The Steam Deck has taken the handheld gaming world by storm since its release in early 2022. Valve’s portable PC gaming system runs a custom version of Linux and is fully capable of running emulators for classic consoles and arcade machines.
With the Steam Deck’s powerful hardware including a Zen 2 CPU and RDNA 2 graphics, it can emulate a wide variety of systems smoothly at high resolutions. The large 7-inch touchscreen provides an awesome way to enjoy your favorite retro games on the go.
Emulators are completely legal as long as you own copies of the games you want to play. While the Steam Deck doesn’t support installing emulators from unknown sources by default, the Discover software store includes an excellent selection of open-source emulators optimized for the system.
There are also guides online explaining how to add support for installing apps from outside the Steam Deck software repositories. This allows you to install emulation software like RetroArch from their official websites. Here are the 9 best emulators available for the Steam Deck in 2024 for all of your retro gaming needs!
Best Emulators Available for the Steam Deck
RetroArch is an open-source emulator frontend that allows you to run libretro cores for a variety of retro game systems. With RetroArch you can emulate everything from Atari 2600 to Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1.
- All-in-one interface for downloading multiple emulator cores
- Highly customizable with shaders, overlays, and more
- Supports rewinding, saving states, and other handy features
- Can have a learning curve for first-time users
- Some libretro cores work better than others
RetroArch is the most full-featured and flexible emulator option on Steam Deck. It takes some tinkering but makes emulating lots of systems easy with downloadable cores.
Dolphin (GameCube and Wii)
Dolphin is the premier emulator for Nintendo GameCube and Wii titles. It can run most games for those systems at full speed at high resolutions. Dolphin is an open-source project that has been optimized well for Linux over many years.
- Accurate emulation for most GameCube & Wii games
- Upscaling up to 4K resolution supported
- Enhancements like anti-aliasing are available
- Limited touch controls compared to original Wii remotes
- Requires a powerful device like Steam Deck for best results
Dolphin provides an authentic experience of playing your favorite GameCube and Wii games portably on Steam Deck. It can even improve graphics beyond the original hardware with high-resolution rendering.
DuckStation (PlayStation 1)
DuckStation is a newer PlayStation 1 emulator focused on accuracy, compatibility, and enhancements. It can run the majority of PS1 titles at high resolution with gameplay conveniences like memory card saves.
- Accurate emulation of PS1 games
- Save states, cheating, and other enhancements
- Upscaled graphics, anti-aliasing, and texture filtering
- Requires BIOS dump from original PlayStation console
- A small number of incompatible games
For a top-notch PS1 experience on your Steam Deck complete with save states and graphical upgrades, DuckStation is the emulator to use. It keeps getting frequent updates to improve compatibility and features.
The PPSSPP emulator lets you play original PSP games in up to 4K quality on Steam Deck. It is an open-source project capable of running most PSP games at full speed.
- Upscaled high-resolution graphics
- Support for PSP peripherals like cameras
- Early access versions with new features are available
- Few games have issues with glitches or slowdown
- No multiplayer support yet
If you want to relive PSP classics like God of War: Chains of Olympus or Tactics Ogre on a bigger screen, PPSSPP does the job flawlessly for most titles. It pushes the PSP’s capabilities further than ever before.
yuzu (Nintendo Switch)
yuzu is the leading open-source emulator for Nintendo Switch games on Linux, Windows, and now SteamOS. It can run many popular Switch titles at full speed.
- Plays many AAA Nintendo Switch games well
- Supports Switch Pro controllers and Joy-Cons
- Frequent updates with boosts in compatibility and performance
- Demanding on hardware like Steam Deck, some games are too slow
- Online multiplayer and amiibo are not yet supported
For a chance to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe untethered from your TV, yuzu is your best bet. Just check the performance info for each game online before purchasing.
Cemu (Wii U)
Cemu allows you to emulate Wii U games like Super Mario 3D World and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD on your Steam Deck. It is a highly optimized closed-source emulator focused on performance and accuracy.
- Excellent performance even on weak hardware
- Enhancements like increased resolution and frame rate
- Supports GamePads and Pro Controllers
- Unable to legally download game files
- Requires significant tinkering with settings
If you already own Wii U games, Cemu is the most polished way to play them portably on your Steam Deck. Despite being closed source it has good game compatibility.
- Mupen64Plus (Nintendo 64)
Mupen64Plus is an open-source emulator for Nintendo 64 games focused on accuracy, speed, and enhancing gameplay. It supports all of the essential plugins needed for the full experience.
- Accurate Nintendo 64 emulation
- Enhancements like anti-aliasing and analog stick sensitivity
- Good performance even on weak hardware
- Requires manually downloading plugins
- Some game-specific issues persist
With Mupen64Plus you can revisit classics like Super Mario 64, StarFox 64, and GoldenEye 007 just how you remember them. Plus texture filtering and rendering at HD resolutions.
- MAME (Arcade)
MAME is the premier emulator for playing thousands of classic coin-operated arcade games. It supports everything from Donkey Kong and Pac-Man to 90’s beat ’em ups.
- Massive arcade game support from 70s to 90s
- Accurate emulation of hardware like trackballs
- Constant development with new games added
- Requires individual ROM sets per game
- Command line interface only
For arcade enthusiasts, MAME opens the door to playing decades of coin-op history flawlessly. Everything from Galaga to NBA Jam is possible with the right ROM sets.
- Snes9x (Super Nintendo)
Snes9x is a popular emulator for Super Nintendo games praised for its high compatibility, speed, and portability. It is open source and has been ported to many platforms over the years.
- High compatibility with the SNES library
- Fast performance even on weak hardware
- Save states and graphics filters available
- Missing enhancement features found in other SNES emulators
- Outdated user interface
Snes9x is a tried and true way to enjoy Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, and other SNES favorites on your Steam Deck. It has withstood the test of time as a solid SNES emulator.
Final Thoughts on the Best Steam Deck Emulators
Emulation opens up decades of classic gaming history to enjoy with the power and portability of the Steam Deck. Open source emulators like RetroArch provide an all-in-one toolbox while standalone projects focus deeply on accuracy for specific consoles.
Whether your goal is playing Nintendo classics on the go or rediscovering forgotten arcade gems, the emulators available for SteamOS deliver. Thanks to community development, support for emulating vintage systems on Steam Deck keeps advancing.
Just be sure to own legitimate copies of any games you want to play. Disc-based games can be ripped to ISO images, while cartridges require obtaining individual ROM files. This ensures the preservation and continuation of retro gaming happens legally and ethically.
The Steam Deck makes enjoying gaming’s past as easy and convenient as modern titles. With some tinkering to install emulators not on Steam by default, the entire history of video games can be played on one amazing handheld device.
Frequently Asked Questions About Steam Deck Emulators
- Is emulation on the Steam Deck legal?
Emulation is completely legal as long as you dump your game copies and do not download copyrighted ROMs or ISOs you do not already own. You must provide your game data files.
- What emulators come pre-installed on Steam Deck?
The Discover software store has RetroArch, Dolphin, DuckStation, and PPSSPP ready to install out of the box. To install other emulators you need to enable Developer Mode.
- How do I add emulators not available on Steam Deck?
In Developer Mode you can access the Linux Terminal and install other software like Mupen64Plus or Snes9x from their official websites or GitHub repositories.
- What is the best way to play GameCube games on Steam Deck?
Dolphin is the best GameCube and Wii emulator for Steam Deck. It provides accurate emulation and the ability to upscale games to 1080p or higher resolution.
- Can the Steam Deck handle PlayStation 2 emulation?
PS2 emulation is currently too demanding for Steam Deck in most cases. A handful of 2D games may work well but performance for 3D titles is still suboptimal.
The Steam Deck has breathed new life into retro gaming, letting you experience classic games from decades past anywhere you want. With the right emulator, it can handle everything from arcade and 8-bit home consoles to 32-bit portable systems flawlessly. Support for installing additional emulators beyond what’s available on Steam also opens up even more possibilities. Whether your goal is on-the-go multiplayer with friends in Mario Kart 64 or rediscovering obscure arcade releases like Punch-Out!!, the Steam Deck can take you back to the golden ages of gaming in the palm of your hand.