Playdate Accessibility Review
With a tiny screen and no backlight, the Playdate can be hard to see. The size can cause issues with holding it but the PC app that comes with it allows for a bigger view and alternative inputs.
Score4.5 out of 10
- PC app for larger screen and alternative controls
- Remapping available through PC app
- System-level accessibility menu
- Large buttons
- Some fun and simple games available
- Device feels small and fiddly
- Large number of tiny text in majority of games
- Lack of accessibility options (Such as system-level remapping, etc)
- No backlight
Some days you may yearn to go back to the years of Nintendo’s Game Boy, and with Playdate, you pretty much do get that, just with a smaller device and a crank that’s used to control the games that become available on the system over time. But how does Playdate do for accessibility? Are users able to play comfortably, and what features are available for it?
Playdate comes in a fairly thin yellow box with sticker tags to peel off, which with my terrible slow peeling damaged the packaging somewhat — I knew I should have used a Stanley knife. Trying to take the lid off is a bit fiddly, but once off, the device is available to simply pull out of its hole in the padding with the USB-C cable wrapped up nicely next door to it.
The Bits and Ports
The Playdate is a teeny thing, sitting at 76 × 74 × 9 mm in size. It has a d-pad, A and B buttons, a button to make it go to sleep, a button for opening the menu, a gyro inside, and a crank on the side. All of this is packed together in what looks like a nicely spaced-out design for how small it is.
There’s a port for the USB-C to A cable and a headphone jack for those that want headphones connected. Of course, if you want to use the speakers you’ll have a built-in mono speaker as well as the ability for a Condenser Mic + TRRS Mic In according to the notes I have.
After a while of charging, I booted the device up and I’m presented with various first-time boot screens where I set up the device. This includes signing into my Playdate account using a keyboard that contains 4 vertical columns, one for numbers and symbols, one for lowercase letters, one for uppercase letters, and then a final one for actions such as space, enter, delete.
Once connected to my account using a browser on my PC or mobile device, and connecting to my internet, I was ready to jump into the games. However, I was already facing a bother and one that was consistent during the above setup process.
Throughout my experience, I never felt comfortable playing the games on the Playdate because of the lack of a backlight. The screen works best when in well-lit conditions. Sadly, this means that my experience in my house has been nothing but problematic, consistently rotating the device, and leaning towards the windows to have the light directly on it.
Playing the device at night is even more frustrating as the contrast of the screen elements blends even more unless I pop a direct light on it. I started desiring an attachment with lights like the Game Boy had, instead I had my mobile phone tucked into my chin shining the torch on it awkwardly.
While playing games, the constant movement of my hands to operate the buttons and crank meant that I was usually struggling to keep a focus on the screen as it kept going in and out of a decent contrast for me. The design choice to not include a backlight feels very odd and really ruined the experience I was hoping for.
Playdate has been pushing accessibility offerings from the device for some time, and one of these is the Mirror app. This program can be installed on your PC and by connecting the Playdate to the USB port you can operate the device while seeing it on your larger screen.
I’ll be honest, having the screen available on my monitor meant I could see the screen a lot clearer, and with the ability to increase the size of the mirrored screen on the monitor, those with low vision will appreciate this feature.
However, I feel a bit uncomfortable in that I’m enjoying the Playdate more…when I’m not physically using it. Instead, it’s sat on my desk plugged in linked to the Mirror app with the keyboard and mouse control scheme set up. The app includes the option to use alternative inputs such as a keyboard and mouse, PlayStation controllers, Xbox controllers, and well, anything that can be remapped really.
From the preferences menu, 7 inputs can be remapped.
The crank can’t be remapped, and for controllers, in which the right stick becomes the crank, I can’t change the stick. Audio can also be disabled, set to mono, or stereo. Options to zoom in and expand the screen in a window are available, but there’s nothing for full-screen, which for me is irritating because it means I have the many files that I clumsily dump on the desktop in view.
For many, using the Playdate through the Mirror app appears as if it provides the most accessible experience for those struggling to see the screen or operate the buttons of the device.
Holding the Playdate and Internal Accessibility
The Playdate is tiny, it’s cute, and it’s yellow, but the size of it does not sit well for accessibility for a few reasons. However, the screen being tiny doesn’t have to mean that the device is inaccessible by this point alone, provided the developers of the games recognize the size and design in a way that makes their game legible. Sadly, this isn’t the case and many games contain incredibly tiny text and icons.
There’s no real way of holding it comfortably either. I’ve tried multiple hand origami positions and I’m still struggling to play some games while simultaneously pressing buttons, cranking, and adjusting the device to get the best light. The lack of grips can also find the user’s grip slipping after prolonged use or just slipping in general if say, you were to pull it out of your pocket in a coffee shop.
In a bid to allow multiple ways of holding the device, Panic has an accessibility menu built-in which currently has two features available. One of those is to make the screen go upside down, allowing the user to operate the device with the buttons at the top. The issue here is that my thumb is now in the way of the screen.
The other option reduces flashing which can be a benefit for some users who may find some games that utilize flashing in gameplay or opening screens.
Let’s talk a bit about the games. Each week, users will receive two free games that will be downloaded to the device and are available to keep forever. Each game has a different style of play which means that I can’t really review every single one, but instead I’ll nutshell what to expect.
Some games take a simple approach, having no form of tutorial available but instead encouraging learning through play and assuming the player can figure things out. Other games have tutorials, while others have a lot of text detailing their story and lore, all presented through teeny-tiny text.
I was much more of a fan of the more simple minigame-like titles such as Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, Hyper Meteor, and Omaze. These titles had a simple gameplay process that didn’t feel too overbearing and were fun to pick up and play.
Really, I can appreciate how hard it must be to create a game for such a small device, and with it being a whole new system to work with, I can also appreciate the complications that come with making use of the controls, especially as the staple feature is the crank.
However, offering additional ways to make use of in-game mechanics could have been useful for some titles. An example is when I wanted to play with the keyboard and mouse on the Mirror app, but two games I tried required the crank to be used. With no way to seemingly use the crank with keyboard and mouse, I had to resort to operating the Playdate itself anyway.
It would have been nice to see more titles with alternative inputs such as the B360 game that allows both a d-pad control and a crank control by design. All in all, legible visuals and other options like a tap to continuously move feature can help heighten the experience for more players.
Some Future Hopes
Things that I would hope to see in the future fall into both Panic and the game developers’ hands.
For Panic, The option to remap buttons at a system level would be appreciated allowing users to change A and B if needed for example. A light attachment —unless you just want to use a book light— could be handy, but having a backlight readily available would have been much more preferred. Additionally, the Mirror app would fare well with a full-screen mode for those who want to remove the desktop clutter.
For the developers behind the many games, realizing a small screen needs larger text and icons would be a great start. Additionally, I found games that focused more on having a light background with dark elements for everything else a touch easier to see in darker environments. Also, the sheer volume of reading required from a number of story-driven games really put me off, especially when legibility is bad.
The Playdate does have accessibility considerations, but sadly the device as a handheld experience feels inaccessible and frustrating. The Mirror app for a larger screen and remapping helps allow more players to experience the device in a more comfortable way, however, it does make me question whether I’d rather have the games available on PC directly instead of fumbling with the device.
It is a shame, I really wanted to enjoy the Playdate as accessibility has been something the team has shown it keeps in mind. From subtitling videos on YouTube to using alt text on some social media posts. Additionally, the device having an accessibility section could point to future system updates, but really the lack of certain features mentioned above and games not taking the size into account leaves me feeling unimpressed.
A review copy of Playdate was provided by the developer / publisher.