The Steam Deck is already my dream emulation system


Don’t tell my boss, but a PlayStation 2 JRPG nearly derailed my Steam Deck review. I was willing to spend long hours of gaming writing about games on the Deck, but I wasn’t ready for 15-year-old games to keep distracting me from my Steam library. I had to tear myself away to play other games on the Steam Deck, and every time I came back to Persona 3, I had a new jolt of excitement because it worked so well.

Last year I spoke to emulator developers about the raw hardware potential of the Steam Deck, and sure enough, it delivers the power and performance we were hoping for. But more importantly, running emulators on the Steam Deck is blissfully simple, even if you don’t know anything about Linux. The software experience is better than I could have hoped for. While Valve is focused on making the Steam library work as well as possible on the Deck, I’m excited to use the Steam Deck as a portable vessel for the past 30 years of console gaming. It really is a phenomenal emulation device.

Setting up emulators on the Steam Deck is really easy

If you don’t use Linux, you probably consider it a complicated, or at least tedious operating system. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to use the command line to install programs or troubleshoot (although I promise Linux is not really scary). But here’s the good news: you don’t need to go near a terminal to install emulators on the Steam Deck or to get them working in Steam itself.

Holding down the power button on the Steam Deck brings up a small menu that includes a “Switch to desktop” option. This leaves the SteamOS interface behind and drops you into a regular desktop running on top of Arch Linux. I started looking for terminal commands to install programs in Arch before finding that I was completely wasting my time. This desktop comes with a pre-installed app store, just like macOS and Windows (except everything here is free). It’s called Discoverand it’s easily pinned to the taskbar.

And all the emulators I wanted are in there, installable in one click:

There are also other emulators available in Discover, including mGBA for Game Boy Advance and Citra for 3DS. The best part is that it’s not just single executables you install – when new versions of the emulators are released, you can also update them with a single click. It is truly a bargain. Due to the way Valve has set up the partitions and file permissions on the Deck, installing emulators or any other software through the terminal is pretty locked in unless you have serious Linux skills.

Once I installed the chosen emulators, I launched the desktop version of Steam and used the “Games > Add non-Steam game to my library” menu to add each emulator to Steam so I could access them. from the SteamOS interface. (A note here if you’re also installing Duckstation: it has two interfaces, and “DuckStationNoGUI” is the one you want to add to Steam. It’s designed to work well with controllers.)

That’s almost all you have to do on the desktop. The final step is to copy games, BIOS files, memory card saves, etc. that you want to use on the Steam Deck. Then you can restart the system and go back to SteamOS.

Steam Deck Discover app browser

(Image credit: future)

Use emulators in SteamOS

Once back in the main interface of Steam Deck, you will find the emulators in your library, where they work more or less like any other game. More importantly, this means that they can enjoy the greatest advantages from the Steam Deck:

  • Most emulators will automatically recognize your gamepad, making input bindings easy or downright unnecessary.
  • The Steam Controller Configurator provides all the extra customization you need
  • You can press the power button at any time to put the Steam Deck to sleep and your game will still work when you wake it up, even in an emulator
  • Steam menu and quick settings overlays still work
  • You can press Steam + R1 button to take screenshots

Of the ones I installed, Duckstation and PPSSPP have controller-compatible interfaces, so I could use the D-pad and face buttons to bounce through menus as soon as I started them. For Dolphin, PCSX2 and Bsnes I ran the emulators and then customized a Steam controller profile to allow me to use the mouse to configure things. Here is my basic configuration:

  • Joystick with trackpad mouse
  • Rear handles activated
  • Back handles set to left mouse click, right mouse click, and middle mouse click

This lets you use the right trackpad as a mouse and the grip buttons on the back of the Steam Deck when your mouse clicks to navigate the emulator menus. And this way there is no conflict with the controller bindings you will want to set for each emulator.

If you want to get fancy, you can add a keyboard binding to the last open back grip and left trackpad, or even set up an “action set” where you hold down a button to give a whole bunch of other secondary keyboard shortcuts. If you want hotkeys for saving and loading save states to multiple locations, for example, that’s doable with a little extra work.

Another thing you will need to do in every emulator is to make sure the games are set to open in fullscreen. In Dolphin I ran into an issue where the game render window and the Dolphin menu window were fighting for control resulting in a really annoying flickering issue. Easily fixed: Under Config > Interface Settings, check the “Keep window on top” checkbox for the render window.

My emulator gaming experience has been great so far

There are retro games that I like to emulate on my PC and render in 4K because their graphics hold up so incredibly well – look how amazing the Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Zelda: Skyward Sword look in high resolution, for example. example. I took these screenshots through Dolphin on my PC years ago.

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Mario rides the lava in HD emulated Mario Galaxy 2

(Image credit: Wes Fenlon/Nintendo)
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Link in HD in TLOZ: Skyward Sword

(Image credit: Wes Fenlon/Nintendo)

This from a system that could only render at 480p!

Many old games cannot be improved that well, however. Increased resolutions can break the cohesion of a game’s art style, sometimes giving you super sharp 3D over blurry 2D backgrounds, for example. The Steam Deck’s screen size and resolution are perfect for these games. In Dolphin and PCSX2, I’m using 2X native resolution with added anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, which means games run at roughly the native resolution of the 1280×800 screen. The Steam Deck’s GPU could probably handle running most PS2/GameCube emulations at a much higher resolution for increased sharpness, but on this size screen I doubt I’ll notice a substantial difference, and I’d just burn battery life by making the GPU work harder.

On Dolphin, I spent the most time playing Metroid Prime, which runs at a steady 60fps and still has an amazing atmosphere 20 years later. I wish I could use the right stick to look around, but maybe in a year I’ll be emulating the Switch version of a Metroid Prime HD port that adds dual stick controls?

On PCSX2, I spent a dozen hours in Persona 3 FES, which also ran at perfect 60 fps. Emulation, at least of those older systems, is one place where Steam Deck battery life isn’t an issue. Here are the takeaways from both of these games:

Metroid Prime

Expected battery life of 5.5 hours at around 60% brightness
Power consumption about 9 watts (10 watts in a large boss battle arena)
90% to 100% typical GPU utilization
20-30% typical CPU usage

Persona 3 FES

~60% brightness
6.5 hours of expected battery life
Power consumption about 7 to 8 watts
Fluctuating GPU usage, often ~80%
20-25% typical CPU usage

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Metroid Prime running in Dolphin Emulator on Steam Deck

(Image credit: Nintendo)
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Metroid Prime running in Dolphin Emulator on Steam Deck

(Image credit: Nintendo)
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Persona 3 FES running on PCSX2 emulator

(Image credit: Atlus)
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Persona 3 FES running on PCSX2 emulator

(Image credit: Atlus)
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Persona 3 FES running on PCSX2 emulator

(Image credit: Atlus)

If you primarily use the Steam Deck as a retro emulation machine, I guess four hours of battery life will be your stage, with up to eight hours of battery life for even older systems or lower brightness levels. When emulating the PS1 game Dr. Slump through Duckstation, the Steam Deck predicted 7:30 hours of battery life at around 60% brightness.

Not every game I’ve tried has been a complete success. Unfortunately, Mario Galaxy 2 couldn’t run at full speed, it’s known to be one of the most demanding Wii games. At 2x internal resolution, the game would slow down from around 60fps to 45fps, resulting in unplayable stutter; at 1x internal resolution it was better, but still slowed down to ~55 fps in the opening scene. These kinds of frame rate fluctuations are okay in a PC game, but in an emulator they mean massive slowdown.

Based on discussions with a few Dolphin developers, I think there’s a good chance Galaxy 2 won’t hit a raw power cap on the Steam Deck. Driver optimizations may be able to speed up performance enough to get the game to a steady 60fps, but it will take time.

I ran into a few other issues here and there that were just emulation quirks and not unique to the Steam Deck, but overall it ran as smoothly as I could have hoped. The only emulator I haven’t tested is Yuzu, simply because I don’t have any ripped Switch games (I guess I have jailbreak to do). But I now have Super Nintendo, PS1, PS2, PSP, GameCube and Wii games on a portable device with the power to play (almost) all of them, and that’s before emulator developers had a chance to test them -even the Steam Deck. It’s a damn good start.


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