Note: Our most popular Linux gaming distros round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in May 2015.
A gaming distro, by definition, is host not only to a large variety of games, or software that allows one to play games, but it also has drivers and support for essential devices such as graphics cards and controllers.
Unlike most other genres of Linux distributions, gaming distros aren't a thriving bunch. But this isn't because Linux users dislike games, instead it's due to the fact that this niche category is almost redundant thanks to most modern desktop distros. Almost all desktop distros are equipped nowadays with drivers for the majority of modern graphics cards, which means that just about any distro can be turned into a gaming station.
Despite this, some distros continue to churn out special gaming editions which provide hundreds of games right out of the gate, and the means to install even more with additional software such as Play on Linux, Wine and Steam.
So without further ado, we'll highlight five of the best gaming distros.
Fedora Games Spin
The Fedora Project produces several "spins" which are alternate versions of the distro, offering tools and software components chosen for a specific purpose. The Games Spin of the distro features a vast collection of games spread across different genres such as arcade, sports, strategy, adventure, action, etc.
The 4GB ISO can run off a Live USB, or alternatively be installed to disk, like regular Fedora. While it doesn't feature all the games available in the repositories, users can install additional games from the repos using the YumEx application. The distro doesn't ship with Steam or Play on Linux pre-installed, but these can be installed from the software repositories to access even more games.
Fedora Games Spin is ideal for those looking to quickly try popular titles such as Extreme Tux Racer, The Battle for Wesnoth, Freeciv, Warzone 2100 and others.
Based on Ubuntu 15.10 and optimised for gaming, Play-Linux supports a wide range of GPUs. Unlike Sparky or Fedora, the distro doesn't feature any games but provides the perfect platform to run games through Play on Linux.
Wine is pre-installed and the distro ships with WineTricks to help you tweak settings when needed. The Steam entry under Games is misleading as it's only an installer which will fetch over 200MB of data files.
Play-Linux runs Flash, MP3 and other proprietary formats out of the box and performs exceptionally well despite being a beta release. Beta 1 – released in Septembed 2015 – added a new Customiser for setting up how the distro looks and feels, plus an AutoGPU installer that'll automatically set things up for Nvidia (desktop and laptop) and AMD (desktop only) graphics. Note that the project's fairly active Facebook page acts as a news and help outlet (check it out here).
Sparky Linux is a Debian-based distribution that puts out several releases based on different desktops such as XFCE, Mate, LXDE, etc. Since the past few releases, every even-numbered release is also accompanied by a special distro aimed at gamers. The Sparky Linux 4.2 "GameOver" edition is the latest such release.
The DVD release clocks in at around 3.8GB and is chock full of applications and games. The distro features several tools like Sparky APTus Gamer, which lets you install all available game emulators, the Desura installer, Kega Fusion – which is a Sega emulator – and more.
A large number of pre-installed games across genres such as arcade, action, sports and so on is an added bonus. Also included are Play on Linux, Wine and the Steam installer.
UALinux is a Ukraine-based company that produces several distributions based on Ubuntu. Apart from the GamePack, the company also releases a ServerPack, DesktopPack, EducationPack, and so forth. Each of these releases feature applications, tools, drivers and utilities to help users make the most of the included software.
The GamePack features software that should please most home and office users. In addition to proprietary codecs and drivers, the distro provides three different systems for you to enjoy gaming on Linux – Steam, Desura and Djl. With these you can access and install hundreds of games on your Ubuntu machine in a matter of clicks.
As with Play-Linux, Ubuntu Gamepack doesn't feature any games out of the box, but does also include Wine and Play on Linux so that you can install and play Windows-only gaming titles as well.
This Debian-based distro (recently updated to the latest Debian 8 release) has been specifically designed to run Valve's Steam and its large library of games, and also features Gnome and a small number of everyday Linux applications.
You can install additional software using Debian Jessie repositories but SteamOS is intended solely for playing games and shouldn't be considered as an alternative desktop distro. The install-only distro is available for 64-bit machines and works best with at least 4GB of RAM.
Unlike other distros featured in this article, SteamOS can only be used to play Steam games. Users can't operate Play on Linux or Wine on SteamOS. However, the unique in-home streaming feature lets you connect the machine running SteamOS to another computer on the network running Windows or OS X, and then streams the game running on the remote machine to the PC running Steam.