Hands-on Deck; Steam Deck and Retro
An experience at turns disappointing and empowering
There's a lot of talk about Valve's portable 'puter, the terribly named Steam Deck, being something of an emulation beast. How it plays everything up to Wii U and even some Switch titles flawlessly. So of course, when I had the means to do so, I bought one. I couldn't afford not to, with those promises! On top of all that lovely rommery, there's also its capacity to play brand new, AAA games that have been officially Verified by Valve as "Great On Deck"! So we're talking about a machine that plays everything ever, that can be carried from the bed to the toilet and vice versa? Um... pinch me!
Of course, it's mostly total bollocks. Might as well be direct about that - it doesn't emulate as well as everyone says it does. They're simply lying. On top of that, many of the Verified games run terribly without extensive fiddling and tinkering. The Emudeck package - a community tool which automatically installs and configures emulators for almost any imaginable system - promises the simplest, easiest way to get going with retrogaming on Deck. And, initially, it does seem pleasantly simple to use. As in, you hit "install" and it installs. Then, when it's done, you'll get the offer to check out something called Steam Rom Manager. At which point, hell begins.
See, if you want to play anything that comes after 16-bit, you'll need to get hold of a BIOS. That's fine, but the PlayStation 1 and 2 emulators provided here seem to have a bizarre means of navigating the Deck's Linux-based OS, so good luck finding where you've put the files in the first place. Once you've done that, you'll find PlayStation 2 is essentially good to go - only especially CPU-intensive games such as Outrun: Coast 2 Coast have issues reaching full speed, but it's possible that this could change in time and with updates.
One of the major reasons I wanted a Deck, though, was to play Gamecube. Nintendo's gorgeous little system in handheld form was too appealing to ignore, and on the promise of many, many people I jumped on board with gusto... only to find it struggled with constant hitching, slowdown, freezes - you name it. And that was when the controls worked; I hopped from Gameplay to Desktop modes (don't ask) over and over again until I finally managed to get things sorted. Still, problems persist; the flagship Gamecube emulator Dolphin seems to have a specific problem with the Steam Deck, which sort of puts lie to all the ridiculous claims of it being 100% perfect out of the box. In fact, I had to download a separate plug-in called Power Tools - itself a confusing ordeal with an installer that doesn't tell you when it's finished installing. At one point, my entire painstaking Emudeck setup simply stopped working for no discernible reason, necessitating a full removal and reinstall.
When I got things working, I had fun, you know? I enjoyed myself! Having any system from the SNES onwards on a handheld is still a huge novelty to me, and outside of my issues setting the damn thing up it is rather cool to be able to play The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King while in bed. I just wish that the Steam Deck was closer to being the kind of console it's emulating than the reality, which is that it's a PC. With all the problems that come with PCs. And people who pay just under £600 for a console will always, always defend it to the death.
The Steam Deck is a pain in the arse. If you feel as though you can endure that, good times await you. But bear in mind I didn't even mention the atrocity that is its UI. Brrrr.