I’m obsessed with Steam Deck. I received Valve’s gaming handheld in May of this year, and it has quickly become my favorite console of all time. After a period of severe media burnout, it has made me fall in love with gaming all over again, and I’ve finished more games in the last six months than I have in years. As you might expect, the rest of my consoles have been gathering dust since then.
To illustrate how deep the rabbit hole goes, even when it’s a PlayStation or Xbox exclusive game to check out, I use remote gaming services like Chiaki and Greenlight so I can play them on the Steam deck. God of War: Ragnarok sings on the big screen, sure, but what if you could play it from the comfort of your own bed, without compromise? In a world of attention economy, that’s a gambit I’m interested in.
The bespoke nature of the Steam Deck, with its tough-guy Linux base and easy access to the desktop, means it’s capable of playing more games than anything else you can fit between the palms of your hands. Even complex PC games like Mount and Blade 2: Bannerlords will work with this thing, thanks to its fully customizable inputs and access to layouts created by knowledgeable community members.
And therein lies Steam Deck’s secret superpower. I’ve cleared so much of my backlog with this device, but I’ve also expanded my palette with so many cult classics that never had the privilege of portability.
Reviving old games for a new age
I find nothing more annoying than when games are lost due to backwards compatibility, licensing issues, difficult control schemes, or just plain old commercial unpopularity. Steam Deck feels like a great equalizer in this regard – it will play pretty much anything you throw at it, including a number of underrated gems from my childhood.
2011’s The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a game that no one is talking about, mainly because it came out in the same year as Dark Souls and Skyrim. But it’s also a fantastic third-person co-op action game with innovative RPG systems, amazing voice acting and a license to kill. It feels like a continuation of the (fantastic) Lord of the Rings movie tie-in games from the early 2000s, and is a piece of history that led to Monolith’s Middle-Earth series. But history has not been kind to it. War in the North was delisted on most digital storefronts and was never made backwards compatible. Still, it runs like a dream on my Steam deck.
The novelty of this process, and indeed the peculiarity of only playing console games while on the go, hasn’t worn off yet. My weekly rotation includes your typical favorites, but also games like Lost Planet, Max Payne 3, Gun, Kane and Lynch, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Killer7 and Project Snowblind
Steam Deck is a goldmine if you’re feeling nostalgic for the many eras of experimental IPs. It’s been so refreshing to dig into this aspect of the library, given how safe and nostalgia-focused the industry can feel today. One of my absolute favorite games of the 2010s was Digital Extreme’s The Darkness 2, a franchise now in (what seems like) perpetual stasis, for some reason.
Into the darkness
Quite a relic of the past, I was so surprised to find it running perfectly on Steam Deck in 2022, better than it ever did at launch. I was able to find a new appreciation for the aspects of the game that stuck with me as a teenager, like the game’s inimitable cel-shaded art style, evocative of the same graphic novels The Darkness 2 is based on.
“It took a lot of work to create a game where the scene lighting could be affected by the gameplay and at the same time affect the gameplay itself. This was not easy to manage as each setting and game scenario had to work in light and shade. Even now, if we can avoid it, we tend to avoid such systems in our games,” said Mat Tremblay, Art Director of The Darkness 2.
“There were other games at the time, like Borderlands, that did something similar, but I think we succeeded in making our game stand out from the crowd. The theme, the graphic novel’s roots. We wanted to embrace that visual style as so many games at the time focused on desaturated realism.”
There’s also the unique combat, which mixes a first-person shooter with a hack ‘n’ slash, as you use the familiar darkness to slash and juggle gangsters, or pin them to the wall with jagged metal bars. This “play with the food” approach to combat has seen success in later games such as Sony Santa Monica’s God Of War: Ragnarok.
“I mean, carrying those demon arms! It’s so visceral,” Tremblay said. “In the end, the game came together well and it’s great to see it can see a resurgence on platforms like Steam Deck…Too many great games are made and then forgotten when the shiny new game is announced and released.”
What was it about this period that led to so many cult classics? Tremblay notes that back in 2012, they were still making games “like a boxed product,” which allowed for fierce competition. “When people only have so much money to spend on gambling, they may choose the safe option more often than not.”
Tremblay was interested in the idea of working on another game in the series, but noted that right now Digital Extremes is working on its free-to-play behemoth Warframe and the upcoming Soulframe. “If we were to get the opportunity to do Darkness 3, it would be interesting to see how the story of Jackie Estacado can be expanded,” Tremblay said. “We’ve matured as developers and would suggest that we would be able to expand on that story in ways that maybe we weren’t equipped for back then.
Back to the island
Another game that has found a new home on Steam Deck is Curse of Monkey Island, the LucasArts classic from 1997. After reviewing Return to Monkey Island, I thought it would be a good time to check out the series’ foundation that lacks a remake -treatment the first two games received.
I know what you’re thinking. A point-and-click? On a handheld device? But Steam Deck’s trackpads make it the best way to play this genre. All you have to do is change the layout so that the correct trackpad thinks it’s a computer mouse, and you have a portable point-and-click interface ready to play a 90s classic with a timeless art style.
“We looked at a lot of the artistic development and production process that Disney and the other traditional studios used, as well as art styles from classic book illustrators,” said Curse of Monkey Island co-project manager Larry Ahern. “I think Curse was in a unique place in terms of design and production values. The game has a long and complex design that is very similar to older games that had to rely on this element to entertain the audience because they couldn’t do much with art and animation , he continued, “But then with Curse, we had higher resolution, and brought in a team of classically trained traditional animators, a digital ink and paint system that’s mostly used in film, and blended the two.”
Curse of Monkey Island felt like a rare treat on the Steam Deck, with its gorgeous assets upscaled on the 800p screen. It’s hard to come across a truly funny video game, but Curse consistently had me in stitches, with its warm characters and biting wit. A full-sail remake would be nice to have, but in lieu of that reality, this is a fantastic alternative for modern gamers.
“A few years back, it seemed like the company was working through special editions for a lot of the old games, so we were hoping they’d make it to Curse, but then things kind of stalled,” Ahern said. “I’m definitely in favor of game portability and playing in smaller chunks or chapters. I think it opens up games to a wider audience if players don’t feel like they need to buy expensive hardware and commit an entire day to making a dent in the game they’re playing.”
After Curse of Monkey Island, Ahern went on to work on Insecticide, another underrated gem from LucasArts alumni that mixes action-adventure combat and exploration with inventory confusing in 3D space, Grim Fandango style. Part 1 of the action-adventure detective game landed in 2008, with amazing voice actors animated cutscenes and fun puzzles, but part 2 was canceled and never officially materialized. It’s another underrated gem that, remarkably, is plug-and-play on the Steam deck.
“I would have loved a new version of the Insecticide world. I think we were a little early on the indie scene with that one. Just a few years later and development would have been so much easier with off-the-shelf game engines and other tools to support external teams,” Ahern said . “It would be fun to make another game like this, but I think a lot of my original game concepts might not be commercial enough to justify the budgets I want to work with. So never say never, but it would take a good idea and a very supportive publisher to lure me back.”
As we move further into the lifecycle, the future of Steam decks only seems to get brighter. It’s a force to be reckoned with, both as a powerful handheld equalizer and a means of preserving video game history. This forward-thinking device brings with it the added privilege of a window into the past, and hopefully, as more games gain community support and deck verification, that unparalleled library will grow, bringing with it countless cult classics to gain the appreciation they deserve .