The Steam Deck has rapidly become my video game platform of choice because it allows me to play 95% of my gaming library wherever and whenever I’d like. That said, some games benefit from the portable PC more than others. That’s why I’ve collected 18 titles that showcase what makes the Steam Deck so special.
To curate the list, I tried to pick games that benefited the most from the Steam Deck’s special features. You will find PC exclusives, Switch games that benefit here from faster load times, and games that break apart nicely into short sessions.
Don’t expect to see some presumed contenders on the list. Not every game is compatible with the Steam Deck, nor is every genre a perfect match — I’m looking at you, RTS games. And for now, this list also excludes emulation and cloud streaming.
We intentionally limit our lists to avoid overwhelming readers, so be sure to share your personal picks that didn’t make the cut in the comments.
[Ed. note: All screenshots in this article were taken on the Steam Deck.]
The Yakuza series spans hundreds of hours across seven mainline entries, along with a handful of spinoffs. Which is to say, the portable Steam Deck provides the best chance at seeing the entirety of this Japanese gangster epic, especially in the form of short missions on lunch breaks. If you don’t have time for every game, or just need a place to start, we recommend Yakuza 0. A sort of prequel to the series, the adventure takes place in 1980s Japan and provides lots of colorful backstories. Don’t be fooled by all of the violent combat and seedy locales; this series (and especially this entry) has more heart and joy than 99% of games from big-budget publishers. Hero Kazuma Kiryu wants to make the world a better place, one city block at a time.
Deep breath: Cult of the Lamb is Animal Crossing meets Hades meets the dark side of Catholic history meets Happy Tree Friends meets American cultism meets European occultism meets Dark Souls meets 1980s Satanic Panic meets Fractured Fairy Tales meets the waking dreams of Peter Molyneux.
Cult of the Lamb is like a stew. If you look closely, you can spot all of these delicious individual ingredients, but when slurped from a big spoon all you’ll taste is one distinct flavor.
My love for the Star Fox series has evaporated with each new entry, to the point that I began to wonder if I ever really enjoyed those games or if I just liked chunky ’90s 3D graphics. Ex-Zodiac’s creators have done what Nintendo couldn’t for the past couple of decades: bottle the original magic of the space flight franchise and add just enough tweaks to make the adventure palatable for our collective evolved tastes. (Hey, video games have come a long way since the SNES!) Developer MNKY also created bonus levels inspired by other retro classics, like Space Harrier, emphasizing its knack for refueling once exciting genres that have spent way too long collecting dust in the garage.
Stray is a game about being a cat. You don’t talk like Garfield or wink at the camera like Bubsy. You stretch, scratch, and occasionally leap between ledges at perilous heights. Your cat participates in a harrowing adventure set in a dystopian, cyberpunk underworld in which robots echo the lives of their long-dead human counterparts. But most engagement happens on your behalf through an adorable, English-speaking, artificially intelligent drone named B-12. The game’s creators keep your cat’s direct involvement ambiguous. Is the cat the savior of a dying planet? Or is the cat just a cat who happens to be the incidental shepherd of historic change? Like I said, typical cat stuff.
I am proud of the work we do at Polygon, but every publication has its weaknesses. I’ve accepted that we’re not the go-to experts for old-school side-scrolling shooters and shmups. That honor goes to our pals at Eurogamer, specifically Martin Robinson, who I trust more with this genre than I do any pundit with American politics. When he proclaimed Drainus is “the most spectacular side-scrolling shooter since Gradius 5,” I had to give it a try. Is it the best? I said I’m not an expert. But I can say, with confidence, it’s been a blast on Steam Deck, a delicious digestif after hours in a modern open-world game, and an unusually accommodating entry point for a notoriously impenetrable genre.
One of the best games of all time received one of the best remakes of all time, and now you can play its most complete version whenever and wherever you want. I mean, I could write more reasons you should play this game, but let’s be real — either you have played a version of Final Fantasy 7 already or you’ve been told countless times to bump this one up your queue. Throw this recommendation on the pile.
Meet the Steam Deck’s killer app. It’s not perfect — I play on low settings and occasionally experience frame rate dips — but Elden Ring works, and that’s all I need to farm souls (er, “runes”) in FromSoftware’s open-world expansion of its Dark Souls formula. This is the game that has kept me awake past midnight. I promise myself that I’ll stop once I see what’s at the end of a moss-lined cave or over a burning horizon, but then I see some new curiosity, and suddenly, I’m pummeling my way through another dungeon. The convenience of a portable device turns what I meant to be a 15-minute grind session into a two-hour journey through a labyrinthine dungeon.
So you’ve dropped half a grand on a portable video game machine capable of powering the most complex and expensive 3D video games on the planet. Now prepare to burn dozens of hours on a $2.99 2D dungeon crawler that nearly plays itself. Vampire Survivors is the unholy union of clickers, roguelikes, and Gauntlet. Runs take 10-30 minutes and pair well with an audiobook or podcast. The developers have discovered the formula for a perfect portable game, but for the time being, you can’t find this one on Switch or smartphones.
The best place to play Dragon Quest 11 has changed over the years. The JRPG to end all JRPGs first launched in 2018 on Steam and PlayStation 4, only to be bested a year later by a Definitive Edition for Nintendo Switch, which included additional content and could be played on the go. The Definitive Edition then came to Steam in 2020, but, of course, it lacked the portability of the Switch version, forcing players to choose between visuals and convenience. With the Steam Deck, folks can now have it both ways.
My blurb for Polygon’s best games of the 2010s applies to why Nier: Automata belongs on every Steam Deck:
Nier: Automata is the game I most often find myself wanting to play instead of the many fine-but-forgettable shooters and open-world distractions that land on my desk. I think about it every week partly because its soundtrack is my favorite writing music, partly because its toys litter my desk, and mostly because it’s just that good. Yes, you have to beat it five times, but in hindsight, I wish I had a reason to play it another five hundred.
In 2009, Volition created an open-world terrorism simulator set on Mars. With a hammer and construction-grade explosives, a bald space bro destroys landmarks, government office complexes, and mining facilities piece by piece. Where its open-world peers focused on realism and narrative, Red Faction emphasized chaotic fun. Publisher THQ planned to convert Red Faction into a “transmedia” property, but little materialized beyond a mediocre sequel and a made-for-TV movie. The closest we’ve seen to a spiritual sequel is 2020’s Teardown, an indie heist game that invites players to bust through buildings made of chunky voxels. Speaking of, I should install Teardown on my Steam Deck.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward were two of the most beloved visual novels on the Nintendo DS, 3DS, and PlayStation Vita. Unfortunately, Nintendo and Sony no longer support the DS and Vita online shops, and the 3DS online storefront will close in 2023. Meanwhile, The Nonary Games, which bundles the two titles, remains just as available today as it did when it launched on Steam in 2017, with no threat of disappearing anytime soon.
Spelunky HD kept my PlayStation Vita within arm’s reach long after Sony gave up on the cult handheld. Last year, developer Mossmouth ported Spelunky and its sequel to the Nintendo Switch — and I finally moved my Vita into its long-term home in my storage bin of gaming artifacts. I won’t say the Steam Deck is a better home for Spelunky than the Switch, just that it’s another portable home. And any portable that can play Spelunky should play Spelunky.
Wildermyth made Polygon’s top 10 games of 2021 list by reimagining the D&D experience without the need for a part-time Dungeon Master. The combat is clever enough (your magic can convert any object into a deadly weapon), but I especially cherish its creator’s dedication to characters. Party members find lovers and nemeses, they acquire weapons and battle scars, they age and eventually die. Quests are broken into 10- to 15-minute episodes of story and combat, ideal for filling any gaps in your day. The controls on Steam Deck do take a little practice, but the game has benefited from an active community of modders and storytellers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see improved user-made control settings soon.
In 2004, Half-Life 2 helped launch Steam, attracting thousands of players to Valve’s then-unproven video game ecosystem. In return for joining Steam, players could download a first-person shooter that was far ahead of its time. Today, Half-Life 2 (and its pair of supplemental episodes) works as another example of Valve’s magic. I installed a PC game I bought nearly 20 years ago onto a portable computer, and it only took a few minutes to enter the streets of City 17.
What if Hideo Kojima made his magnum opus, but most people wrote it off as a tedious walking simulator? Reader, it happened! Death Stranding is my personal game of the decade, an astounding mishmash of everything to appear in a Kojima game: earnest critiques of capitalism and the pain points of democracy, eerie premonitions of global pandemics and a gig economy forced to carry society on its shoulders, and enough mommy issues to justify a lifetime of therapy. Plus, the game itself is fun. Like, very fun!
No, you don’t get to shoot much stuff, nor do you conquer the giant open-world map. But you do make the world a little more manageable for you and other players, slowly building bridges, roads, and ladders that will inevitably be destroyed by nature. Where other games ask you to become the ruler of their world, Death Stranding reminds you that we are all merely tourists awaiting our one-way flight off of this rock. Did I mention the poop grenades?
Plenty of folks didn’t give the game a shot on PlayStation 4 or PC. Maybe the Steam Deck will make the game convenient enough to win over a handful of curious people to take the plunge into Death Stranding’s sticky, inky depths.