I have a Switch. And I have a Steam Deck. I am a fancy lady with two consoles designed for the kind of people who really like to be horizontal when playing games, which suits me just fine, because I am often to be found being horizontal and/or playing games. But I see a lot of folks pitting my two expensive rectangles against one another, and although I can see why, I don’t agree that comparisons are the most helpful way to look at the two of them.
The Steam Deck and the Switch are not exactly apples and oranges, or chalk and chocolate, or whatever your favourite incomparables are. After all, they’re both the same shape. They both play games. And Valve’s portable-ish console is clearly modelled after the Switch, anyway.
No, it’s more like comparing apples and apple pie. Two similar dishes, united in many elements, but just different enough to have different applications and uses. You wouldn’t bring a solitary apple to a bake sale; you wouldn’t eat five apple pies a day to keep the doctor away. In the same way, my Switch and my Steam Deck fulfil different needs in my life, and, yes, I am aware that I sound a bit like someone talking about the necessitude of having both a party yacht and a business yacht, but hear me out.
Neither of them are clear winners in this head-to-head, as it turns out. The Deck may look like it’s got it all figured out — but I don’t think it does, and I don’t think we should discount Nintendo’s ageing featherweight just because some new upstart welterweight has come along, borrowing from Nintendo’s playbook.
First off, the Nintendo Switch was already its own thing way before the Deck came out, and it’s earned its place in my heart. I can’t play God of War Ragnarok on Nintendo’s tiny little tablet of a console, and nor would I want to, because I don’t want to know what Kratos’ face looks like inside-out, but the Pokémons and Kirbies and Zeldas that I get instead make the Switch a fantastically worthwhile piece of tech to have in my house. It’s absolutely paid for itself hundreds of times over, with all the hours I’ve put into Hyrule, Paldea, and Egg (my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island).
Secondly, I’m mostly playing nothing but Vampire Survivors on my Deck right now, even though it can handle games that are far more taxing on the hardware. The Deck is fantastic for short sessions (as is the Switch), but I’m surprised by how much I value casual play on this handheld little computer. I mean, it’s vastly more powerful than the Switch, yet I’m playing 100-hour RPGs on the Switch and casual games on the Deck. Wild!
My opinion of the Steam Deck is also heavily coloured by the fact that it’s a chunky lad — 669 grams in total, compared to the Switch’s svelte 398 grams with Joy-Con attached. On the plus side, I feel like I’m going to have really beefy forearms after a three-hour session; on the downside, that’s a lot of weight to be holding up. I can play the Switch for extended sessions easily, switching between playing with the Joy-Con attached, playing with them removed, and playing in docked mode — the versatility is what keeps it with me. But the Steam Deck is locked to itself, with no removable parts, and that automatically limits it to very specific situations in which I’m willing to hold over half a kilo for an hour or two.
But it’s not all bad things, obviously. The Steam Deck has improved on the Switch’s formula, too. The Switch is designed to be a Swiss Army Knife — a versatile jack of all trades — and that’s just fine by me, but the Steam Deck is admittedly more stylish and thoughtful in its design. I mean, that’s not hard — Nintendo has barely iterated on their hybrid console in almost six years, so Valve has half a decade of Nintendo’s discarded user feedback that they can use to inform their own blueprints.
There are buttons on the Steam Deck’s reverse that you can map to any of the front buttons, making it much easier on my aching wrists. The Hori Split Pad for Switch — which I think must have been on Valve’s mood board — has the same feature, and it’s invaluable for creating useful quick-access buttons like sprint, interact, or weapon select. The mere fact that you can remap buttons at all is something Nintendo has refused to acknowledge, ever, but the Steam Deck also offers community-made controller layouts for each game, so you can let the armchair experts do all the tough thinking.
Also, the Steam Deck charges from the top. You would think this would be an obvious change, given that most people don’t want a charging cable stuck into their belly while they play games, but no. I’ll admit that owning a Deck and a Switch means that I’m constantly getting the two charging ports mixed up, and trying to jam a USB-C cable into a place where there is no hole, but overall, I vastly prefer the Deck’s upper port.
The innovation in the Steam Deck makes me wish for either a more receptive Nintendo, or a new Switch Pro that takes on a multitude of user-friendly changes. But ultimately, even with all their differences, I just don’t prefer one over the other, because despite looking like a Switch and a Switch in a trenchcoat, the two consoles offer two unique experiences.
But I think it’s a bit deeper than that, even. When the Steam Deck burst onto the scene, the word on the street was “Switch-killer”. How could it not be? This bulky-yet-suave claimant to the throne offered changes that Nintendo was reticent to make; it proved that power was not synonymous with size; and it even has Switch emulators that you can use to make Nintendo’s console obsolete. And yet, I keep coming back to the Switch, despite everything.
It’s not that I don’t prefer one over the other — it’s that I don’t prefer the Steam Deck to the Switch, even though it feels obvious.
Perhaps it’s less like comparing apples and apple pie, and it’s more like comparing whisky and Coca-Cola. One is refined, mature, and sophisticated, the kind of thing you can order on a date to impress your paramour. The other is a sweet brown fizzy drink that tastes like itself and nothing else, which has clung onto the soda pop throne for over a century by rarely ever acceding to change, even if the market seems to demand a new trend. It is unabashedly itself, and it works. Sure, drinking neat whisky on the rocks is cool and hip in a lot of circumstances, but sometimes you just want Coke, like you’re a five year old with simple needs.
The Steam Deck is my whisky: I feel like a grown-up while playing it, and its uses are vast. I can play eight hours of The Witcher, three hours of Return of the Obra Dinn, or 30 minutes of Vampire Survivors. It’s strong, fast, and powerful. I can tell other people about it and they go “ooooh” and think that I am one of those people that owns leather furniture.
The Switch is my Coca-Cola. Everyone might think I am a bit of a child for enjoying it, but tell me, who would turn down a glass of ice-cold Coke on a hot day? Who wants whisky with their cheeseburger? The Switch is a toy. A real toy, not one of those desk toys that CEOs have that let you play a tiny version of golf or watch metal balls clack together. I feel like a kid playing the Switch, and I don’t worry about it.
The video game industry is divided, just like the Steam Deck and the Switch, into GAMES FOR GROWN-UPS and GAMES FOR EVERYONE. It’s why Nintendo keeps getting shoved into the “Best Family Game” category at awards shows — we just don’t know how to celebrate games that are made for a demographical range that includes kids, even if adults enjoy them too. The Switch is a robust, flexible piece of tech that’s designed for tiny, sticky hands and larger mitts alike. The Steam Deck is for BIG ADULT HANDS ONLY.
But I am a person who contains multitudes. I am both child-like and adult, casual and hardcore, fun and serious. I wish that there was a console that served both those sides of me, but currently, the industry is severely divided into “fun!” and “all technology should look like military equipment”. The Steam Deck and the Switch (and Xbox Game Pass, but that’s not the point of this soapbox) cover all my bases, and that’s why I like having both. But wouldn’t it be great for the next generation to be their child, a hybrid of both hybrids? A whisky and Coke? We can only dream.
Do you agree with Kate, or do you think one yacht with just Coke and apple pies is fine? Are you confused by all these analogies? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
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