Opinion: What is Backwards Compatibility, Anyway?

Written by James T. George

Timothy Wedel gave us a great look into how PlayStation Now works (sometimes), and its an experience that mirrors my own when I gave it a go on the Vita. In short, it has a huge amount of potential and should evolve nicely as Sony continues to put development support into it. Right now, however, it’s not a pleasant experience the majority of the time. Sony put a lot of effort into the system in hopes of it serving as “backwards compatibility” for older PlayStation titles.

The problem is… I don’t think PSNow counts as backwards compatibility. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.

There has been a lot of talk about backwards compatibility in recent years, thanks mostly to Microsoft’s implementation of it on the Xbox One. With the Nintendo Switch rapidly approaching, talk about this has spiked once again in the hopes of it being able to play Wii U, Wii, and Gamecube titles. Unfortunately, the Switch will never be backwards compatible with these systems.

The reason I say this isn’t because Nintendo won’t put out games from past consoles on the Switch. Quite the contrary, actually. There’s already a few planned, such as Mario Kart 8. This, however, does not make Mario Kart 8 backwards compatible, because it’s not the Wii U version of the game. It’s a port. I can’t pop in the disk from the Wii U version (or re-download the Wii U eShop version) of the game. It’s a port. Perhaps even more appropriately labeled as a “remaster” or “definitive” version of the game.

Granted, nobody is calling the Switch version of Mario Kart 8 a back-compat title, but paves the way other games from the past will get released on the Switch, which means the idea of back-compat will keep popping up. Sadly, the lack of a disk drive means you’ll never be able to use your physical copy of a Gamecube, Wii, or Wii U game, and unless you’re credited for your purchase of a digital title, you’re going to forced to buy a Switch version of an old game, be it a port, a re-master, or an emulation.

The DS and DS Lite had GBA compatibility, but lacked support for the original Gameboy and Gameboy Color

The DS and DS Lite had GBA compatibility, but lacked support for the original Gameboy and Gameboy Color

Backwards Compatibility is a label that has been previously applied to direct running of past games, and there are plenty of high-profile examples of this. The Wii U was fully backwards compatible with Wii disks and eShop titles, and the original Wii was fully capable of running Gamecube games. It even had controller and memory card slots. The PS3 launched with support for PS2 games in the exact same way (and then removed it with a hardware revision). The 3DS can still run DS games on cartridges, and the early versions of the original DS had a slot for Gameboy Advance cartridges.

The Wii ran Gamecube games fully, and supported all associated accessories.

The Wii ran Gamecube games fully, and supported all associated accessories.

Microsoft has taken an interesting approach to backwards compatibility, but I’m still not sure it counts. With the 360, a select number of original Xbox titles were able to run in an emulator. Unfortunately, this left many titles incompatible with the 360 for reasons never fully explained, but for those that worked, all you needed was a disk. The Xbox One is currently taking the same approach, and Microsoft is actively assisting game developers with optimizing old games to work. These are all digital re-releases of 360 games, however. The original game on your disk is not actually executing, but acting as a means of confirming ownership of the title. I appreciate this idea and the effort being made to not force users to have to re-buy games, but it’s not truly backwards-compatibility since you still need to download a changed version of the original title. It is just a really well thought out emulation system that does not force any cost on users. My hope is they get 100% of the library working, but that has more to do with developers than the platform. I wish they’d accomplish the same feat with original Xbox Games, which never got digital releases.

Right now, the only true platform offering it may actually be the PC (primarily running Windows), provided you have the technical know-how to get old games running. It’s not a guaranteed process in most cases, but when it works it’s a textbook example of the concept. In a less strict approach, GoG has done a great service in the effort by optimizing old games in digital formats. You still have to re-buy games you might own already, however.

I’m not trying to knock any of these attempts at getting old games running on new platforms, but I do think we all have a huge misunderstanding of what the term “backwards compatibility” actually means. The term has been skewed in the modern parlance to favor ports and emulations. This isn’t bad, but not exactly the same either. Digital games have made the “back-compat” effort considerably different from years past, which is why this shift in definition is occurring. While Microsoft may be pushing the closest thing to actual back-compat, it’s still not technically meeting the definition.

The PS3 originally had a simple back-compat system, but hardware revisions confused the marekt when it was stripped

The PS3 originally had a simple fully supported back-compat system, but hardware revisions confused the market when it was removed

Nintendo may actually be incapable of offering any sort of true back-compat support due to their digital account system being a mess and the lack of any sort of disk-based support on the unit. Keep that in mind when Nintendo inevitably announces Gamecube games for purchase on the eShop. I hope it is more widely understood that this does not qualify as a backwards-compatibility feature, but instead an optimized re-release. Further, the need to re-buy games you may already own should be minimized, if possible. My hope is that they somehow come up with a Microsoft-like approach of letting me use my old Gamecube disk as a means of not having to re-buy the game if/when it hits the Switch.

Services like PSNow may offer the most robust method of allowing you to revisit old games as easily as possible. Sony would do well by their customers in permitting them to stream games they own already for free instead of subscribing to the whole service. If you owned a digital PS3 game and its on the platform, you should be able to access it without any purchase, and It would probably be a great PR moves to spur interest in the rest of the platform if there are games users missed originally. Considering GTA IV sales soared last week when it hit the Xbox One’s “back-compat” platform, there is no reason why some limited access to a huge service like PSNow wouldn’t also spur subscriptions.

GoG's platform is a great way to play old PC games easily, but you'll have to rebuy if you had an older release

GoG’s platform is a great way to play old PC games easily, but you’ll have to rebuy if you had an older release

When looking at the bigger picture, this changing definition of backwards compatibility is definitely a good trend for games. Digital preservation is going to be a huge issue for older titles, but with things like continued PC compatibility, GoG restorations, PSNow, and the future-proofing of the Xbox platform, the ability to play old games seems to be getting easier instead of harder. Let’s hope that Nintendo gets on-board with this in a more consumer-friendly effort. The real work ahead may be for the mountains of older content that isn’t getting the attention it deserves, and oddball platforms that are hard to translate to new ones. Some examples of this may also fall into Nintendo’s hands, such as light-gun based games like Duck Hunt, which won’t work with modern monitors and televisions. Nintendo also needs to figure out how they are going to preserve games from their DS family and Wii Family, since their multiple screens and abnormal input methods are essential to using the software. I’m already skeptical about the prospect of playing Wii U games on the Switch. I’m not sure how one envision’s a game requiring both the tv and gamepad screens to play. With only one screen to work with, it would seem like a hard task to accomplish.

But hey…. if anyone can, it’s Nintendo.




About the author

James T. George

Jim, a proud native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, enjoys a variety of things other than games, movies, music, sports, and technology, but usually falls prey to character limits when filling out

1 Comment

  • Retard website ran by literal new gen retards. You guys wonder why this website sucks balls.

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