Skip to main content

How to run emulators on the Steam Deck

The Steam Deck is a very emulator-friendly system, and with a few tips and tricks, you can learn how to run emulators on the Steam Deck in just a few minutes. When Valve designed the Steam Deck, it knew that players would be interested in emulation to recreate their favorite gaming systems of years gone by to enjoy some timeless classics. That’s why the Steam Deck allows you to pick and run an emulator right out of the box.




1 hour

What You Need

  • Steam Deck

  • Potentially an SD card for file management

Disclaimer: Emulation is a legal gray area, as the ROM files to play the games are rarely available through legal sources. Digital Trends doesn't condone the illegal downloading of any games you don't own, nor can we vouch for the veracity and security of any ROM files you download from unofficial sources.

How to run an emulator on the Steam Deck

Step 1: Turn on your Steam Deck. When it’s up and running, hold down the Power button on the top-right of the Steam Deck for a few seconds. When a menu opens, choose Switch to desktop. This will reboot the Steam Deck in Desktop Mode, where you can make important changes. It’s usually easier to navigate the Desktop Mode if you connect the Steam Deck to a larger monitor and a mouse/keyboard, but it’s not entirely necessary.

Steam Deck Apps.

Step 2: The Steam Deck already has a lot of emulators waiting to be downloaded in the Discover app. However, that’s where things quickly get complicated. Instead, we suggest using a shortcut, specifically the EmuDeck program. EmuDeck takes care of all the details on the backend and will install and configure emulators — notably RetroArch, a front-end infrastructure that works well with the Steam Deck and one we recommend for emulation. Head to this webpage and select the Download app button to begin. If following the links is tricky, the URL is:

EmuDeck Install Button.

Step 3: Open the EmuDeck file in Desktop Mode and run it to install the program. EmuDeck will open a wizard that will walk you through the setup process. Follow the instructions closely. Eventually, you’ll be asked to run the Steam ROM Manager, which EmuDeck should make easy. When asked about overwriting emulators, you can choose to overwrite them all unless you’ve done previous customization with an emulator on the list.

Emudeck Running on Steam Deck.
Retro Game Corps

Step 4: When prompted, select Preview, then choose Generate app list. EmuDeck will now work to create a library of classic games plus images and other important data. When it’s finished, select Save app to complete the process. This could take several minutes or more, so stay patient if it looks like the Deck is working through it.

Step 5: Close your apps, and choose the Return to game mode icon in the upper-left corner. In your Steam Library, you should now see a new Emulation collection with the EmulationStation app ready to go.

EmulationStation in Steam Deck.

Step 6: When in doubt about managing ROM files, don’t hesitate to open the Steam ROM Manager again and check configurations, compatibility, and more. Remember, a lot is automated here, but you can choose what emulated consoles to see, how they look, what games you want, and more. EmuDeck should have done most of the work for you, but you still have customization options.

Steam ROM Manager.
Retro Game Corps

Step 7: If you are planning to keep your ROMs on a separate SD card for easier cataloging, make sure you get an SD card, configure it to your Steam Deck, and label it properly so you’ll know what’s waiting inside. SD cards using Ext4 or Btrfs filesystems will be compatible with EmuDeck. Make sure the SD card is installed and ready to go before you run EmuDeck.

The RetroArch Menu.

Step 8: If your Deck or an external controller is acting weird or not mapped correctly based on what you remember from the game, you can always change it. RetroArch, for example, has a Controls section in settings where you can remap buttons and save your configuration for each game. A little tinkering can go a long way.

Once you have your favorite games up and running, why not try playing them on your big screen TV? Alternatively, switch to the Steam Deck's Desktop Mode to get even more fine-tuned control.

Editors' Recommendations

Tyler Lacoma
If it can be streamed, voice-activated, made better with an app, or beaten by mashing buttons, Tyler's into it. When he's not…
How to install Windows 11 or Windows 10 on the Steam Deck
A USB-C hub hanging out of the Steam Deck.

Windows 11 and Windows 10 work on the Steam Deck now that Valve has officially released drivers for Microsoft's operating system. It's not as simple as hitting a download button, though. In this guide, we're going to show you how to install Windows on the Steam Deck, both to the internal solide-state drive (SSD) and from a microSD card.

Read more
How to add external games to your Steam library
Steam library.

Steam is the place for PC games, but several games are only available on other storefronts. The Epic Games Store, Ubisoft Connect, Origin, and more have games that you can’t find on Steam. To clean up your desktop gaming experience and make the upcoming Steam Deck a little easier to use, we’re going to show you how to add external games to your Steam library.

Read more
Thanks, I hate it: Someone installed macOS on a Steam Deck
macOS Catalina running on a Steam Deck.

Yesterday we got the news that Apple might bring macOS to the iPad Pro. Today, someone has managed to get macOS to run on a Steam Deck. And tomorrow? I’m betting we’ll see macOS installed on a toaster. You heard it here first.

Back to the Steam Deck. The feat was achieved by enterprising Reddit user Lampa183, who apparently was able to get macOS Catalina running inside a VirtualBox virtual machine on their device. In other words, this is several layers of operating systems and emulation. But the result is worth it … right?

Read more