The Steam Deck is a highly anticipated portable gaming computer developed by Valve.
The device was announced in July of 2021, and pre-orders began the day after announcement.
Not unlike many digital devices in a post-pandemic world with global chip shortages, the Steam Deck’s production and shipping dates would see delays. Luckily, for those waiting for their order fulfillment, the delay would only add an additional two months.
By February of 2022, devices started to make their way to eager gamers and influencers. Thanks to a handful of our peers, such as Retro Game Corps and ETA Prime…. those who were unable to get their pre-order in… or anybody still on the fence could finally get a look at the Steam Deck.
First impression videos started to appear online, and those in the retro community started paving the way to see what the Steam Deck could really do with retro game emulation.
The Steam Deck is a Computer
So what do we know about the Steam Deck hardware? Well, it was created in collaboration with AMD, and it was designed to be “the most powerful, full-featured gaming handheld in the world”, according to the Steam Deck website.
So what are some of the specs? It has a Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz (up to 448 GFlops FP32) cpu, 8 RDNA 2 Cus gpu, 1.0-1.6GHz (up to 1.6 TFlops FP32), 16 GB LPDDR5 on-board RAM (5500 MT/s quad 32-bit channels), a giant seven inch touchscreen at 1280 x 800px (16:10 aspect ratio), build in storage, microSD expansion, 40 watt hour battery, wifi, bluetooth…
For those of us who do not really understand a lot of that stuff, basically… it’s powerful. Very powerful.
If you are familiar with retro gaming consoles, they are all essentially small computers, but this thing is truly a computer. Like a laptop, but shaped like a gaming console with gaming specific peripherals.
So what does that mean for us really? Well… it works just like a computer. It has an operating system (Steam OS).
You can install applications to it like any computer. And you can install a Windows operating system on it if you want. Or boot an OS directly from an SD card.
It can emulate
So this is good news for emulators. Because between the Steam OS and Windows… we have a lot of options for emulation programs that can quickly and easily be installed to the device.
So what can the Steam Deck emulate? Well, a lot.
There are some very comprehensive guides by the aforementioned youtubers (RGC, ETA), but the simple breakdown is that through the use of applications like RetroArch, Steam ROM Manager and a handful of console specific emulators… you can comfortably run games from Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Nintendo DS, Mame, Playstation 1, Dreamcast, and PSP with virtually no problems.
Even the newer consoles like Playstation 2, Game Cube, and Wii have very good performance on the Steam Deck.
You may start to see some minor framerate problems and glitches, but nothing that becomes a deal-breaker.
At that level, it will be about optimization and some tinkering with various settings to get your emulator dialed in.
We will very likely see some behind-the-scenes work start to happen from the developers of these emulation programs to get them working more smoothly on the Steam Deck, now that people have the console in hand for testing.
Check out Retro Game Corps thorough analysis:
Where is the limit?
It seems that the consensus is that once you start getting into Xbox and Playstation 3 emulation is where you are gonna start hitting a wall.
The filesize of the games start to become very large.
And with most of these games available on the Steam Store as PC specific ports… you are better off just doing that.
Xbox and Playstation 3 games (through emulation) will stagger, see major framerate drops, and just become unplayable. For some simpler games, it is possible. They will run. But any CPU intensive games are just not going to work.
So are you impressed with the Steam Decks emulation capabilities? We do not have one in our offices yet, so we cannot offer first hand experience of the device. But overall, it looks quite impressive.
It is a device that has been finely tuned to play PC games direct from the Steam Store. But with a bit of tinkering, it is possible to turn a Steam Deck into a pretty powerful retro gaming device.
If you have interest or concern about emulation, we have written an extensive guide on the legality of emulation here: Are Emulators Legal?
Valve surely intended for you to use a Steam Deck to play their games on their OS. But they did not completely shut out the possibility to expand your device to work for you.
We expect to see many developments in the Steam Deck emulation/expansion/hacking scene in the future as they start to get into the hands of the tireless developers in that arena.
We will be keeping an eye on the Steam Deck scene, and will keep you posted in the future if any major changes come to that world.
But we can already say that the Steam Deck is a very capable device with a lot of potential for some great gaming, whether that is in the ways Valve intended or through some customizing for retro game emulation.
Anthony has been a video game lover ever since he can remember. He became a fulltime nomad in 2018, living throughout most of Asia. He focused his passion in retro gaming and began creating a game for the Game Boy Color while living in Nara, Japan during the 2020 pandemic. He is now in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he spends most of his time gaming, going on long walks and meeting as many stray dogs as possible.