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The best emulators for Steam Deck

A single app may be your gateway to generations of console and arcade games.
November 9, 2023
steam deck
Oliver Cragg / Android Authority

The core appeal of a Steam Deck is the luxury of playing modern PC games on a handheld device, but having a gamepad built in naturally lends itself to playing old arcade and console titles. If you’re looking to indulge those retro habits, here are some of the best emulators that should work on a Steam Deck.

The best emulators for Steam Deck

It’s difficult to be comprehensive without this list ballooning out of control. While only some emulators are worth using at all, and only some of those are suitable to the Steam Deck, the major problem is that there are a lot of platforms people might like to emulate. Thankfully, our top pick should solve that dilemma for most gamers.

Remember also that emulators are in a legal gray area, even when users own legitimately purchased copies of the games they’re playing. It’s entirely possible that one or more of these apps could disappear because of legal threats from console makers.


EmuDeck on the Steam Deck

Okay, we’re actually cheating a little bit here, because EmuDeck isn’t an emulator into itself. It may however be the only download you need to bother with, because it’s a one-stop shop for Steam Deck emulation. The app not only lets you install and manage multiple emulators (including the others on this list), but automatically add games (with box art) to your Steam library so you don’t have to switch to Desktop mode to play. You can backup saves to the cloud, and configure a range of options, including the use of your Deck’s gyroscope for games that support it.

We can’t stress hard enough how you should probably start with EmuDeck. The emulators it installs should cover every platform you care about, from the NES and Sega Genesis through to the Nintendo Switch. We’d only suggest a direct download of one of the emulators below if you’re focused on a single platform and feel pretty comfortable with Desktop mode.


Zelda Breath of the Wild on Wii U

Cemu is an open-source Wii U emulator. While that might not immediately sound appealing — the real console didn’t sell well, after all — the platform does have some classic games, including multiple Mario and Zelda titles. The biggest attraction is probably The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is usually considered a Switch showcase, but did in fact have a Wii U version to keep that audience happy.


Metal Gear Solid 2

PCSX2 is the go-to emulator for PlayStation 2 titles. There’s not much to say here except that it’s open-source, and that it works with over 2,600 games, such as the original God of War, SSX Tricky, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The creators of the platform maintain a compatibility list — be sure you stick to games labelled “Perfect” or “Playable,” since even something marked “In-Game” won’t let you get very far.


Yuzu is a dedicated Switch emulator, so this may the only app some people care about, given that Nintendo and others are still releasing new games for the console. It’s open-source, and development seems to be very active, so you should have access to titles like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom alongside older staples like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

As a side note, be warned that Nintendo is probably the most committed company when it comes to cracking down on emulators and ROM files. While it rarely goes after individual users, don’t be surprised if ROM hosts go down, or Nintendo eventually comes after the Yuzu project.


Tekken 3

MAME is a household name in emulation to the point it’s almost synonymous with it. While it can mimic a range of devices, even some outdated desktop computers, the main use for gamers these days is old arcade cabinets. Want to play the original arcade version of Tekken, or obscure titles like Um Jammer Lammy Now? MAME is your ally here.

Just be aware that MAME takes time to set up on a Steam Deck, especially when it comes to configuring controls. But in some cases, the software may literally be the only way to play some titles —  older cabinets are often never ported to console or PC, whether because of technical issues or low sales potential.