Ever since Valve launched its handheld gaming system in early 2022, the Steam Deck community has been trying to run all sorts of games on it- both old and new. Thanks to Valve’s open-source approach to software design with SteamOS, you can run a variety of emulators on this little “console”. Nearly every major 6th and 7th-generation console game will run smoothly on the Deck, so you’ve got many options for retro gaming on this system.
Today, I shall take a look at the 15 best retro games to play on Steam Deck. The ideal retro game for Steam Deck is one that lets you do meaningful progression in short 20 to 30-minute play sessions, and it must look on a small display. Old RPGs and platformers are perfect because they can easily hit a locked 30/ 60FPS via emulation, even on the Steam Deck’s relatively anemic processor.
Mario Kart 64
A game that defined an entire console generation, Mario Kart 64 combines moment-to-moment fun with gameplay that’s deeper than you might think. It can be enjoyed solo, or with up to 3 friends if you connect some wireless controllers to your Steam Deck. Remember, this is all running via emulation so there’s no guarantee that you can make it work on EmuDeck.
If you can’t get the multiplayer to work, Mario Kart 64 has decent enough AI to keep you entertained (they still rubberband and cheat like crazy). The graphics are nothing to write home about, yet something about the way this game handles character art and vehicle models stands out. In an age of derivative game design, it looks unique and instantly memorable.
Of course, you can hook up your deck to a large display (like a monitor or TV) and enjoy the game as originally intended. But it looks very good even on a small screen. There are eight playable characters divided into 3 weight classes, each weight class has different stats for vehicle acceleration and top speed.
Ratchet & Clank
By 2000, at the turn of the century, Insomniac had become a household name within the PlayStation community with their successful Spyro series about a friendly little dragon. With the PS2, they introduced gamers to Ratchet and Clank- a dynamic spacefaring duo comprised of an anthropomorphic alien and his robot sidekick. At its core, Ratchet and Clank is a 3D action platformer in which you have tons of gadgets, cool weapons, and diverse enemy types.
You solve puzzles, navigate through harsh terrain filled with traps, and complete missions across various exotic locations. It’s Tomb Raider in space with 20 times the gadgets and weapons, and a very stylized art style. A more entertaining formula if you ask me.
Metal Gear Solid 3
With PS2 emulation, Metal Gear Solid 3 performs very well on Steam Deck. You can even play the remastered HD edition, released for PS3, using RPCS3. I suggest you play around with the render settings to see what suits you best, OpenGL and Vulkan are the two best APIs for this game on RPCS3.
As for gameplay, Metal Gear Solid 3 doesn’t glitch or lag at all on the Deck. You can fiddle around with the controls and remap them so that the touchpad works as Circle and Square. Because the touchpads on Steam Deck are pressure-sensitive, you can use them for aiming or hostage control just like in the PS2 version.
Resident Evil 4
RE4 is the primary reason behind the popularity of the 3rd person action-adventure shooter during the mid-2000s. This game along with Gears of War made that genre, so it’s easy to take the current crop of 3rd person AAA shooters for granted. But the Resident Evil series wasn’t always like this, it used to be a proper survival shooter with narrow hallways and tiny rooms.
RE1 and RE2 had fewer enemies, and they gave you way less ammo so you had to plan all your actions beforehand. Your character wasn’t as mobile as Leon in RE4, and fixed camera angles helped create more tension by limiting your situational awareness. Despite all this, RE4 became the best-selling game in the series pretty much right after its exclusive release on GameCube.
People loved the action movie vibe and revamped combat system. If you’re going to emulate this, I suggest giving both the GameCube and PS2 versions a try since they do have subtle differences. Textures and lighting are better on GameCube, but the PS2 port has additional content (like the Separate Ways campaign featuring Ada Wong).
The N64’s controller was weird and awkward to hold. But it did have a feature no other controller offered at the time, and that was an analog stick. GoldenEye 007 made excellent use of this stick by letting you aim with it and even went one step further by supporting a dual controller setup.
You’d hold two controllers, one in each hand, and use the left controller for movement while the right one handled aiming. So technically, GoldenEye was the first game to use a dual-stick layout, not Halo: CE. Thankfully, you don’t have to go through all that trouble when you emulate GoldenEye 007 on Steam Deck.
Halo: Combat Evolved
For a moment, let’s use console shooters as an analogy for evolution. GoldenEye 007 would be the first fish that crawled out of the oceans and onto land, growing legs to walk around. And Halo: Combat Evolved would be the moment when the early man discovered fire.
That’s quite a big leap forward, and it happened in just 4 years. Now, you can enjoy this legendary FPS in all its glory while on the move. In a way, you could say that Halo has returned home- to the PC, where it has always belonged (the original Xbox was just a semi-custom Windows PC).
After every monumental leap forward in game design, you’ll see several copycats pop up to ride the tide. When Doom became a massive hit in the early 1990s, there was an entire crop of Doom clones. Some of these were quite innovative and unique, like Heretic- the others were just a waste of disk space.
A similar pattern appeared after the success of GoldenEye 007 on N64, yet few managed to recapture the magic. Among these is TimeSplitters 2, an amazing adventure through time, filled with eccentric characters who wield all sorts of wacky weapons. Compared to GoldenEye 007, TimeSplitters offers you far more tools and tactical choices on how to complete the predefined objectives in each mission.
Nintendo recently released a remastered version of Metroid Prime on the eShop. But if you don’t want to throw down 40 bucks for a digital copy of a game that you already own since the GameCube/ Wii days, there’s a much better way to play it. Simply create a backup ROM of the game and run it on Dolphin.
Metroid Prime looks great on Deck, and there’s zero input lag. It’s also one of the most stable GameCube titles for emulation, and you can play the whole trilogy at a locked 60FPS. If you go with PrimeHack (a specialized fork of Dolphin), you can play these games with controls that are no different from any modern PC shooter.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
To this day, Ocarina of Time is considered one of the top 3 Zelda games ever, right alongside A Link to the Past and Breath of the Wild. Released for Nintendo 64 in 1998, this is the first 3D Zelda game and has Z-targeting so Link can easily focus on any enemy within your field of view. It also has context-sensitive actions and a ton of interactable objects in every part of the world.
As you play through the game, you gain the ability to solve music-based puzzles (some of these will require backtracking through various levels). The game’s plot makes you skip seven years into the future, with adult Link gaining exclusive access to certain weapons like the Fairy Bow.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta
While the mainline God of War trilogy on PS2 and PS3 is very popular among fans of hack ‘n slash, few know about the existence of this PSP spin-off. It features a similar style of combat to mainline GoW titles, with a heavy focus on extravagant combos that look awesome yet are relatively easy to execute. There are plenty of cinematic set pieces and fully voice-acted cutscenes, making this feel like a regular GoW game instead of a scaled-down mobile game.
It’s also one of the best-looking PSP games you can play, with emulation enhancements improving the visuals even further if you play on Steam Deck. On original hardware, the game drops frames during intensive fights that involve lots of enemies on screen at the same time. But if you play on Steam Deck, you can easily maintain a locked 60FPS.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
Canonically, the timeline of Vice City is set during the mid-1980s. Vice City Stories is a PSP spinoff prequel set from that period featuring “Vic” who’s a side character in the mainline game. Vic is a former soldier, creating a drug empire to raise money for his sick brother’s medical procedures.
The central gameplay is that of a 3rd person shooter on an open-world map with driving. You also have an empire-building minigame where rival businesses can be taken over, and unique missions are available to boost the income you generate from each business. The PSP version of this game also had multiplayer via an ad-hoc network, up to 6 players could connect and participate in different game modes.
Super Mario World
Princess Toadstool has been kidnapped by Bowser’s underlings, Mario and Luigi must rescue her from the evil guy’s castle. The very first Mario title for SNES, Super Mario World is very similar to Super Mario Bros. for NES. But it features a brand-new overworld and mobility mechanics that had never been seen before.
From the overworld, you can select action segments that load you into linear levels filled with obstacles and enemies. Every time you clear one of these action segments, you’re one step closer to the end of a “world” and rescuing your princess from the final castle. In addition to dashing and jumping, you can also fly and float using a cape gifted to you by Yoshi (who makes his first appearance in this game).
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is an iconic video game series that PS1 and PS2 gamers from the 1990s/ early 2000s love to this day. But grabbing a PS2 in good condition along with copies of games that were originally released over 2 decades ago is hard, for obvious reasons. This is why the developers at Vicarious Visions created a fully remastered collection in 2020, featuring both PS1 games (Pro Skater 1 and 2) in HD with updated controls.
Technically, this isn’t a retro game, but a remaster. And you don’t require emulation to play it, since it runs natively on Steam Deck. The remaster stays faithful to the originals but also adds new tricks from later Tony Hawk titles.
The last old-school Burnout title before the series transitioned to an open-world layout with Paradise. Burnout Revenge is an arcade street racer with tons of high-octane carnage, you’re encouraged to do stunts and crash into other racers (like other games in the series). There’s a Road Rage game mode where your goal is to make as many of your enemies crash within a given period.
Burning Lap is a time attack mode, with one car and one lap. There’s also an elimination mode, where the last vehicle in the race is removed every 30 seconds. Breaking the rules and smashing into others increases your boost gauge, which you can use to unleash even more damage on your opponents.
Spyro: Reignited Trilogy
Just like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, this isn’t a “true” retro game but a remaster of a retro game series. It features updated graphics and control schemes for modern systems and will run natively on Deck without emulation (available on the Steam Store). If you want, you can go back and play the original Spyro games via emulation but I recommend you give this one a try first.
Let’s say you can only carry one handheld gaming system with you, and you have to choose between Nintendo’s Switch and Valve’s Steam Deck. Tough choice, but I can make it simple by telling you that the Steam Deck will play Switch games via emulation. Nintendo won’t like this and you certainly shouldn’t be downloading ROMs off shady websites, but you can run backups of your Switch games on a Deck.
This is interesting for several reasons, mainly because retro games can be customized to run at improved resolutions (or higher framerates). You get a superior experience on the larger display, not to mention the fact that Steam Deck’s joysticks feel better. The only downside is that Steam Deck is larger and has worse battery life than Nintendo’s Switch.
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