Thoughts on Backwards Compatibility
Posted On May 18, 2015
As a kid I had a Sega Genesis (aka Megadrive), and one of the coolest things you could do with a Genesis was “downgrade” it with the Power Base Converter, turning it into a Sega Master System. As a former NES owner, and friend of an SMS owner, it was great getting a chance to pour through the Master System library and enjoy exclusive treasures like Phantasy Star, Zillion and “Super Wonder Boy Super Monster Land”.
When the Sega 32X showed up on the scene, I had hoped it was a sign that the Saturn would be backwards compatible as well. No luck: it ended up with a cartridge slot, but no Sega Genesis support. Sega’s backwards compatibility ended there.
As a huge NES fan, I was pretty disappointed that the SNES wasn’t backwards compatible. It is likely I would have held on to my NES library and waited for a SNES instead of joining the Sega Genesis fan club.
The portable systems backwards compatibility, the Super Game Boy and the Game Boy Player are worth mentioning, but it wasn’t until the Wii that Nintendo got on board with the concept for their home consoles. The Wii supported Gamecube games, memory cards and controllers. I am a big fan of the Gamecube, and this feature definitely factored into my purchase decision. However, this now only seems to go back one generation. The Wii U is only backwards compatible as far as the Wii. Even though it is the same hardware as the Wii, and the Wii could play Gamecube games: the Wii U does not.
Sony set the gold standard in backwards compatibility until shortly after the launch of the PS3. The PS2 and PS3 both play original Playstation discs. And when the PS3 initially came out, it could play PS2 games as well. But this was one of the first features they cut to lower the extremely high PS3 launch price. This really is a shame because I missed out on the PS2 for the most part (as I said, I was a Gamecube fanboy at the time) and I would have filled my PS2 game library with a vengeance after buying a PS3 had I not missed the launch models. The PS3 could however still play original PlayStation games, leaving hope that one day this feature might be restored through software emulation, or cheaper PS2 chips. Unfortunately, the PS4 not backwards compatible with any of the previous Playstation consoles, removing that hope. More disturbing, the downloadable PS3 titles from the PSN store don’t carry over to the PS4. The survival of those games hinges on Sony not pulling the plug one day, and having them only being playable on PS3 puts that in an even more worrying position.
Some original Xbox games were able to be played on the Xbox 360, but not all. It was backwards compatibility, with some notable holes like Time Splitters, and some games being pulled from the compatibility list due to bugs. It was a technical problem that, for a time, Microsoft was committed to solving. This generation however, the Xbox One doesn’t play any of the older two Xbox generations’ games, neither digital nor physical.
Backwards compatibility is an important feature for game consoles to have. Not only does it reinforce the value of the games you have purchased, it ensures a way to play those games long after the original hardware ceases to function. Having gone through five PS3s due to various malfunctions myself, this problem is only going to get worse as hardware gets more complex.
Digital titles are in a worse situation. I can’t even play any of my downloaded Wii games because my Wii broke, and the games are tied to the console, not the account. So while the Wii U would play them, the feature is worthless to anyone who doesn’t still have a functioning Wii console to transfer the titles.
This is part of the reason the Nvidia Shield platform, not to mention Android in general, and the Steam Box platform are exciting to me as a gamer. Not only am I reasonably confident my games will run on future hardware (and with better performance to boot), but I might not have to wait 5 years for the next console. I’d be much more inclined to buy a new system that plays all my old games, and runs them better, every 3 or even 2 years.
I’m hoping all the console manufacturers are thinking along these lines as of the current generation of hardware: If you don’t change the architecture every generation, just upgrade the current system as Nintendo did from the Wii to the Wii U, backwards compatibility is easy.
I can still switch on my original Sega Genesis and Power Base Converter and play classic Sega Master System games, some of them 30 years old. What will the state of playing PS3 games be in 2036?