What Retro Consoles Can the Steam Deck Emulate?

The Steam Deck is without question the most exciting handheld out there if you’re looking to play retro games. But what older systems can the Steam Deck emulate? That’s something I had to dive into to find out.

And don’t forget, if you need help getting emulators working on the Steam Deck, I’ve got a thorough guide covering how to set up EmuDeck on Steam Deck to play all your retro games including PS1, PS2, and just about every console you can think of.

What Can the Steam Deck Emulate?

As you probably know by now, the Steam Deck is a portable powerhouse. There is simply no comparison here in the handheld space that would do this monster justice. It is, essentially, a powerful PC, just a lot smaller.

While emulation on something like the Nintendo Switch would be limiting, the Steam Deck opens up the possibility of emulating harder-to-run systems like the PlayStation 3.

I do need to note, however, game compatibility isn’t a straightforward one-to-one process. Compatibility is fantastic across the board, and even the higher-end systems have a host of games that are fully playable. That said, there are always going to be issues that crop up with select titles.

If you do find yourself running into any problems, it’s worth backing out to the emulator and playing around with different settings.

Oftentimes, adjusting the frameskip or dropping the resolution can really make a difference when it comes to emulation. I’ve seen it in the handheld space with lesser-powered consoles like the RG280v or the RG503 where increasing the frameskip can be the difference between something working and something looking like a Powerpoint presentation. The same logic applies to the Steam Deck.

With all that said, below you’ll find a list of what is considered playable right now. And yes, the list is freaking massive.

  • Sega: Genesis/Mega Drive, Master System, Game Gear, SegaCD, Sega32x, Dreamcast
  • Nintendo: NES, SNES, Gameboy, Gameboy Advance, DS, 3DS, N64, GameCube, Wii, Wii U, Nintendo Switch
  • Sony: PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 3
  • Microsoft: Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox Game Streaming
  • Misc: PC Engine, WonderSwan, Mame, FBNeo, Neo Geo

Best Emulator for Steam Deck

EmuDeck front end on Steam Deck

There are, of course, several options when it comes to emulation on Steam Deck. Because of course there are! Thankfully, there is a one-size solution for those looking for something elegant and easy to manage.

EmuDeck is a fairly painless process that offers up several killer features. If you want to select what games are shown in the main Steam Deck front end and customise how games are displayed, complete with art for all the different areas, EmuDeck is what you’re looking for.

Chances are anyone who’s used a Raspberry Pi for emulation before will have used EmulationStation as their operating system of choice. EmuDeck is basically the same thing, just modified for the Steam Deck. Think the Nintendo Switch UI, just for retro games. That’s pretty much the idea here.

What makes EmuDeck so great is it incorporated RetroArch, which remains the best option for emulation. RetroArch has just about every emulator you can think of in one package. Not only that, RetroArch has some stylish options to make older games look even better than they did on the original hardware.

EmuDeck is also fully customizable, so if you need to tweak settings to get a game running more smoothly, that’s totally possible.

Can You Use a Controller for Steam Deck Games?

Controller Compatibility

Yes! And you absolutely should if you plan on making use of the Steam Deck’s HDMI-out feature. Or if you’re looking to play Minecraft on Steam Deck then connect it to a TV.

It’s a really simple process as well. Simply head over to the Steam Deck’s settings then go into Bluetooth. Make sure it’s turned on, then hit the controller’s pairing button.

For most controllers, like the 8BitDo, they’ll have a dedicated sync button. In other cases, you may need to use a special combo to get them into pairing mode. For the PlayStation 5 controller, for example, it’s the power button and capture. Hold both for five seconds and the pad will start to blink indicating it’s in the sync mode and discoverable.

Once the controller is in pairing mode, the Steam Deck should detect it and the option to pair it should appear.

In short:

  • Load up Steam Deck
  • Head to settings
  • Go into Bluetooth
  • Put the controller in pairing mode
  • On Steam Deck, pair the controller once it’s visible

Can the Steam Deck Emulate PS2?

The Steam Deck can absolutely emulate the PS2. Really well, in fact. The simplest solution for getting this up and running is to download the aforementioned EmuDeck. That’ll give you access to RetroArch along with its library of compatible PS2 emulators like PCSX2.

There are other options out there, but there’s very little reason to use anything else when RetroArch is available. I’m all about ease of usage here at RetroResolve, so save yourself a headache and grab EmuDeck.

Can the Steam Deck Emulate Switch?

Yup. This is also possible thanks to Yuzu. There are guides for how to get this up and running and it’s not nearly as much effort as you’d think. It does throw up some concerns, though.

It’s hard to recommend buying a Steam Deck to just play Switch games when the Nintendo Switch costs a lot less. Still, if you’ve already got a Switch and want to play them on a larger screen, it is possible.

One issue to consider is how you’re going to (legally) dump Switch games. To dump a Switch game you’ll need a console capable of running custom firmware, and those are few and far between right now.

The simple rule of thumb is: If you own an unpatched launch Switch, it can be modded to dump your owned games. If you’ve got a Switch Lite, OLED model, or it’s not a launch console, chances are it can’t be modded.

So without a modded Switch, you won’t be able to create ‘backups’ of games you’ve legally purchased, which can be a problem for those of us who like to keep things legit.

Steam Deck Battery Life

Steam Deck battery life

Much like all things Steam Deck, there isn’t a simple answer to this question. It all depends on what you’re playing. Indie and low-spec retro games will take up less energy than, say, a recently-released AAA game. Cyberpunk 2077 slays your battery, Mario saves it.

PCGamer actually did a really great selection of detailed tests to work out just how long the Steam Deck battery will last. As a rough guide, the site goes with 1 hour 23 minutes at worst, and up to seven hours at best. Not bad, eh?

Steam Deck Price

Pricing for the Steam Deck is a strange one. It’s pricey, there’s no getting around that, but when you consider how much a modern gaming PC is (over a grand) or how much other handheld PCs cost (also over a grand), it’s quite a good deal all things considered.

Depending on how much you’re looking to spend, the Steam Deck is broken down by the size of the hard drive. Obviously for emulation, more space is better, but you can totally get by with the base 64GB version and a spacious micro SD card. Games will take a little longer to load from the micro SD, but for older retro games, the speed isn’t that noticeable, and for later games, it’s only noticeable if you’ve got something to compare it to.

It is worth noting the base version uses eMMc for storage, while the other two offer up NVMe SSD solutions. The latter is faster due to how it processes data, but even if you come in at 64GB, you won’t feel short-changed.

  • $399/£349 for the 64GB version
  • $529/£459 for the 256GB version
  • $649/£569 for the 512GB version

Steam Deck Tech Specs

  • Processor: AMD APU
  • CPU: Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz (up to 448 gigaFLOPS FP32)
  • GPU: 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz (up to 1.6 teraFLOPS FP32)
  • RAM: 16 GB LPDDR5 onboard RAM (5500 MT/s quad 32-bit channels)
  • Storage Options: 64 GB eMMC/256 GB NVMe SSD/512 GB high-speed NVMe SSD
  • Display: 1280 x 800 pixels (16:9)
  • Type: Optically bonded IPS LCD for enhanced readability
  • Screen size: seven-inches
  • Refresh rate: 60Hz
  • Touchscreen: Yes
Wesley Copeland
Wesley Copeland

Wesley Copeland is a gaming, tech, and toys journalist with over 10 years of experience writing online. Originally starting in video games before specializing in tech and toys, you can find his bylines at IGN, VG24/7, Kotaku, Tech Radar, Games Radar, PC Gamer, Heavy, and many more. He's also highly passionate about how tech can be used to better our day-to-day lives.