Editorial: On Backwards Compatibility

Readers, as you may or may not be aware, Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, recently said during an investor Q&A session that backwards compatibility is an extremely important part of transitioning from one console generation to another, since the new hardware does not have many games at the beginning of its life cycle. This rule is one Nintendo’s handhelds have followed for a long time but its consoles have only recently picked up; the Wii is the first of Nintendo’s actual major console releases to have any sort of backwards compatibilty. Thinking more about Iwata’s statement, I have to agree that backwards compatibility is important for a number or reasons.

What a disappointing system the Wii was.
I don’t particularly care about a system being backwards compatible with the Wii, but that’s mostly because I own so few Wii games.

One reason is, as Iwata says, that backwards compatibility helps ease the transition into new hardware. There is, of course, a large amount of overlap, though; a rather large percentage of Wii U purchasers will undoubtedly be Wii owners, after all. Still, backwards compatibility could be a major factor in some purchases of a console, especially among new adopters who may be on the fence.

Backwards compatibility is far more important for handhelds than consoles, though. It is entirely feasible to keep multiple generations of console hardware on a shelf or a desk; it is far less practical to carry around a Game Boy, a Game Boy Advance, a DS, and a 3DS. In this, Nintendo has done a decent job, as the majority of their handhelds have been compatible with the previous generation’s games; Nintendo even went as far as adding two different game slots on the first iterations of the DS, a feature that to this day I still get a great deal of mileage from. Being able to play older handheld games on relatively newer hardware is, to me at least, extremely important; I have assembled over the years a decent-sized collection of GBA games and around twenty of these titles are still games that I have not finished.

Nintendo also has financial incentive for backwards compatibility, especially software emulation. The Virtual Console’s allows Nintendo to make money off of games years after their releases. Final Fantasy is at this point a twenty-five year old game, and Nintendo still can make money through VC sales of the original NES version. Of course, the North American Virtual Console’s shoddy support means the pool of games is frustratingly small, but the idea of the Virtual Console is sound. This is not a concept unique to Nintendo, obviously, as Steam, the Xbox 360, and the PS3 also all allow for the purchasing of older games. Putting older games on sale as cheap digital releases just makes sense. After all, the game is entirely finished and the only real development needed is on the software or hardware used to play the game; design, coding, testing, and localization are all long since completed on the title.

And I'm totally okay with that.
Playstation compatibility still exists in full force.

One more consideration about backwards compatibility is the preservation of games for historical and even recreational purposes. Unlike books, which can easily be printed in new editions, or films and music, which are relatively easily brought to new hardware formats, games are dependent on the hardware for which they are developed. Good luck getting a cartridge of E.V.O.: the Search for Eden to fit into a GameCube; the hardware is simply not designed for it. With video game study becoming an increasingly legitimate academic pursuit, it is important to find some sort of way to preserve older games so that they may be experienced and studied by future generations of scholars.

Overall, I feel that backwards compatibility is something that is extremely important to me but probably not to the average modern gamer. Gaming culture is very much about “the next big thing”, and I highly doubt that most of the people buying Call of Duty: Black Ops II have any plans to go back and play the first two games. My nostalgia-driven view of gaming is very probably not widely held among gamers, but I believe I can safely say that there are enough of us out there who do care about backwards compatibility that it will never completely die off. The Wii U has been confirmed to be backwards compatible with the Wii, and I would be somewhat surprised if the next Sony console launched without PS3 game support.

What are your thoughts on backwards compatibility, readers? Will backwards compatibility be an important part of the next console generation? And if backwards compatibility with older hardware fades away, will older games be preserved? Is emulation the main way these games will survive to future generations? As cartridges and CDs fail, I should think so, but perhaps there are other ways to preserve these games. Comment, readers, and discuss it!


  1. I’ve thought about this a bit and I agree backwards compatibility is very important. But one aspect of the current gen stuff that bothers me about DLC, multiplayer, and such is that those servers aren’t going to be around forever. A bunch of sports games I couldn’t care about from a year back had their servers shutdown. The same with all the much less popular PS2 games that had online multiplayer. I’m not saying any of these thing were great, but you can still play Pac Man however many years old that is on a variety of systems. There’s precious little guarantee that similar stuff will exist in the future.

    With stuff like time exclusive DLC what company is going to keep that stuff up forever? Nobody. It’s pretty sad to me.

  2. The online component of MGS4 has been shut off, hasn’t it?

  3. When a game’s predominant focus is online gameplay, there will not be much left of it a few years down the road…

  4. That’s why I like dedicated servers and such. People who like a particular game where a company provides DS binaries can find forums or fan sites or whatever and still enjoy a game that’s no longer financially viable. Although they’re obviously the exception, Valve did that with Half-Life and its actually popular multiplayer mods and (even if there wasn’t Steam support) play Counter-Strike or Team Fortress today. And those came out in…1998? (I’m too lazy to wiki it.)

    Whether games are art or not I think people should still be able to go back and experience them in the future. That might not be feasible for things like MMOs without some sort of massive capital behind a project to make it happen it’s certainly possible with a 8 player deathmatch (or whatever) game.

    id software, Epic, Valve, and presumably companies that aren’t FPS centric have released old game code. There’s no reason other’s couldn’t follow. It’s not like Sony, MS, etc are running their game servers on PS3s and 360s (I assume).

  5. I think it matters to the more softcore gamer as well. I remember at my old work, the director was asking about the PS3 and was completely confused as to why it wouldn’t be able to play his PS2 games. He only games from time to time, but it was a deal-breaker for him.

  6. @Ethos: He should have bought a launch box! FIVE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE US DOLLARS!

  7. The Wii U serves well enough for returning Nintendo owner BC, but fails for new owner BC, on account of the fact that the system doesn’t come with controllers which are compatible with the existing line-up of games. This is understandable with respect to motion control games, but the new controllers apparently won’t support classic controller compatible Wii games, nor virtual console and Wii-ware titles.

  8. @SN: “the new controllers apparently won’t support classic controller compatible Wii games, nor virtual console and Wii-ware titles.”

    If true, this is extremely shitty design and decision-making by Nintendo. There is no reason whatsoever for the new controllers not to support classic controller games or VC titles.

  9. Indeed. In fact, it just seems to make sense that one would be able to put VC titles on the Gamepad screen.

  10. I can imagine a bunch of people opening up their Wii Us on Christmas morning, buying a bunch of virtual console and WiiWare titles, and then not being able to play any of them due to the lack of proper tools to do so.

  11. This the first I’ve heard of that regarding the Wii U, and I strongly hope it is not true. NINTENDUSTRY!

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