The Steam Deck has many buttons. There is a D-pad, all the typical face buttons, two control sticks that also respond to capacitive touch and can be pressed as buttons, two trackpads with haptic feedback that are also pressure-sensitive buttons, two shoulder bumpers, two analog shoulder triggers and four buttons on the back of the device behind the grips.
Somehow they all feel like they’re just in the right place while holding the device, and if you’re writing the latest in our long-running Button of the Month series, you might think I was getting poetic about just one of them. But for me, the true magic of the Steam Deck is that each button can be the great button, thanks to the excellent software of the device.
Take my experience with cupheads new DLC, The delicious last course, which includes a new gauntlet of mind-boggling bosses. Like the basics cup game, Delicious last course requires quick reflexes and quick button presses to stay alive, and the Steam Deck’s highly customizable controls help pushing a button be part of that equation.
During combat, I usually keep my right thumb glued to the shoot button (on the Steam Deck, X) while using another part of my thumb to press jump (A). But when every split second counts, I found myself reluctant to lift my thumb even for a moment to press the dash or the dedicated record buttons. That infinitesimal pause could mean the difference between surviving another barrage or dying and having to start a fight from scratch. However, with just a few tweaks and 30 seconds into the Steam Deck menus, I changed the controls so I could jump, sprint, and fire special shots without ever having to lift my thumb.
I could have repeated the special attack just about anywhere on the Steam Deck, but I chose one of the four unusual buttons on the back of the console, which fall almost exactly under my third and fourth fingers when holding the device. As buttons, I actually don’t like to use them. They are quite shallow. But I also think it’s a good thing that the buttons need a conscious push to click through. That makes them great for actions you don’t want to accidentally do, like, say, cupheads special shots, which can turn the tide of a fight, but take a while to fully charge.
I also turned the R2 trigger into a parry button and assigned the L2 trigger to the new dodge roll combo for Ms. Chalice, the new character introduced in the DLC. The roll usually requires pressing and the Y button at the same time, and I had a lot of trouble nailing it during the Delicious last course hectic boss fights. Setting the combo to L2 made the roll a lot easier to use.
Using shoulder triggers for motion actions so you can keep your thumbs on the joysticks is a technique I learned after exploring better custom layouts for Return on PS5† and it made a big difference in cup, at. And I turned the L4 back button into an instant screenshot button so I could take pictures of Delicious last course crafty boss designs. (A later boss really is nightmare fuel.)
I didn’t just mess with buttons. In Vampire Survivors, I have the right stick a mirror on the left so I can switch between them. (I make the game think I have two left analog sticks.) The game generally requires you to constantly press the joystick for over 30 minutes to survive against hordes of bad guys, so being able to swap sticks helps my left hand from tired become.
And you don’t have to come up with these ideas yourself: if you want to check out other people’s ideas for control schemes, you can browse them directly from a game’s menu in SteamOS, meaning you don’t have to dig through Reddit like I did before. Return†
The Steam Deck’s incredible customizability and easy access to alternative controls opens up a more philosophical question: who gets to decide what a button does? In most video games, that’s largely out of your hands (pun intended). But with the Steam Deck, you can do all kinds of wild things that push how we traditionally think a certain button should be used.
In Half-life 2For example, there’s a wild layout that lets you touch the top of the right stick to enable gyro aiming, and tilt the system to move your reticle much more precisely than a joystick alone. You can turn it on any game with a few taps on the deck. You could even theoretically make low-lift multiplayer bank games work on a single deck by setting half the deck to replicate a mouse and keyboard and the other half to use the gamepad controls.
It helps that you only have to press a button a few times to get to the menu that allows you to change any button you want. You can use that menu to choose what a button does for a game in your Steam library, and it will automatically remember what you’ve set for each game. And since every Steam Deck comes with the same set of buttons, you don’t have to buy things like an extra controller or a separate accessory to mess around with less common input options like back buttons. The Steam Deck really lets you decide how you want to play a game, and that flexibility quickly makes it one of my favorite gadgets ever.
As more people get their hands on the Steam Deck, I can’t wait to see others come up with new and creative ways to customize the controls for my favorite games. For now I will continue to use my own controls for specials in cup – and I’ll try to take a screenshot after I finally defeat the terrible dragon boss.