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The Steam Deck’s killer app isn’t the game you’d expect

When I first heard about the Steam Deck, my brain went big. I started imagining all the giant AAA games I’d be able to play on the go once I had a portable computer. When I got my unit, I immediately downloaded Elden Ring and fired up my save file. That’s something my Nintendo Switch couldn’t do.

While it’s been thrilling to fire up PS4-quality games on the subway, those aren’t the titles I’ve been playing the most on my Steam Deck. Instead, my go-to game has been comparatively modest. For me, the early access indie hit Vampire Survivors is the closest thing the system has to a killer app, showcasing the true utility of the Steam Deck.

Getting access

Vampire Survivors is a simple game. The gothic 8-bit game merely asks players to survive a constant wave of enemies for 30 minutes. They’ll start with a basic weapon that auto-attacks and gain more abilities every time they level up. Players move around to dodge enemies, but otherwise, they’re simply building the perfect monster-slaying machine. At the start of a run, players are slowly slashing a few enemies with a whip. By the end, the screen is filled with magic spells and enemies, pushing the frame rate to its limits.

When I first saw the game in January, it had my curiosity, but I didn’t want to play it yet. Its 30-minute runs made it feel like the perfect commuter game, but not one I’d want to sit down and play at my desk. Unfortunately, the game was only on PC as an early access game. It likely wouldn’t come to Switch until its 1.0 release, if it did at all. It seemed like a game that was doomed to fall under my radar simply due to circumstance.

A woman plays Vampire Survivors on a Steam Deck.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

When I got my Steam Deck, Vampire Survivors wasn’t initially on my mind. But as I was coming up with a list of games I could test on it, it suddenly jumped the list. The fact that it was on PC made it an accidental Steam Deck console exclusive. I downloaded it in seconds (it’s a small game) and curled up on my couch to enjoy my first run. It was the exact way I wanted to play it but had been previously unable to.

Being able to play early access games portably is a true game-changer that no other system can claim – nor can cloud services. If I’d had the Steam Deck a few years ago, it would have meant I could play Hades years before it hit Switch. Right now, I could fire up the device and play games like Rogue Legacy 2 and Darkest Dungeon 2 before they inevitably become hits. That’s the one unique way the Steam Deck is truly able to expand my gaming world at the moment.

Designing for portability

It’s not just the exclusivity that makes Vampire Survivors the perfect fit for the device. While players can take their entire Steam library on the go (well, some of it), that doesn’t mean every game is fit for a commute. Being able to play Elden Ring on the go is a wild parlor trick, but it’s by no means the way I’d want to experience it. The Deck’s battery would die before I was able to beat Margit.

There’s an art to designing games that work both portably and on a home device. Nintendo has cracked that code in several of its first-party Switch exclusives. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has long story beats, but also micro-challenges in shrines that seem built for someone who only has 10 minutes to kill. Super Mario Odyssey’s emphasis on moon collecting allows players to accomplish something even if they’re just waiting five minutes in a DMV line.

The Steam Deck doesn’t have those sorts of games, at least not intentionally. Just about anything players load up on it was built with a PC experience in mind. It may have been optimized for Steam Deck, but it wasn’t designed around it. If you take a game on the go, it’s a gamble whether or not you’ll get a fulfilling experience in one session.

A character attacks with magic spells in Vampire Survivors.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

That makes games like Vampire Survivors stand out among the flood of options on the device currently. It’s a true pick-up-and-play game that snuggly fits into most time gaps and doesn’t drain the console while doing it. It reminds me of Loop Hero, which had a breakout moment last January. I loved it initially but felt like it was begging for a Switch port with its bite-sized roguelite runs. By the time it got one, I had moved on. Vampire Survivors is the same situation, except I don’t have to wait.

If you’re currently staring at your Steam Deck paralyzed by limitless options, give Vampire Survivors a download. It only costs a few bucks and it’s a perfect fit for the hardware. For some extra fun, flip on the Steam Deck’s performance window and watch the frame rate drop in real time as the screen fills up with enemies. That’s another experience you just can’t replicate on Switch.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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