The Steam Deck has rapidly become my video game platform of choice because it plays practically everything I throw at it. Though I will say that some games benefit from the portable PC more than others. To give you an idea of a play log, I’ve collected a dozen titles that have showcased what makes the Deck so special.
Don’t expect to see some presumed contenders on the list. Not every game is compatible with the Steam Deck, as Valve works to improve Proton, the tool that allows its Linux-based operating system to run Windows games. So while Persona 4 Golden is playable, it’s got enough flaws (the earworm intro song doesn’t play!) to keep it off our list for now.
Here are the 12 games that have kept me on the couch with the Steam Deck instead of sitting in front of my gaming PC.
[Ed. note: All screenshots in this article were taken on the Steam Deck.]
Meet the Steam Deck’s killer app. It’s not perfect — I play on low settings and occasionally experience frame rate dips — but Elden Ring works, and that’s all I need to farm souls (er, “runes”) in FromSoftware’s open-world expansion of its Dark Souls formula. This is the game that has kept me awake past midnight. I promise myself that I’ll stop once I see what’s at the end of a moss-lined cave or over a burning horizon, but then I see some new curiosity, and suddenly, I’m pummeling my way through another dungeon. The convenience of a portable device turns what I meant to be a 15-minute grind session into a two-hour journey through a labyrinthine dungeon.
So you’ve dropped half a grand on a portable video game machine capable of powering the most complex and expensive 3D video games on the planet. Now prepare to burn dozens of hours on a $2.99 2D dungeon crawler that nearly plays itself. Vampire Survivors is the unholy union of clickers, roguelikes, and Gauntlet. Runs take 10-30 minutes and pair well with an audiobook or podcast. The developers have discovered the formula for a perfect portable game, but for the time being, you can’t find this one on Switch or smartphones.
The best place to play Dragon Quest 11 has changed over the years. The JRPG to end all JRPGs first launched in 2018 on Steam and PlayStation 4, only to be bested a year later by a Definitive Edition for Nintendo Switch, which included additional content and could be played on the go. The Definitive Edition then came to Steam in 2020, but, of course, it lacked the portability of the Switch version, forcing players to choose between visuals and convenience. With the Steam Deck, folks can now have it both ways.
Also available on Nintendo Switch.
My blurb for Polygon’s best games of the 2010s applies to why Nier: Automata belongs on every Steam Deck:
Nier: Automata is the game I most often find myself wanting to play instead of the many fine-but-forgettable shooters and open-world distractions that land on my desk. I think about it every week partly because its soundtrack is my favorite writing music, partly because its toys litter my desk, and mostly because it’s just that good. Yes, you have to beat it five times, but in hindsight, I wish I had a reason to play it another five hundred.
In 2009, Volition created an open-world terrorism simulator set on Mars. With a hammer and construction-grade explosives, a bald space bro destroys landmarks, government office complexes, and mining facilities piece by piece. Where its open-world peers focused on realism and narrative, Red Faction emphasized chaotic fun. Publisher THQ planned to convert Red Faction into a “transmedia” property, but little materialized beyond a mediocre sequel and a made-for-TV movie. The closest we’ve seen to a spiritual sequel is 2020’s Teardown, an indie heist game that invites players to bust through buildings made of chunky voxels. Speaking of, I should install Teardown on my Steam Deck.
Also available on Nintendo Switch.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward were two of the most beloved visual novels on the Nintendo DS, 3DS, and PlayStation Vita. Unfortunately, Nintendo and Sony no longer support the DS and Vita online shops, and the 3DS online storefront will close in 2023. Meanwhile, The Nonary Games, which bundles the two titles, remains just as available today as it did when it launched on Steam in 2017, with no threat of disappearing anytime soon.
Spelunky HD kept my PlayStation Vita within arm’s reach long after Sony gave up on the cult portable. Last year, developer Mossmouth ported Spelunky and its sequel to the Nintendo Switch — and I finally moved my Vita into its long-term home in my storage bin of gaming artifacts. I won’t say the Steam Deck is a better home for Spelunky than the Switch, just that it’s another portable home. And any portable that can play Spelunky, should play Spelunky.
Also available on Nintendo Switch.
Wildermyth made Polygon’s top 10 games of 2021 list by reimagining the D&D experience without the need for a part-time Dungeon Master. The combat is clever enough (your magic can convert any object into a deadly weapon), but I especially cherish its creator’s dedication to characters. Party members find lovers and nemeses, they acquire weapons and battle scars, they age and eventually die. Quests are broken into 10- to 15-minute episodes of story and combat, ideal for filling any gaps in your day. The controls on Steam Deck do take a little practice, but the game has benefited from an active community of modders and storytellers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see improved user-made control settings soon.
In 2004, Half-Life 2 helped launch Steam, attracting thousands of players to Valve’s then-unproven video game ecosystem. In return for joining Steam, players could download a first-person shooter that was far ahead of its time. Today, Half-Life 2 (and its pair of supplemental episodes) works as another example of Valve’s magic. I installed a PC game I bought nearly 20 years ago onto a portable computer, and it only took a few minutes to enter the streets of City 17.
What if Hideo Kojima made his magnum opus, but most people wrote it off as a tedious walking simulator? Reader, it happened! Death Stranding is my personal game of the decade, an astounding mishmash of everything to appear in a Kojima game: earnest critiques of capitalism and the pain points of democracy, eerie premonitions of global pandemics and a gig economy forced to carry society on its shoulders, and enough mommy issues to justify a lifetime of therapy. Plus, the game itself is fun. Like, very fun!
No, you don’t get to shoot much stuff, nor do you conquer the giant open-world map. But you do make the world a little more manageable for you and other players, slowly building bridges, roads, and ladders that will inevitably be destroyed by nature. Where other games ask you to become the ruler of their world, Death Stranding reminds you that we are all merely tourists awaiting our one-way flight off of this rock. Did I mention the poop grenades?
Plenty of folks didn’t give the game a shot on PlayStation 4 or PC. Maybe the Steam Deck will make the game convenient enough to win over a handful of curious people to take the plunge into Death Stranding’s sticky, inky depths.