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Steam Deck is a gaming beast. It can handle recent blockbusters like Resident Evil Village and even Elden Ring really well. That is thanks to its modern architecture and 16GB of LPDDR5 memory. As it turns out, the specs that make the Steam Deck so adept at handling new video games also makes it ideal for old games. Valve has built an excellent handheld emulation system. Let’s take a look at how this works.
With the Steam Deck, you can emulate just about anything. I’ve used the device to play my PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube games. But you can even find the Yuzu emulator, which runs Nintendo Switch games. Getting these emulators is trivial, but you’ll have to provide your own game backups.
Let’s get to a walkthrough of how to get emulation set up on your Steam Deck. If you prefer a visual guide, check out the video at the top of the page.
Where to get emulators on Steam Deck
To get a PlayStation 3 (RPCS3), GameCube (Dolphin), and many other emulators for the Steam Deck, you’ll need to boot into the Linux desktop on the system. Let’s go through those steps now.
- With your Steam Deck powered on, hold the power button or select “Power” from the menu, and hit “Switch to desktop.”
- Welcome to Linux. On the taskbar, you’ll see an icon that looks like a shopping bag. That is the Discover store. Click on that.
- As of today, the SteamOS virtual keyboard does not work in desktop mode. So the first thing you should download is called Core Keyboard. You can find that in Discover in the “accessibility” category.
- Then use Core Keyboard to type in the emulator you want in Discover OR navigate to “Games” > “Emulators.”
- Here you can find Dolphin, RPCS3, and many more. Install the emulators you want.
Next, you should add these emulators to Steam’s gaming mode. Emulators run faster in gaming mode, and it is more convenient than booting into desktop.
- In desktop mode, open Steam.
- Click the + button on the bottom left.
- Select “add non-steam games.”
- Select the emulators you’ve downloaded from Discover and hit “add these.”
You will now see those emulators in the “non-Steam” tab in your library on SteamOS. But while you’re still in Desktop mode, you should take time to add your game backups. You should also hop into the emulators and set up the paths to your games within those emulators. This stuff is not too specific to the Deck — it works like it would on any PC.
But then that brings up the question of how to get games onto your Steam Deck. Let’s go over a couple of options.
How to get games onto the Steam Deck
First, if you somehow (and I don’t know how this could happen) end up with compressed files in the .7z (7-zip) format, you’re going to need a special tool to unzip them. Get the Ark app from the Discover store. This is an archiving tool with built-in support for 7zip.
If you already have your backup files on another computer, I recommend two main options for putting them onto Steam Deck.
Transfer using USB storage
- Copy your backups to a USB thumb drive or hard drive.
- Plug your Steam Deck into a USB-C dock.
- Plug the backups drive into the dock.
- In desktop mode on the Steam Deck, use the file manager to copy the backups to your system.
As an important note, I would try to keep your ROMs mostly on the internal storage and not on an expandable SD card. Some emulators have had trouble recognizing the SD card as a drive so far.
Transfer using the cloud
- Upload your backups to OneDrive, Google Drive, DropBox, or another similar cloud service.
- In desktop mode (you can get Chrome in gaming mode, but I recommend desktop mode), open a browser and go to your cloud service of choice.
- Then download your backups to your device.
- If they download as a zip, use Ark from the Discover store to unzip them.
Don’t overlook these helpful tips and solutions to get emulation running better on Steam Deck
You should now, for the most part, have no problem booting into emulators on Steam Deck from the gaming mode. Just make sure the programs know where you stored your backups. Also, try to eliminate any instances of dialog boxes popping up over your game. This has caused a flickering issue for me.
Help! Emulators are flickering for me on Steam Deck
Don’t worry. This is an issue with the way Steam Deck renders games. Usually, the flickering will stop on its own. You can try to lodge things into place by pressing the Steam button or by tapping on your screen where the game is rendering. Steam Deck just has trouble deciding which window to display in some instances — although this is already less of an issue than it was for me in the first days after the Deck launched.
Help! I set up controls for the Steam Deck, but it’s not responding in Dolphin or other emulators
On an emulators like Dolphin and RPCS3, you may need to map your controls. In Dolphin, you’ll want to click the gamepad button, and then select SDL from the “device” option. You’ll then need to go through and map each button one at a time. On RPCS3, you’ll need to just select EVDEV from its “handlers” option, and then it’ll map all the buttons for you.
But even if you map the buttons, sometimes the game won’t respond when you start it. One fix for this is to tap the touchscreen. What happens is that SteamOS doesn’t select the game as the active window, and so the controller isn’t hooking into the emulator. By tapping on the screen, it is like clicking on the window.
How do I exit out of a game without exiting out of Dolphin, DuckStation, or other emulators?
This is one of the most important tips in this guide: Take advantage of SteamOS’s powerful controller customization options and the Steam Deck’s trackpads.
Most controllers don’t have trackpads, but the Steam Deck does. This might mean that you have big useless inputs when emulating games on something like Dolphin, but that isn’t the case. Many of these emulators expect you to have a mouse to navigate them, and some expect keyboard shortcuts for menu navigation. And the trackpad can solve those issues.
For example, in Dolphin, to get out of a game without exiting the program, you need to hit the escape button. With the trackpad, you can set up an ESC option easily. Let’s do that.
- With your emulator open on SteamOS in gaming mode, hit the Steam button.
- Highlight the emulator, then press right twice to get to the “Controller settings” button. Hit that.
- Scroll down and select “Trackpads.”
- From here, set “Right Trackpad Behavior” to “As mouse.”
- Set “R Click” to “Left mouse click.”
- Scroll down and set “Left Trackpad Behavior” to “Touch menu.”
- Set “Touch Menu Button 1” to “ESC” from the Keyboard tab.
- Set “Touch Menu Button 2” to “Enter” from the keyboard tab.
You can now use the touchpad to back out of a game and confirm on the menu screen. You’ll want to customize these inputs for each emulator, but it’s super easy to do so.
Check back in soon
Emulation on the Steam Deck is already fantastic. I’m having a great time with it. While we wait for Atlus to port Persona 5 to another device, I’ve used RPCS3 to take that with me around the house. And that’s fantastic.
I also expect emulation to improve rapidly on the Steam Deck. The device is so great for playing old games that I expect it to attract a major scene. And that scene should find better settings as well as optimizations to the emulators themselves.
So while this is a great starting point, check back in after a few months. Emulation should grow even stronger on Valve’s excellent new handheld.
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