I, like many other children of the early 90’s, became a gamer thanks to Nintendo’s GameBoy. Mine in particular was a clear see-thru GameBoy Pocket that I still am in possession of alongside Kirby: Star Stackers, Tetris Blast, and Pokemon Silver (Pokemon Blue has been lost in time). And to the original device’s design, durability and credit, the damn thing still can turn on nearly three decades later with a fresh set of batteries if only for a couple of minutes. Handheld gaming has also been a key part of the video game ecosystem. Between the historic accessibility and availability (yes, I recognize the irony of this word given the title), handheld systems have acted as a gateway to video games. Between the original GameBoy Pocket, the GameBoy Advance, the DS, the PSP, the PS VITA, the 3DS, and even the Switch, there has not been a generation of handheld consoles that I haven’t at least partook in. So of course when Steam announced the proverbial “game-changer,” a portable device that could replicate the power of a PC with the double joysticks and on-the-go gaming, I (as a responsible gaming journalist) had to acquire for science.
And the moment I could put the deposit down (which according to my records was nearly a year ago), I did so and then I waited. And then I waited a long time. Between a delay announcement in November, I didn’t hear anything about my Steam Deck even though I saw that the device existed and then last month, the message popped up and the allure of that “New New” lured me in and I completed the purchase just as fast as the deposit. And sure enough, the expensive $529 Mid-Tier model was left on my doorstep in the blistering heat, and I took my new friend inside to unbox it in all of its glory.
It’s been a month and I’m not sure this will necessarily change the landscape, but it certainly has left an impression.
The Promise of Portable PC Gaming
Whenever a “disruptive” device or service enters the market, there is gonna be a healthy bit of skepticism involved between the claims and the reality. It was just a handful of years ago we saw Google advocate for its cloud-based gaming platform in Stadia, only for it to be met with middling interest, a silo’ed population in various games, and minimal support and advertising. While the Steam Launcher has been an invaluable piece of software, the idea of Steam hardware definitely felt like a stretch which is why I ordered the 256GB option. Sixty-four gigs was barely enough to handle one game, but I wasn’t unsure if the extra $120 was worth the extra storage. With the size of modern games though, I probably should have, but this is uncharted territory.
I know just enough about computers to know that the Steam Deck tech specs are reasonably powerful, but it’s not like I was going to be able to open up the device to upgrade. The true test of the machine would have to wait until I played some games.
Bold in Black
Upon opening the box, the first thing I noticed was that this thing was a behemoth. Seeing that it has a 7″ touchscreen flanked by controllers on paper is a very different reality than seeing the chonk of machine in person. The thing dwarfs my original Switch, and I’m pretty sure it would devour its closest predecessors of the PSP and VITA if given the opportunity.
That said, when I picked it up, the Steam Deck was surprisingly ergonomic and not too heavy. The upper placement of the joysticks stands in contrast to my usual PS5 controller and the offset Switch placement, but the grips felt good and my fingers naturally fell onto the back buttons. I was able to treat it similarly to my SCUF.
Connecting to the Wi-Fi and my Steam Account was easy and within minutes I was downloading various games onto the Steam Deck, some which I owned already and some of which I justified purchasing saying “it’s for research… it’s definitely for research.”
The Steam Deck’s unique instancing of Steam is as easy to navigate as you hope. One of the biggest additions is that all of the games are tagged. Certain games that have been tested thoroughly are given a green check and work without any concerns or further configurations. Games that mostly work and may need a couple setting adjusted are in yellow. Games that aren’t compatible (mostly those with an anti-cheat that can’t be run through Steam’s Linux based OS) are marked in grey. And finally, since the Steam library contains an unfathomable amount of titles and no team can be expected to test each and every one, many of them have question mark in a circle that indicate “we dunno. Good luck.”
When choosing which game was to mark this foray into uncharted territory, I looked at my library of available games. Destiny 2 would have been my first choice, but unfortunately BattleEye prevented that dream (sort of). Stardew Valley, Into the Breach, Aliens: Fireteam, and the best game of 2020, Hades, are stared at me in the “Great on Deck” preview screen, but ultimately I went with an unsupported game that I desperately wanted to play on controller since I first downloaded it: Supergiant’s Pyre.
Pyre was the follow up to Transistor and the precursor Hades, and it’s the one Supergiant Game I really really wanted to play on the Switch. The hyper tactical, isometric 3v3 ballgame/revolutionary simulator was a wonderfully vibrant game that played awkwardly on mouse and keyboard. It was a game I had been waiting for a Switch port for years and since there were no signs of it ever making the migration, I figured this was as close as I was going to get.
Reader, it was a dream. Even though the game’s compatibility wasn’t fully known, the official layout worked perfectly, and I picked my save file and managed to win my homecoming match more fluidly than ever before. The vibrant colors of the game and the controllers felt natural as the first runs of Hades on the Switch, and it was at this moment I was hooked. I had to see what this machine could do.
An Embarrassment of Riches
Given that the Steam Deck’s “launch titles” was the near totality of PC gaming, I decided to pick what was the current hotness at the time to stress test the game. After a quick purchase of TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, I was button mashing my way through hordes of enemy, and it was very clear that the Steam Deck was going to become my primary platform for a lot of cross platform titles. My PS5 mostly exits for Destiny 2 and a couple exclusives here and there, and my Switch had become 30% Nintendo specific titles and 70% various roguelikes. More times than not, I had waited for a particular game to port over to Switch because I wanted to play it casually on my couch rather than cooped up in my office, and given how wonderfully TMNT played, it became clear that I no longer needed to wait.
This was further confirmed when I logged into my cross-saved Hades account. With over 100 hours in the game on the Switch, I wasn’t expecting too much of a difference, but if I had to pick a word to describe the experience it would be transcendental. It’s not that the game played any differently than when it was on the Switch, it was that the Steam Deck’s visual fidelity was just so much more powerful than the Switch. The character designs and combat in high resolution, the stark difference in power was notable.
However, not every game was a perfect match. Inscryption mostly worked, but due to the game needing various text inputs and point/click interactions outside of the card game, the game was not intuitive at all, clunky at times, and also revealed the Steam Deck’s greatest flaw: the touchpads that were meant to simulate the track pad/mouse. The thing was finnicky and imprecise, the exact opposite of what you would hope for. This flaw was also apparent when attempting a first run of Ravenous Devils.
To truly put the Steam Deck through its paces, I decided to go big and delve into Elden Ring. That whole experience is a entirely other story, but I will say I was impressed by how it handled. The Steam Deck was able to play at a reasonable quality for about two hours before needing to be recharged, which honestly is probably the ideal time for a roguelike enthusiast’s first soulsbourne. The game looked good and felt good, a feat that I was genuinely surprised at the time.
But Wait There’s More
Courtesy of the Steam Deck, I find myself playing more games than ever before. In addition to getting my ass handed to me at Stormveil Castle repeatedly, I have also downloaded Stray (because who doesn’t love cats and robots), Multi-versus, and the updated version of Into the Breach. Having these games be portable is such a boon because it means I don’t have to lug around my heavy laptop. It means I can play in transit or in couch or in bed. It’s probably a wash if it’s better for my posture, but it’s been great having around the house.
It is exciting, and there is a lot of room for opportunities. After some research, I was able to set up PSN Remote Play on the device which did allow me to stream Destiny 2 which brings my productivity closer to an untimely demise. There’s rumors of Stadia support in the future which 1) is hilarious in how it brings everything together full circle, 2) may actually be a great use of cloud based tech and a way to fit even more games into the small box.
Persona 5 Royal comes out on PC later this year which means I, and other members of the crew, are probably going to play the game again for the umpteenth time. Harvestella, the Harvest Moon/Final Fantasy fusion, will be playable on both Switch and PC, but given the current track record, I’m very certain that the game is going to be a spectacle on the Steam Deck.
And it should be noted, that as of now, I’ve been treating the Steam Deck as a whole separate system, but it is very much an extension of my actual PC. Thanks to the magic of cloud saving, anything I do in Steam makes its way back to my PC and if I wanted to, I could go back and forth depending on how I’m feeling.
What’s the Verdict?
After all that, I enjoy having the device. Even as the initial novelty wanes, the Steam Deck has enough tricks and power to keep be intriguing. This is a handheld that mostly delivers on the promise of portable PC gaming. The Nintendo line of consoles still has nothing to worry about, but the Steam Deck is a powerful machine that certainly has captured my attention.
With the hefty price tag rivaling that of the modern consoles and availability that can best be described as “sketchy, but maybe not as sketchy as the modern consoles,” I don’t think this is something that everyone should be seeking out. But I’ve definitely enjoyed my time with it, and I’m excited to see the longevity of this miniature PC.