There was a time when every major system featured at least some degree of backward compatibility, yet today the only system to enter the eighth generation with that feature will be Nintendo’s. Backward compatibility only had a short lived use as consoles from the earlier generations were technically incapable of playing the previous generation’s games. As discs began to unify the format of games, as well as represent a dominant form of data storage outside of gaming, it became a viable option to allow consoles to play games directly from the discs of the previous generation. The popularity of this idea among all three console manufacturers likely stemmed from the same goal: to give a stronger value proposition to the coming generation in order to bolster the launch library. Consoles today, including the coming Playstation 4 and Xbox One, still use a disc format and their launch libraries could still benefit from the added help of the entire seventh generation, yet both consoles have abandoned backward compatibility. Where has this feature gone and what can be expected of it in the future?
Sony’s Playstation 3, in stark contrast to its successor, featured not one but two generations of backward compatibility. Both the original Playstation and Playstation 2 discs could be read by Playstation 3 launch systems. As the launch window closed and the PS3’s sales did not pick up in all territories as well as was hoped, Sony began stripping PS2 and then PS1 support from newer PS3 models to cut back on costs. The supposed value proposition of backward compatibility had not helped during Sony’s launch window and not long after the feature, which required special hardware, was removed. As the seventh generation stretched on, Sony began to do what many likely thought would happen to these older games — they began to resell them digitally through the Playstation Network. Of course not all games have been brought over to the service, only games likely to sell well were made available. Now, instead of spending money on making their consoles play older games for free, Sony has made a cheaper console that resells older games. It is a move that has sounded the death knell for physical backward compatibility as digital distribution has given life to new opportunities for resale.
Similarly Microsoft has turned away from backward compatibility for its coming Xbox One, but the previous system never really embraced the feature. Xbox 360s released with, and still retain, a capacity for limited backward compatibility. According to a convoluted list, only about 461 games are compatible in North America with numbers differing somewhat for other territories. As was the case with some PS3 models, the backward compatibility is handled through software on a case-by-case basis. The end result is a limited list of old games despite Microsoft only needing to worry about one system. The 360 never lost its backward compatibility but the feature often felt like a half-measure only implemented because it seemed like a standard in 2005 when the system launched. With the Xbox One putting heavy emphasis on digital media, streaming content, and cloud services, gamers will find no bastion of old ways in Microsoft’s camp.
Nintendo, as should surprise very few, has continued its trend of fully supporting the previous generation’s physical media. Likewise they have the most well known, if not always the best maintained, digital storefront for old games: the Virtual Console. Fittingly, the company with the largest and perhaps most famous back catalog of old games has done a great deal in bringing that catalog to current day players. Though their pricing schemes might not always seem fair, or sensible, Nintendo has always been keenly aware of their older titles. Even before backward compatibility became a common occurrence, Nintendo released Animal Crossing on the Gamecube with a dozen or so NES titles loaded onto the disc and scattered about the world to find. In following Animal Crossing games this little feature was nixed because when Wii was released the Virtual Console was selling these very games for a profit. Yet in Nintendo’s case I feel they have a special opportunity considering their much older back catalog filled with much simpler games.
Instead of reselling NES and SNES digital titles individually for a few dollars, I think Nintendo might want to consider moving back to their original idea with Animal Crossing. The idea of backward compatibility as a value proposition, as noted above, was one once held commonly for consoles. But to make that same proposition for a single new game is something I think only Nintendo can really capitalize upon. A game like Animal Crossing is a fine fit, but other new titles could be spiced up with the bonus inclusion of some old classics. Instead of stepping away from including these old titles in their new games and only selling them alongside them, which can serve to divide the consumers attention and potentially move them away from new offerings, perhaps Nintendo could find a clever way to bring back the idea of the value proposition. If ever there was a company that could use some added attraction to its new system, Nintendo would be it. And I have little doubt they could find a way to make it work as they often express a compassion for developing inspiration from older games or putting a new twist on something they did before. However I do not want the removal of Virtual Console efforts. The option should be there for the consumer to make, but finding a way to leverage their back catalog while directly benefiting their newer titles, which hold more of the responsibility for the success of their current console, might not be the worst idea.
How much do you enjoy the idea of backward compatibility? In today’s gaming landscape where titles are more abundant than ever, is there even time for replaying the old classics? And should Nintendo consider adding classic games to their newer titles like they did with Animal Crossing, or perhaps in another way?