Maletic said. “We thought we’d save some time on that project by having our factory do the software for the Stereo Dock, but we’ve learned that you don’t always necessarily want that in some cases. The Stereo Dock is very much alive, we have the physical prototypes to prove it! We expect to have a formal update on when you can buy one later this year.”

Playdate Stereo Dock


If the worst thing about Playdate is the fact that people can’t get enough of it, then it sounds like things are going well. The device hasn’t faced any widespread recalls or hardware issues, its storefront is growing, its development pipeline is , and people are still interested in buying it (and the Stereo Dock, one day).

With Playdate, Panic has created a new pocket of curious game enthusiasts, and it’s provided a platform for innovation that will ripple across all sectors of development. Playdate is a simple, small gaming machine with a single twist — a crank — and in its first two years on the market, it’s unearthed wells of creativity in the indie scene. By paring down the graphics and adding a new input method, Playdate changes the way we think about how games are played and made. As many of the industry’s most influential studios are trapped in a cycle of mass layoffs and regularly scheduled crunch, it’s a fantastic time to rethink what we’re all actually doing here. Playdate makes this process natural, accessible and entertaining.



A device like Playdate doesn’t just happen. I wouldn’t be worried about revisiting this thing two years post-launch if it were too underpowered, overcomplicated or unserious, but this isn’t a funny gimmick from a company on a press tour. The sense of elegance, care and proper prioritization built into Playdate is what makes it a blank canvas for so many different styles of game development. Playdate is a little yellow inspiration machine; it’s a physical reset button for the entire industry. Actually, I guess it’s a reset crank.

Go on, turn it. It’s so much fun.

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