The Steam Deck is now the ultimate handheld JRPG

Square Enix has released Final Fantasy 7 on PlayStation, PC, iPhone, Android, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. But for most of the past decade, if you wanted the ideal Final Fantasy 7 experience, you haven’t played any of these ports on newer platforms. You have played Final Fantasy 7 on PlayStation Vita.

Modern ports of FF7 added attractive features such as the ability to fast forward through Random Battles, but also required playing on large HD screens with blurred backgrounds. Without mods, all of Square’s beloved PlayStation RPGs were best played on a CRT TV – or far more easily, as downloadable “PSOne classics” on the Vita, Sony’s 2012 handheld. The Vita made dozens of incredible (and very, very long) games portable for the first time, and its 5-inch OLED display was small enough that they still looked great. If you loved JRPGs more than any other game, the Vita was the best gaming device ever.

At least that was the case until this year. This is now the Steam Deck.

Raise and grind

PC gaming’s relationship with Japan has blossomed over the past decade. Steam these days is full of ports and remasters of classic JRPGs beyond Final Fantasy, from Grandia to Tales of Vesperia to Shin Megami Tensei 3. Windows games on the Deck had issues with the video codecs used in a wide range of Japanese games. But that problem has been fixed, and now the likes of Trails in the Sky and Persona 4 work just fine on the Deck, even though Valve has always marked them as “Not Supported”.

Trails in the Sky Key Art

(Image credit: Nihon Falcom)

Valve’s goal with the Steam Deck is for it to eventually play every game on Steam, although it’s a far cry from that goal – only around half of Steam’s top 100 games are playable on the Deck until now. here. And while games work on the Deck, all is not ideal (I gave up squinting at the UI and trying to use a trackpad as an accurate mouse pointer in 10 minutes).

JRPG are an ideal fit, however. They’re designed for controllers, often turn-based and therefore comfortably played at 30fps, and light on system requirements, meaning hours of battery life. Being able to put the system to sleep and recover it later is a boon for those long games. And organizing random battles is far more palatable when I can throw a movie on the TV and pay minimal attention to the handheld in my lap. I really wish I had the Steam Deck when I put 93 hours into Dragon Quest 11.

Based on the Steam library alone, the Steam Deck would be a great device for JRPG enthusiasts: Nihon Falcom, Bandai Namco, and of course Square Enix all release games there. But like the Vita, the Steam Deck’s real strength is its versatility and the number of games it can play that weren’t expressly designed for it.

Variety of PlayStation Vita colors

(Photo credit: Sony)

The PlayStation Vita was the do-it-all gaming handheld of 2012. The same way Valve packed the Steam Deck with features and control options for just about any game imaginable, Sony gave the Vita a pair of analog sticks, cameras, Bluetooth, motion controls, a touchscreen and touchpad on the back, inputs for every conceivable situation. Vita owners could not only download heaps of classic PlayStation games, but they could also stream games from the PS4 to the Vita with Remote Play, making new high-end console games portable as well. The Vita was even backward compatible with PSP games, further enriching its catalog.

Sony infamously labeled the Vita a “legacy platform” back in 2015, just three years after its release, and it seemed like the Vita had spent most of its life slowly (relatable) dying. It was more or less discontinued by Sony, but niche indie and Japanese games continued to support it for years, with Vita RPGs still being released in Japan as recently as 2020. The Vita also had a hacking scene and active emulation, even if this was not the case. powerful enough to emulate many systems beyond the Super Nintendo without a few issues.

Yet the Vita was such a versatile device for its time, it was the kind of system that inspired people to see what they could play on it. The hardware was as much of a draw as the games themselves.

Laptop

Part of me wishes the Steam Deck was as svelte as the Vita: I wish I could slip it into my pocket instead of carrying it around in a bulky carrying case in my backpack. But the Deck has many other assets in addition to being more powerful: cloud saves, Steam’s controller configurator, and community tools like EmuDeck which result from being an open platform. As Vitas around the world gradually wear out and Sony eventually stops selling its older games, I hope Vita fans turn to the Steam Deck as a replacement.

Where the Vita was the best way to play PS1 games for many years, these games can now be beautifully emulated on the Deck with DuckStation, running at higher resolutions than they originally were. It can also handle PS2 games, and emulator hacks open the door to running older games flawlessly on widescreen and using HD texture replacement mods.

Meanwhile, the definitive versions of JRPGs like Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 9 are now unmistakably the PCs, thanks to high-end AI mods like those from Satsuki Yatoshi and Moguri. I installed the Moguri mod on the Steam Deck, and Final Fantasy 9 looks fantastic; I’ve also uploaded the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters and changed their fonts, which you won’t be able to do when they inevitably release on the Nintendo Switch. Can you imagine being stuck with this? The recent remastered port of Chrono Cross received mixed reviews on Steam due to bizarre performance issues and poor scaling, but modders are already hard at work improving it.

Thanks to Retroarch, it’s even possible to install emulators for Japanese PCs, like the NEC PC-88 and PC-98, opening the door to exploring the origins of Japanese RPGs on the same handheld that hosts everything, from a new version of Final Fantasy 1 to its bizarre remake Stranger of Paradise. Ironically, some of the only JRPGs the Steam Deck can’t currently play are those released exclusively for the Vita. Vita emulation is still in its infancy, with only around 10% of games playable so far. But at least it gives us something to look forward to.

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