Backwards compatibility, when it comes to gaming consoles, means that a current system can play games from the software that launched during the previous generation. The Wii can play GameCube games, the Wii U can play Wii games, launch PlayStation 3s could play PlayStation 2 games, the Nintendo 3DS can play DS games, the Xbox 360 can play most Xbox games… you get the point.
The Xbox One will not play any Xbox 360 games, that goes for both the physical copies and digital downloads featured in the Xbox LIVE Arcade. The PlayStation 4 won’t natively play PlayStation 3 games, though the company is working on a solution that lets gamers stream the entire PlayStation 3 library to their PS4 with the services of Gaikai. It will likely cost gamers money in order to do so.
Since those consoles have been announced and word spread that backwards compatibility was either entire no-go or would require a fee, gamers have been split into opposing factions. There are those who think backwards compatibility is important, and then there are those who think that it’s a feature the world can do without.
Microsoft’s head of Xbox, Don Mattrick, has taken this stance:
“If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards.”
For fans of classic gaming like me? That’s basically the shot heard ’round the world. I cringe every time I read it.
Why? Because backwards compatibility is important to me for a lot of reasons.
Convenience And The Fight Against Clutter
Let’s start with the really, really obvious. Backwards compatibility in new systems means that you can put your old systems away. First world problem, I know, but the space below my TV is currently occupied by an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 2, a Wii U, a Super Nintendo and a PlayStation 3. I play each system on at least a semi-regular basis. Believe it or not, the 360 sits in the least played category for the first time in its entire life in my house.
I don’t want to put any of these away. I play them so much that it doesn’t make sense for me to unhook them, wrap up the cables and toss them on a shelf in my closet. I’d only repeat the process in the reverse order next week.
Backwards compatibility means that I can say sayonara to an aging system below my shelf while still boasting the ability to enjoy its software library. Sure, I miss GameCube gaming on the regular, but my Wii U now accounts for two systems. My Xbox 360 almost accounts for two systems, too. Hold on while I bust out my TI-83+…
…that’s four systems over the span of two console spaces below my TV. Space is tight, backwards compatibility makes it a non-issue.
Old Games Are Flippin’ Amazing
The worst argument against backwards compatibility runs something like, “Who cares about old games? Play the new ones instead.”
Just terrible. Do you hate old movies? Do you hate old books? Do you hate old music? If you’re a lover of a given medium, like I love film, then you respect the culture and history behind it. That’s just the way things work. If you want a profound understanding of anything, you study it. You need old games in order to really get the roots of gaming itself.
Those of you in college or recently graduating: did you know someone who regularly played Nintendo 64 games? You probably did, and you probably gamed with them at least once.
Even better? Old games are incredible! There’s a reason why people still play Mario Kart 64, ICO, Halo: CE and more on a regular basis. These are all old games, but they are completely amazing. They stood the test of time and represent an era in gaming that most fans visit on despite how long its been since they released.
Old games aren’t some shackle that needs to be cast off in order for new games to advance. Old games possess some of the greatest characteristics this medium has ever seen. To say “forget it, ignore them, there’s new stuff” is just silly.
It Shows Console Makers Care
When a console manufacturer announces some plans to include backwards compatibility with their new system, it tells me that they care about me as a gamer. They have no reason to spend money implementing old gaming architecture other than pleasing fans. Old games rarely earn them money, especially since they are so often purchased through secondhand needs, so there’s no fiscal reason for a console maker to pump funds into developing backwards compatibility.
When they do it, they do it because they care about fans. They care that we invested in their system’s last generation by buying up piles and piles of games. They care that we want to continue playing them. So, they work to make backwards compatibility a reality.
Both Sony and Microsoft are building their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with completely new system architecture That means they can’t possibly play old games. Only Sony is putting money into making backwards compatibility a reality. Yes, they’ll likely charge for it, but we know they spent at least $380 million on purchasing Gaikai, a cloud gaming company, in order to make old games playable on the PlayStation 4.
The Preservation of Games
Finally, for me, backwards compatibility boils down to the preservation of gaming as an art and historic medium.
With film, most studios took care to hold on to the original prints of classic movies. With the coming of new film tech, those prints are revisited again and again so that the public may enjoy them on VHS, DVD and through online streaming.
The same can be said for music as it’s moved from vinyl to tape, CD and digital download.
These mediums are being preserved across leaps in technology. Gaming? As it stands right now, once the last Xbox 360 dies, that gaming catalogue is almost done forever. Until Microsoft decides it’s time to release a super HD version of Crackdown, we will never be able to play that game again.
Game consoles fail over time. And the Xbox 360 especially experienced a completely terrible rate of failure. Who’s to say there will be any working 360s available for purchase 10 or 20 years from now?
The difference between games and film or music is that games are very rarely recreated for new platforms. Companies only spend the time porting software if they think that a new generation of players will spend money buying it up. Backwards compatibility is the blanket solution for gamers wanting to play old games.
For me, backwards compatibility is a huge deal. Console manufacturers argue that backwards compatibility drives the build cost of consoles up. That’s fine. Give me the option to buy a machine with backwards compatibility for $100 more, and I’ll do it. If the Xbox One without backwards compatibility sells for $400 (wishful thinking), I’d gladly pony up an extra hundred just to play Xbox 360 games on the new system.
I don’t think I’m alone with that notion.