Technology Reviews

The Steam Deck is the Ultimate Emulation Machine

Handheld gaming has always charmed me in ways that console gaming never has. The concept of having a gaming experience on the go, wherever you go, is quite novel to me. It’s like carrying a playground anywhere you travel. This is why the Steam Deck was my number one priority this year. However, not only can Valve’s powerful new handheld take on the latest and greatest games easily, but it can also emulate classics from the past in the best ways possible.

As someone who also loves retro games, the Steam Deck has quickly become my sole emulation station for its ease of use and versatility. Setting up emulation on the Steam Deck is a complete breeze compared to its desktop counterpart and almost always works correctly. 

Additionally, once you get the system up and emulating, it finally feels Sony and Nintendo’s handheld dreams of the past have been realized by Valve’s new hybrid device. Allow me to gush for a minute about the Steam Deck and explain why I have found this to be the ultimate emulation machine.

The Steam Deck Makes Emulation Easy

As much as I love emulation and find it to be the best tool we have for game preservation, it can definitely be a pain to set up. There are tons of emulators for every console ever released, and choosing one requires plenty of research, trial and error, and is only half the battle. 

From here, gamers must also find the correct settings, read tons of guides on the best renderers, and then configure the correct input settings if the game starts acting funky when the action begins. Emulation can be a headache for any casual gamer who just wants to play some oldies. But that is where Steam Deck emulation makes the whole process easy.

What is Emudeck?

Enter EmuDeck, one of the greatest emulation tools in recent memory, and it is custom-built for the Steam Deck. EmuDeck lets users download the program, click a few buttons in its intuitive install process, and next thing you know, you have just about every single emulator you need ready to go and configured to the Steam Deck. 

Everything from the Atari 2600 to the PS1 is configured using the RetroArch front end, while EmuDeck also downloads and configures complex emulators like PCSX2, Dolphin, Citra, and even RPCS3 to your system. EmuDeck even downloads PrimeHack for Dolphin, a separate branch that allows users to play Metroid Prime with custom controls. The whole program is super considerate about what gamers want to play and how they want to play it. 

No sweat, tinkering, or frustration is required when you want to start with Steam Deck emulation, and I wish I had had this program many years ago. A Windows version of the program is also in development, but for now, the easiest way to get started with emulation is on the Steam Deck.

Bringing to Life the Handheld Dreams of the Past

Ever since the Microvision was released in 1979, video game companies have been trying to figure out how to get the fun of gaming in the pockets of gamers. So far, the most successful consoles to pull this off have been the Nintendo Game Boy, Nintendo DS, and the incredibly successful Nintendo Switch. 

In the past, the Game Boy and the DS definitely strived to bring console-quality games to a handheld format, offering a slew of NES and SNES ports and, in some cases, even Nintendo 64 ports. However, there were always some changes or compromises to the original games so they could fit in a handheld format and that format’s power limitations. 

Even today, fans argue about which version of A Link to the Past is better or spend hours doing breakdowns of what the Final Fantasy GBA ports changed. All of these debates are because of changes made to the original game due to the porting process.

Sony’s Foray into the Handheld Market

The most notable company outside of Nintendo to try handheld gaming was Sony, with its line of PSP and PS Vita consoles that it introduced in 2005. The premise was simple: bring PS2 and PS3 quality games to the small screen. 

And in some ways, it succeeded. PS Vita ports of Sly Cooper and Persona 4 look fantastic on the system and definitely brought that console quality experience close to a full realization on a small screen despite those being older games. 

However, the PSP era was rough. Many PS2-to-PSP ports came close to being console-quality but always fell far behind the original experience. The PSP had more loading screens, significantly cut-down graphics, and some serious control issues due to the handheld’s design scheme and form factor.

Now, over 30 years since the original Game Boy was released–and almost 20 after the PSP launched–the handheld console dreams of Nintendo and Sony are fully realized through emulation on the Steam Deck. 

The Steam Deck crushes every Nintendo 64, NES, or SNES game you throw at it. Just about every PS1 and PS2 game runs flawlessly on the system, which is extremely impressive as those tend to have more hiccups in emulation. There are no compromises with the Steam Deck, and it is the full-fat version of every classic game you could ever want, all in a handheld form. While it would have been very cool to be able to run every Silent Hill game on the PSP back in 2006, the dream is alive and well now in 2022. 

What’s more, it seems like even Sony sees the Steam Deck as the defacto successor to the PS Vita, as it has tailored its recent PlayStation ports to the handheld, all Deck-verified with some extra tailoring specifically for the system.

Steam Deck Emulation Makes It a Timeless Console

I’ve certainly praised the Steam Deck a lot here, but it’s not without its limitations. As a PC with a power level similar to a PS4, it certainly is not the most powerful handheld PC on the market right now. Eventually, the Steam Deck will be obsolete for new games, and that’s how things go with all hardware. Moore’s Law chugs on. But this will be an attractive console for years to come, thanks to emulation on the Steam Deck.

Simply purchasing a Steam Deck already ensures you have access to the entirety of Steam’s library from its creation at your fingertips. That is already more games than anyone could ever hope to play on a road trip, flight, or on the toilet. But, when you factor in emulation, the number of games playable on Steam Deck shoots up even further. Every Nintendo, PlayStation, or Dreamcast exclusive ever made is available on the Steam Deck if users are inclined to track them down. 

As we look toward the future, it can be safe to say the next Cyberpunk game will likely not run very well on the Steam Deck. However, every game from the sixth generation and prior will always run flawlessly on this outstanding handheld, making it a safe purchasing option for the retro/emulation-minded gamer. The time of the handheld console is here, and it is a bright future for gamers on the go.

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