The Steam Deck is already the emulation system of my dreams

Don’t tell my boss, but the PlayStation 2 JRPG nearly derailed my Steam Deck review. I was prepared to spend several long game hours writing about deck games, but I wasn’t prepared for 15-year-old games to keep me distracted from my Steam library. I had to break away to play other games on Steam Deck, and every time I returned to Persona 3, I got a new charge of excitement because it worked so damn well.

I spoke to emulator developers last year about the sheer potential of the Steam Deck hardware, and sure enough, it delivers the power and performance we were looking for. But more importantly, running emulators on Steam Deck is very easy, 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 as much of the Steam library work well on deck as possible, I’m determined to use the Steam Deck as a portable vessel for the last 30 years of console gaming. This is truly a phenomenal emulator.

Setting up emulators in Steam Deck is very easy.

If you’re not using Linux, you probably find it a complex 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 solve problems (although I promise Linux is really not that scary). But the good news is that you don’t have to go to a terminal to install emulators on Steam Deck or get them to work on Steam itself.

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

And all the emulators I wanted are there; they can be installed with one click:

Several other emulators are also available on Discover, including mGBA for the Game Boy Advance and Citra for the 3DS. Best of all, these aren’t just one-time executables you install – when new emulator builds are released, you can also update them with a single click. This is an honest find. Due to the way Valve has set up partitions and file permissions on the deck, installing emulators or any other software via the terminal is pretty blocking unless you have some great Linux skills.

Once I installed the selected 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 it from the SteamOS interface. (One note if you’re also installing Duckstation: it has two interfaces, and DuckStationNoGUI is the one you want to add to Steam. It’s built to work well with controllers.)

That’s pretty much all you need to do on your desktop. The last step is to copy all the games; BIOS files save on the memory card, etc., that you want to use on the Steam Deck. You can then reboot your system and return to SteamOS.

Using emulators on SteamOS

Once you return to the main Steam Deck interface, you will find the emulators in your library, where they more or less work like any other game. Most importantly, this means they can take advantage of the biggest Steam Deck benefits:

  • Most emulators will automatically recognize your gamepad, making input bindings simple or completely unnecessary.
  • The Steam Controller Configurator provides all the additional settings you need.
  • You can press the power button at any time to put your Steam Deck to sleep, and your game will continue to run when you wake it up, even on the emulator.
  • The Steam menu and quick settings overlay still work.
  • You can press the Steam + R1 button to take screenshots.

Of the ones I’ve installed, Duckstation and PPSSPP have controller-friendly interfaces, so I could use the D-pad and face buttons to navigate menus once I booted them up. For Dolphin, PCSX2 and Bones, I fired up the emulators and then set up a Steam controller profile so I could use mouse input to set it up. Here is my basic setup:

  • Gamepad with trackpad for mouse
  • Rear grips included
  • The rear handles are configured for left-click, right-click, and middle-click.

This allows you to use the right trackpad as a mouse and the capture buttons on the back of the Steam Deck when you click the mouse to navigate through the emulator’s menus. This way, there is no conflict with the controller bindings you want to set per emulator.

If you want to get creative, you can add a keyboard binding to the last open rear grip and left trackpad, or even set up an “action set” where you hold one button down to give a whole bunch of other buttons secondary key bindings. For example, if you need hotkeys to save and load save states into multiple slots, this is doable with a little extra work.

Another thing you need to do in every emulator is made sure the games are set to open in full-screen mode. In Dolphin, I ran into an issue where the game’s render window and Dolphin’s menu window were fighting each other for control, resulting in a really annoying flickering issue. An easy fix: Under Configuration > Interface Settings, check the “Keep window on top” checkbox for the render window.

My gaming experience in emulation so far has been great.

There are a few retro games that I love to emulate on my PC and render at 4K because their graphics hold up incredibly well – check out how amazing Super Mario Galaxy 2 for Wii and Zelda: Skyward Sword are in high definition, for example. I took these screenshots with Dolphin on my PC many years ago. This is from a system that could only display at 480p!

Many old games can’t scale this well, however. The increased resolution can break the integrity of the game’s art style, sometimes giving you ultra-sharp 3D images against a blurry 2D background, for example. The size and screen resolution of the Stream Deck is ideal for such games. In Dolphin and PCSX2, I use double the native resolution with added anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, which means games run at roughly the display’s native resolution of 1280×800. The Steam Deck GPU could probably handle running most PS2/GameCube emulations at much higher resolutions for extra clarity, but on a screen this size, I doubt I’d notice a significant difference, and I’d just burn battery life by making the GPU work harder.

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

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

Metroid Prime

Projected battery life of 5:30 at ~60% brightness

Power consumption approx. 9W (10W in a large boss arena)

90%-100% typical GPU usage

20-30% typical CPU usage

Persona 3 FES

~60% brightness

6:30 predicted battery life

Power consumption is about 7-8 watts. 

Fluctuating GPU usage, often ~80%

20-25% typical CPU usage If you mainly use Steam Deck as a retro emulator, I think the four-hour battery life will be to your advantage. Floor, up to eight hours of battery life even for older systems or lower brightness levels. When emulating Dr. Slump for PS1 via Duckstation, 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 as one of the most demanding games on the Wii. At 2x internal resolution, the game slowed down from about 60fps to 45fps, resulting in unplayable stutters; at 1x internal resolution, it was better but still slowed down to ~55fps in the opening scene. Such frame rate fluctuations are good in a PC game, but in an emulator, they mean a significant slowdown.

Based on a conversation with a couple of Dolphin developers, I think there’s a good chance the Galaxy 2 isn’t hitting the Steam Deck power ceiling. Optimizing drivers can improve performance enough to get the game to a solid 60fps, but this will take time.

I ran into a few other issues here and there that were just emulation quirks and not unique to Steam Deck, but overall everything went as smoothly as I could hope for. The only emulator I haven’t tested is Yuzu, simply because I don’t have copied Switch games (I think I need to jailbreak). But now I have Super Nintendo, PS1, PS2, PSP, GameCube, and Wii games on a portable device with the ability to play (almost) all of them, and that’s before emulator developers get a chance to test Steam Deck on their own. It’s a damn good start.

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