The Steam Deck is an impressive, and bulky, handheld gaming system that’s capable of natively playing most games in your Steam library. Valve’s done a pretty impressive job of producing a list of Verified for Deck games, which makes selecting titles you want to play a breeze. The Steam Deck is essentially a Linux computer enshrouded in a case of bulky plastic that uses Proton as a compatibility layer to force a ton of Windows games to function. So, is the Steam Deck a perfect device for gamers and tinkerers alike, or is the Steam Deck the epitome of D-I-Why? Let’s find out.
The form factor of the Steam Deck is impressive. The Steam Deck is very similar to the overweight baby born from the union of the PS4’s games with the build and ergonomics of a Sega GameGear, and I’ve been consistently impressed with the types of games it’s able to run directly from Steam. Steam is an immensely huge platform, and the Steam Deck is capable of running over 500 games just from my own account. Bioshock 2, 30XX, Ori and the Blind Forest, and even Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands ran pretty well after even moderate tweaking.
As far as controls go, you have two symmetrical analog sticks, a d-pad, ABXY buttons in the Xbox layout, plus two trackpads, a touchscreen, gyroscope functionality, and four buttons on the back of the device that you can activate with your fingertips. Being the sucker for extra buttons as I am, seeing as I normally use an 8bitdo Pro 2 on PC specifically because it has two buttons on the back of the grips, I found the back buttons on the Steam Deck easy to customize and quick to use. Setting up the additional grip buttons is simple, requiring only a few inputs to set up basic commands, but you can control every aspect of the Steam Deck’s controls, so those who tinker and love to set up things like macros will doubtlessly lose themselves in this device.
The controls themselves feel pretty nice. While the system itself is a lot heavier than the Nintendo Switch, having access to larger buttons and thumbsticks than the joycons made for more pleasurable gaming sessions. The buttons themselves have the standard membranes underneath them that most every controller on the market uses, so the controls on the Steam Deck should feel familiar. Features such as using touchpads for strategy games or just as a mouse in general, the gyro to assist my aim in order to hit perfect head shots with a bow in Monster Hunter Rise, haptic feedback you can customize to your liking, and almost every detail you would want is present on the Deck. This is great, considering these kinds of features are typically absent from GPDs, Retroids, and other handheld devices in the world. When comparing the Steam Deck to something like the Odin Pro, the former practically towers over its competitor.
Of course, the PC gaming landscape doesn’t just have Steam! The world is your oyster, and the Steam Deck is a filthy pearl you pulled directly out of the mollusk- with a little bit of polishing, it will likely be able to do anything you want. Do you prefer to buy games on Epic Game’s store? You can boot the Steam Deck into desktop mode, with taskbar, desktop icons, and all, and also install Lutris, Heroic, or even the basic Epic Games Store app right onto this Proton-enabled Linux computer. Origin, GOG, Uplay, etc., can all also be accessed, though it’s up in the air whether your games will work in Proton or not. Hades ran extremely well for me, as did Grand Theft Auto V, which is probably unsurprising since it’s almost a decade old, but it’s still somewhat impressive to play missions as Trevor while on a train commute.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Steam Deck review without touching on the retro elephant in the room: Emulators. It’s important to note that every game tested on the Steam Deck for this review was purchased either by Game Industry News or by myself, personally. Even the emulated games are dumps of physical copies I personally own using my own personal devices without bypassing any copyright protection. So let this be your disclaimer that GIN does not promote software piracy of any kind, and should you obtain your own Steam Deck, you should only use legal backups of games you own. That, and making a Sanni cart reader was a fun little project with reasonable amounts of documentation.
That being said, setting up emulators on the Steam Deck can be as easy or as challenging as you want it to be. Some may want to use Retroarch, but I actually preferred to use standalone versions of the software for more control over the applications. You can switch from the usual SteamOS menu to a desktop mode that looks like a simple and clean Linux desktop, and from there you can install additional applications via flatpaks like your emulators, web browsers, and lots more, but if that’s too much you can use something like EmuDeck which practically sets up your emulators for you and even adds them into the Steam gaming mode UI.
After installing the emulators, I realized that I needed a way to get the games from my Sanni reader attached to my desktop to the Steam Deck. There’s a variety of applications you can use, many of which you can install directly through the Discovery application that’s pre-installed when you unbox your Deck. You can move files using a USB hub or flash drive, one of many applications that would let your PC interface with the Deck, or you could enable SSH, generate a key file, and use the paired key so only your desktop can communicate with your Deck due to it having the aforementioned key file, which is what I did. You don’t need to know anything about Linux in order to get enjoyment out of your Deck, but you can definitely enable some fun and convenient things. If that sounds out of your depth, a USB hub will do the exact same job- but wireless is more fun!
The Steam Deck is something you can use simply for plug-n-play gaming, but those who enjoy tinkering can find a lot to enjoy here, too. If you want to package additional applications to run alongside your games, whether they are debugging tools or just something like Cheat Engine because you don’t want to grind gil, you can do that. If you want to encrypt files or install Wireguard, you can do that too. You can mess around with environment variables, you can only touch desktop mode to install other games stores and emulators, or you can stay entirely within Steam’s garden. The Steam Deck isn’t a walled garden because there are no walls, here.
If you only want to play games from your Steam library, the Steam Deck is incredibly easy to use. Most every game that was labeled Verified on Deck worked flawlessly, and quite a good number that were stated not to work at all still were playable in spite of maybe having small text. There were a few odd instances where a few Verified games crashed on boot, but then days later the system updated and those games worked again. Most games in my library are RPGs and strategy games, which don’t usually tend toward the most graphically demanding of games out there, but even recent titles like Monster Hunter Rise run at a solid 60fps at 100% graphics quality. Yakuza: Like a Dragon ran at a locked 30fps with visuals set to High, though it was more than capable of outputting 60fps at a slightly lower resolution or graphics settings, which would also have conserved battery life. Yazuka has a lot of text, and I found reading substantially easier at higher resolutions.
You can enable per game performance profiles to fine-tune the visuals and battery life how you like, so you can run FSR to further sharpen images, or you can lower settings to stretch out your time until the next charge. Of course, if you pursue the best visuals in the most demanding games, the Steam Deck’s battery isn’t going to last very long. Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Bright Memory: Infinite practically ate battery life, depleting most of it in just 2.5-3 hours without any conservative settings, but running visual novels like Ace Attorney Trilogy seemed to have 7 or so hours of battery life by enabling just a few of the battery saving options. There’s a very high ceiling to what you can get out of the Deck if you tweak its settings- that’s part of what makes it so exciting.
The Steam Deck is as plug n’ play as you want it to be. Games like Bright Memory: Infinite run well on the device’s screen, though some toying with the settings was necessary to get a perfectly consistent frame rate. Most games, however, ran perfectly fine without needing to toy with almost any settings at all.
Sometimes the UI can be a little buggy, such as how going backwards in the menu may default the cursor into a space in which you can’t move it, but switching tabs fixes the issue. The keyboard on the current firmware version is fairly buggy, as well, because sometimes pressing a key will give haptic feedback and the key will light up as if it registered the letter, but it actually input nothing. To add to the keyboard woes, there’s also a fair amount of empty space between each key that does little more than make you misinput or misspell. I’ve typed every single incorrect permutation of “systemctl” you could possibly type,
While the Steam Deck does lack some of the polish of competing gaming consoles, it’s worth mentioning that running emulators on the Steam Deck is substantially easier than something like a Nintendo Switch. Running third party software on a Switch, for example, requires forcing the system into recovery mode among many other steps. If you were ever a fan of PlayStation Vita, the Steam Deck will likely be an attractive offering due to the plethora of games available on the platform and how well it runs them, whether they are games from years ago or those right off the latest Steam sale.
For the price, especially compared to its competitors in the handheld PC for gaming market, the Steam Deck has a considerable advantage in that it’s a handheld device that can play new games like Final Fantasy 7 Remake without costing over $1,000 USD like the Aya Neo Pro or the OneXPlayer 1S. It’s a nifty device for those who love to tinker and play, and those who just love to play. Outside of some buggy UI issues, the user experience and form factor of the Deck are phenomenal, and hopefully this is currently just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come.
All in all, if you have a full gaming PC and don’t find the portable form factor appealing, then the Steam Deck likely is not for you. However, if you’ve played on handhelds all your life and enjoy the convenience of being able to play PC games during a commute or while lying in bed, then the Steam Deck might be a nice fit for you and might even help you clean out some of that backlog you’ve built up from all the Humble Bundles and sales over the years.