Not that many people associate Linux with gaming, but the times are changing and big dogs in the industry are coming up with clever ways to make games tick on the platforms. Wine is compatible with more games than ever these days, and Valve may be on the verge of a Linux gaming revolution with Proton – which lets you run native Windows games in Linux via Steam.
The only thing that can hamper the experience is the Linux distro itself. While technically any Linux distro may be used for gaming, there are some distros specifically optimized for gaming. Here are our favorites of 2018
It may seem like an obvious choice, but when Valve, the owner of the world’s biggest gaming platform, recommends something as the best Linux distro for gaming, it’s on us to at least hear what they have to say. While you can more or less use Steam on any Linux distro, you’re bound to encounter certain distro-specific issues at some point, or in some cases even have to compile the Steam dependencies yourself. Ubuntu makes things very stable and simple.
Ubuntu isn’t exactly a lightweight distro, but it’s the most popular for a reason, and its repositories are right at the front of the queue when it comes to graphics card drive updates, Steam client updates, and stability improvements.
It’s a reliable distro that gives you plenty of flexibility, and works brilliantly with Proton – Valve’s ambitious project that lets you play an ever-growing number of native Windows games on Linux (think of it as the new Wine).
2. Ubuntu GamePack
If you want to go with more of a “complete package” gaming distro, you should try the Ubuntu GamePack. As its creators claim, “It will provide a guaranteed start in thousands of games and applications for MS Windows and MS-DOS, and original, designed specifically for GNU/Linux platform.” The distro comes with Steam, PlayOnLinux, Lutris, Wine, Crossover, DOSBox and DOSEmu and many more game environments. It hasn’t been updated for a few months at the time of writing though, and doesn’t (yet) have Proton built into it, which means it’s a little outdated as things stand.
Ubuntu GamePack also comes with Adobe Flash, so if you want to play Flash games online, this is possible, too. Despite its power, Ubuntu GamePack doesn’t require very powerful hardware, which makes it perfect for older machines as well.
For many Linux gamers, SteamOS is the best Linux gaming distro. It doesn’t support as many hardware devices as the other distros, and that is why it comes in third on this list. It requires at least 4GB of RAM, which is certainly not much, but if you want to turn your old machine into a gaming station, this is unlikely to happen.
SteamOS is based on Debian, and it comes with Steam pre-installed. Steam is a proprietary gaming platform, hosting the vast majority of games you can get on Linux. Any game you get through Steam is multi-platform, so if you already own the Windows version, then the Linux version will automatically pop up in your library.
Admittedly, SteamOS hasn’t gained as much traction as Valve would have hoped, particularly on the hardware front as Steam Machines (which ran SteamOS) have all but failed. Still, if you’re after a dedicated gaming Linux distro, then this is the best choice.
4. Sparky Linux
SparkyLinux is also a popular choice for a Linux gaming distro. It’s based on the testing branch of Debian, which might be the latest and greatest, but I have my doubts about stability – it’s a testing branch, after all. SparkyLinux favors light desktop environments, such as LXDE, Enlightenment, JWM, KDE, LXQt, Openbox, MATE, and Xfce. This is great because when games themselves load the machine, the last thing you want is a resource-hungry desktop environment. When you run SparkyLinux, you can play right away, though as its creators themselves state, “SparkyLinux isn’t targeted at Linux beginners,” so be prepared in the beginning, as there might be a slight (or not so slight) learning curve.
I included mGAMe, or “Manjaro: Gaming Edition” on this list because it is an Arch-based distro, and I know Arch has fans among our readers. mGAMe is a good choice for novice users. It comes with PlayOnLinux and Wine, lots of emulators (DeSmuME, Dolphin Emulator (64-Bit only), DOSBox, Fceux, Kega Fusion, PCSXR, PCSX2, PPSSPP, RetroArch, Stella, VBA-M, Yabause, and ZSNES) and terminal add-ons, such as Colors, IloveCandy, and Screenfetch. The default theme is set to dark, but you can change it if you like.
All retro gamers will love Lakka! This distro is a bit different from the rest. It turns your computer into a retro game console. It’s lightweight with minimal hardware requirements. Lakka is based on the RetroArch emulator, and it can emulate numerous systems. It also has automatic joypad recognition, rewinding, netplay, and shaders. Lakka is also a great option for setting emulators on a Raspberry Pi device. Lakka runs from an USB and the install is only about 300MB.
These distros are what I consider best for gaming on Linux. Of course, tastes differ, and it doesn’t mean you’ll think the same. It’s nice there are a few more to consider, if these distros are not good for you. You can also check out Game Drift Linux or Solus. There used to be one more – but Play Linux has been discontinued. Still, there is quite a lot of choice of Linux gaming distros, and chances are your favorite games will run in any one of them.
This article was first published in Nov 2017, and was updated in Dec 2018.