Backwards compatibility seems like a rather archaic term these days. It’s a concept that shines brightly with exciting potential of expanding libraries and taking the tedium out of hooking up a retro system just to play a classic game from your childhood. But it’s an idea that’s become a significant afterthought that, aside from a few exceptions, hasn’t been worth including into modern gaming consoles…at least in the way we know it. Backwards compatibility is still being experimented with, as older games still have value on the market, but unlike at the beginning of the seventh generation, we’re not seeing an abandonment of backwards compatibility: we’re seeing a ruination of it.
Backwards compatibility used to be something of great merit. While consoles did have the potential to play games from their predecessors as far back as the Atari systems, the gaming industry had a rather scattered view of the concept. While it certainly presented convenience, it wasn’t something that many companies were willing to invest money toward, with the required tech being rather pricey. The Atari 5200 was among the first backwards compatible systems, but required a special adapter to be able to play Atari 2600 games. Similarly, the Sega Genesis used the Power Base Converter, which could be used to play Sega Master System games. Nintendo, despite being a poster-child for backwards compatibility in their systems, didn’t offer the feature in their systems until the Game Boy Color, which allowed for both Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges to be played. Similarly, the Super Game Boy for Super Nintendo allowed for Game Boy game access (though it wasn’t necessarily backwards-compatible, due to the systems’ coinciding activity). Backwards compatibility would become a rather common feature during the age of the sixth generation. Sony’s Playstation 2 offered the convenience of PS1 compatibility, while Nintendo continued to include backwards compatibility for their handhelds like the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS.
But the seventh generation began the industry’s hesitance to include backwards compatibility into their consoles. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 had early, but short-lived support for Xbox game emulation in a potentially buggy method that also didn’t work for the entire library of Xbox games. Sony debuted two different models of their Playstation 3 system, with only one of them providing full PS1 and PS2 backwards compatibility (obviously the more expensive one). The model was eventually discontinued in favor of the Slim model, which had no backwards compatibility, but had a much lower price. Nintendo, on the other hand, kept backwards compatibility for the Wii for a shockingly long time. Gamecube games, controllers, and memory cards were all functional with the original Wii model, a perfect fit for long-time fans of Super Smash Brothers who used Gamecube controllers. The Wii would eventually drop the backwards compatibility feature with a special bundle with New Super Mario Bros. Wii and the limited Wii Mini system. Nowadays, only the Wii U openly shares hardware-based backwards compatibility among consoles, offering functionality with Wii discs and controllers.
In fairness, backwards compatibility is an expensive feature. Designing new hardware to function with the older tech of the systems’ predecessors isn’t something that’s easy to do while still earning a considerable profit. The PS3 might have lost backwards compatibility with the Slim, but the lower price point contributed to the system’s rise in sales. During the 360’s lifespan, Microsoft claimed that people buy new consoles to play new games, not old, and while that is definitely correct, the convenience of being able to keep playing older games without digging out the RCA cables and fiddling with the TV connections is a great concept. There’s a sense of centralization with a backwards compatible system, one where you can play both old and new games without making any changes in connectivity.
But the convenience isn’t the big issue with the lack of hardware-based backwards compatibility. The problem is the idea’s replacement: software-based backwards compatibility, specifically the digital redistribution and sales of older games. We live in a gaming world where HD remakes and re-releases are constantly being released. With no way to play the discs themselves through the system, console makers are simply offering the games up on their digital storefronts…for re-purchase. Most of these games are just the original game with high-definition graphics and no additional content, meaning that you are literally buying the same game you already own, but with prettier graphics. Many games re-released in the seventh generation like those on God of War Collection had very little new content, simply updating the graphics marginally. As someone who already owned the first two God of War games, I couldn’t see any legitimate reason to re-buy these games, and with no compatibility to play these PS2 games on my PS3, I would be forced to re-buy these games. This implementation is technically a form of backwards compatibility, but the concept erases one of the best advantages of hardware-based backwards compatibility: being able to use and play your already owned games again, even if it’s on a different disc or format.
Now, there have been some finer examples of this practice, but they all find ways to improve the game beyond just the graphics. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD included a Hero Mode, better and more advantageous items like the Swift Sail, and community features on Miiverse in addition to an HD polish. The regular price tag is much more justifiable considering what additional content you’re getting. The ICO/Shadow of the Colossus HD collection had heavily improved technical performance, Playstation Network functionality, and even a budget price. These are games that improve upon the original games intelligently and with a stronger emphasis on value, so rebuying them doesn’t seem like a rip-off.
But with streaming services like Playstation Now on the way, backwards compatibility is becoming much harder to figure out. Sony aims to make PS Now a way to bring backwards compatibility back to the Playstation crowd, and while the selection is promised to be massive, the pricing is likely what will determine whether or not this really is the next step for backwards compatibility. Unless the versions streamed are legitimate improvements over the original games, even a slightly high fee will seem devious. Backwards compatibility has always, always been about two core fundamentals: convenience of access and reasonability of pricing. PS Now nails the first part no question, but it’s the second part that brings the skepticism out. The flood of HD remakes has already made many gamers nervous, as having to buy games at retail price again with barely any gameplay improvements is terrible, and while I doubt PS Now will go that far down the road to ripping consumers off, I can’t help but feel nervousness in the looming idea of having to buy The Last of Us again at a high price, just so I don’t have to hook up my PS3 again.
Backwards compatibility evolved from a masterfully thrifty convenience into a murky miasma of purchase anxiety. Being able to play your Game Boy Color games on your Game Boy Advance or your PS1 games on your PS2 was awesome, breaking down many of the restrictions that new console generations created. Nowadays, however, backwards compatibility isn’t so much a convenience, but a selling point, a way to further purchases even beyond the games’ respective generations. Yes, it’s expensive, and as Microsoft said, it’s not the reason that people buy next-gen consoles, but its implementation nowadays feels devious and manipulative. I would actually be content with no backwards compatibility at all over a form of backwards compatibility that wants me to buy the same game again, but in a marginally better-looking form. It’s optional, but the philosophy of using perfectly respectable games and charging so much for the exact same game (graphics aside) isn’t appealing; it’s distressing.
Will we ever have the same level of freedom we received with our Game Boy Advances or launch PS3s? Probably not. We’re already immersed in a market that loves capitalizing on our own convenience. I don’t expect that to go away anytime soon.