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Preview: Xbox 360 Backwards Compatibility on Xbox One

Written by James T. George

It seems like a lifetime ago when Microsoft announced at E3 2015 that they intended to bring Xbox 360 backwards compatibility to the Xbox One. In reality, it has only been around four months. Since then we’ve seen a multitude of fan excitement around the feature. This should come as no surprise for a nearly 10-year-old console,which has sold 78.2 million consoles to date world-wide. A lot of 360 owners have huge libraries and/or backlogs that may have made the upgrade to the Xbox One less attractive before backwards compatibility was announced,  and the potential to bring those games with them to a new platform cannot be understated.

Mass Effect is one of the first high-profile titles to hit BC. It plays great.

Mass Effect is one of the first high-profile titles to hit BC. It plays great.

Being a member of the Xbox Dashboard Preview Program, I’ve had the opportunity to play with the backwards compatibility feature in advance of the official launch in November, and while the selection of games is sparse at the moment (more on that in a bit) I have to say, I’m quite impressed with what Microsoft pulled off here. Unlike past attempts at backwards compatibility using hardware emulation, Microsoft instead relied on their well-known software prowess. They had no choice, really. The Xbox One does not have the hardware necessary to appropriately execute 360 games, and so the only route is emulating the 360’s hardware through software. Broadly speaking, Microsoft ported the Xbox 360’s dashboard into an executable and found a way to get the XB1 to run it. It’s complicated to be sure, but the concept is surprisingly simple in its elegance. Instead of converting each game to something that is compatible, they instead created a program that makes all 360 games compatible.

When I first read about this accomplishment, I thought we may soon see an “Xbox 360” app next to the Blu-Ray and Media Player apps on the Xbox One, and when you want to play a 360 game, you’ll have to boot the app first and load the game from within. To my surprise, that is not the case at all. Instead of some sort of app-player, Microsoft is distributing 360 games as a dual app/game package. For example: the original Gears of War is one of the first titles available through the back-compat program, and you download it as if it were just another Xbox One game in your queue. When you run it, it loads the 360 player and boots the game. The same goes for every back-compat game. Each one comes with the 360 emulator and game compiled into one program that looks like any other game in your library. Through this method, Microsoft can quickly look at what 360 games you already own and serve them up to you instantly.

360 Games appear as any other game would in your library... properly labeled as a 360 game, of course.

360 Games appear as any other game would in your library… properly labeled as a 360 game, of course.

When you are playing a game, you have access to every feature the Xbox One brings to the table, including party chat, achievements, messaging, and clip recording. Hitting the guide button takes you back to the Xbox One dashboard as it always has. However, since the 360 games are actually running on a software version of the 360 dashboard, you still have access to the 360’s guide as well. Tapping the view and menu buttons at the same time will bring up the familiar guide and gives you quite a bit of functionality on its own, including support for Xbox 360 party chat, data management, and even an option to quit the game and return to the Xbox One dashboard. Obviously, a bunch of 360 features have been stripped to account for the simplified nature of the system-within-a-system, but it showcases how well thought out the software emulation was achieved by Microsoft. Your game saves are even cross-platform ready if you have opted into the 360 cloud-save feature, so you can bounce between your old 360 and XB1 if you choose.

For now, only a handful of games have been made available for those in the preview program, but if you don’t own them you won’t be able to try them out. Microsoft has opted for a digital method of making these games work, even if you own the disk of the game in question. For games that are compatible, you can pop the original 360 disk in the Xbox One’s drive and it will prompt you to download a digital install of the game in order to play it. If you own a compatible game in a digital format, it will simply appear in the “ready to install” section of your game list. This would seemingly indicate that each game offered in the program will need to be available in digital form on the 360 in order to be available in the back-compat library, so for those games that never made the games on demand section of the 360’s market may need a little legwork by the publisher to become compatible on the Xbox One.

The Xbox team has made it clear that making 360 games compatible on Xbox One isn’t as simple as simply adding it to a list. Each game needs to first be approved for the feature by its developer/publisher, so Microsoft has made it clear that gamers should reach out to them when making game requests. Once the publisher approves, the games will then need to be compiled with the 360’s emulator I mentioned above, which no doubt requires some quality assurance before hitting the marketplace.

Right now it does not appear that 360 DLC is part of this compatibility, although Microsoft has said DLC will come eventually. 360 games are also not yet available in the Xbox One’s game store, so if you want to get a game on the compatibility list, you’ll need to buy it on an actual Xbox 360, Xbox.com, or pick up an actual disk copy. I’d be shocked if an Xbox 360 section doesn’t come to the Xbox One store in the near future.

It is important to note that starting in November, along with the overhaul to the operating system, all 360 games offered in the “Games with Gold” program will be backwards compatible, meaning Gold members will get 4 free games each month that run on the Xbox One. Additionally, game developers that are now embracing backwards compatibility have been offering 360 games for free when pre-ordering future titles. A few examples include Fallout 3, Just Cause 2, and Rainbow Six Vegas 1 & 2, each being given away to players who pre-order the upcoming games in those franchises. Microsoft will be giving anyone who purchased Gears of Ware Ultimate the entire 360 Gears of war Library when back-compat launches officially.

Maybe? Someday? #BringBackFusionFrenzy

Maybe? Someday? #BringBackFusionFrenzy

All in all, backwards compatibility is a huge accomplishment for the Xbox team, especially since just a few years ago they claimed it could not be done. Being able to tap into the 1000+ games in the 360 library as incentives for investing in Xbox One titles is a huge advantage over the competition, and developers have seen how highly sought after it can be. With some casual talk going around about original Xbox titles also becoming compatible, the potential number of games you can play on XB1 grows significantly. Hopefully more developers jump on board and more titles become available sooner rather than later.

Look for the official launch of backwards compatibility next month when the new dashboard update hits, and stay tuned to LevelSave.com for more coverage!

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


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