Linux has a reputation for not being very gamer-friendly – game releases have traditionally been targeted at Windows PC users and sometimes also macOS for popular gaming franchises. Additionally, Linux used to have limited support for hardware drivers such as for graphic cards.
Not today. Linux has come in leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades, so not only has hardware driver support vastly improved, but gaming is moving toward browser-based streaming which are accessible for any Linux user.
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However, during this time specially developed gaming packs and Linux distros have been released, aiming to satisfy the most hardcore Linux gamer.
While these won't turn your distro into anything like a home video console like a PS4 or Xbox One, they do help provide for an accessible gaming experience for Linux users.
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Game Drift Linux was first released in 2011. It created the first Linux 'app store', and more than 1,200 Windows games were made available via a deal with Codeweavers. This allowed the distro to include the Codeweaver CrossOver technology in its store.
The Games Store features both open source and commercial titles. Users can download and install popular games such as Savage 2, Second Life, and Amnesia, as well as older games like AssaultCube and Frets on Fire.
Game Drift Linux runs on most PCs. However, certain games may have additional system requirements. The distro recommends a minimum of a 1-2GHz processor, 1-2GB of system memory, 4GB of disk space and an AMD, Nvidia or Intel graphics solution suitable for gaming.
The 64-bit ISO download is 691MB and the 32-bit download is 612MB.
Bear in mind that there isn’t as much demand for a dedicated distro like Game Drift Linux due to the availability of PlayOnLinux and Stream, so the distro is no longer being maintained.
- You can download Game Drift Linux here
Lakka is a lightweight version of Linux which can turn your computer into a retro games console. It's built on top of media centre software LibreELEC, and the most recent stable version 2.1 makes use of RetroArch 1.6.9 to emulate a huge number of consoles.
Lakka is available as a bootable USB image for PCs. There are also versions for ARM-based machines such as the Raspberry Pi.
This distro supports most keyboards as well as wireless PS3 and PS4 controllers, along with Xbox 360 controllers if you have the proprietary dongle. RetroArch boasts a very handy autoconfig feature which should mean that most controllers will work out of the box without you having to manually map keys. The Lakka documentation also has some excellent walkthroughs for more unusual setups.
For copyright reasons, the OS ships without any games preinstalled. You'll need to obtain legal copies of either ISO images of game CDs you own or precompiled ROM files of arcade games. Check out the Internet Archive which contains some public domain ROMS.
- Download Lakka here
Sparky Linux is a Debian-based distro. The latest SparkyLinux 5.5 GameOver edition is built on the testing version of Debian (Buster). It includes new features such as the awesome Lutris gaming platform and a custom tool for installing a web browser so you can play online games. The distro weighs in at an impressive 3.57GB.
Besides Lutris, GameOver Edition also includes a number of tools such as APTus Gamer which can download a variety of game emulators so you can relive old console favourites, although you may need to download these elsewhere. The OS also contains a number of free and open source games like Wesnoth and Robots.
The gaming applications Wine, Play on Linux and Steam are also pre-installed. These are particularly useful for running old DOS and Windows games on Linux, such as Sim City 2000.
- Download Sparky Linux GameOver here
Ubuntu GamePack comes from Ukrainian developers UALinux. In addition to proprietary codecs and drivers, the distro provides two different systems for you to enjoy gaming on Linux – Steam and the Lutris Gaming Platform. With these you can access and install hundreds of games on your Ubuntu machine.
UALinux claims that its distro provides access to thousands of games and applications for Windows and DOS. The emulators DOSBox and DosEmu are preinstalled, as is the more fully-fledged Windows emulator Crossover.
Like Lakka, Ubuntu GamePack doesn't come with any games, but as it includes both Wine and Play on Linux, you won't have any trouble getting your existing games running. The distro also supports Adobe Flash and Java so you can play online games too.
The current version of Ubuntu GamePack (2018.06) is based on Ubuntu 16.04. There's both a 32-bit and a 64-bit version; each are around 2.5GB in size.
- Download Ubuntu GamePack here
This Debian-based distro (recently updated to the latest Debian 8 release) has been specifically designed to run Valve's Steam platform, and comes pre-installed on the firm’s Steam Machine games console.
SteamOS is probably the closest Linux distro to an actual games console. Technically, you could install additional software using the Debian Jessie repositories, but this operating system’s main emphasis is on gaming.
The install-only distro is available for 64-bit machines and works best with at least 4GB of RAM. It also needs around 200GB of free space on your hard drive and an Nvidia, AMD (Radeon 8500 and later) or Intel GPU. If you're handy with computers, consider building your own Steam Machine.
SteamOS can only be used to play Steam games. Users can't benefit from Play on Linux or Wine when running SteamOS. However, the unique in-home streaming feature lets you connect the machine running SteamOS to another computer on the network, allowing you to stream a game to that PC. Unlike most Linux distros, not all of SteamOS is open source software.
- Download SteamOS here