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Next generation game consoles need backwards compatibility

Next generation game consoles need backwards compatibility

Next generation game consoles need backwards compatibility
October 30
17:38 2019

We are currently on the eighth generation of video game consoles, and the ninth generation is already on the horizon for 2020. The next phase of the “console wars” between Sony and Microsoft is officially upon us and I’m willing to bet the next victor will be whoever supports backward compatibility into their consoles.

Backwards compatibility refers to a gaming system’s ability to physically play games made for older consoles of prior generations. Gaming consoles cost hundreds of dollars and new games retail for about $59.99, so buying a new system and new games all at the same time is expensive. It’s more convenient for the consumer if they can also play their old games on the latest console.

The first home video game console to feature backwards compatibility was the Atari 7800, which let players play Atari 2600 games but not Atari 5200 games. Atari 7800 didn’t sell well. Sega on the other hand, sold well enough to compete with Nintendo as their Sega Genesis had backwards compatibility with their Sega Master System.

Nintendo inevitably bested Sega in the first console wars and without a single one of their older home systems containing backwards compatibility. Nintendo did however treat all their handheld gaming systems to backwards compatibility for their previous handheld consoles. For example, The Gameboy Advance supported Gameboy, the Nintendo DS supported Gameboy Advanced, and the Nintendo 3DS supported the Nintendo DS.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the start of the second console wars between Sony’s Playstation 2 and Microsofts’s Xbox, during the sixth generation. The PS2 was backwards compatible with PS1 games. Then in the seventh generation, practically all consoles had backwards compatibility, kind of.

See, there are two major ways to incorporate backwards compatibility. The first method is by having hardware built into the system to support older games. The second method is through emulation, where the console recognizes a disc and then downloads a digital version of the game to play rather than read the data from the disc itself.

The Nintendo Wii and Playstation 3 both came with hardware that supported previous generation games, being Gamecube and PS2 games, respectively. Later in the PS3’s lifespan, Sony decided to remove backwards compatibility, unfortunately. The Xbox 360 used the emulation method, which also meant that not all Xbox games were supported.

Finally, there’s today’s generation of consoles. Nintendo’s Wii U did feature backwards compatibility for Wii games, but that console was a commercial disaster. Their latest console, The Nintendo Switch, is much more successful, however as it uses game cartridges and not game discs, backwards compatibility is impossible. The Xbox One is backwards compatible with select Xbox 360 games through the emulation method, yet the Playstation 4 has no backwards compatibility whatsoever.

So why have we seen backwards compatibility slowly die out? Well, while many only view a gaming console as competing with systems from other companies, it also has to compete with its predecessor. If new consoles support older games, then game developers can decide to just publish games for the older system, giving them a failsafe in case the new system fails.

Removing backwards compatibility forces game developers to publish for the newer system, effectively killing the lifespan of the preceding system.

Another reason could be to promote the new Playstation Now and Xbox Game Pass. These are subscription services that you download and/or stream around 100+ games, sometimes including remastered classics. Whereas backwards compatibility requires physical copies of older games, these newer services are entirely digital. However, gaming subscription services aren’t guaranteed to have or keep the games you want to play, and chances are you’re not going to play all 100+ games offered. 

There are still benefits to including backwards compatibility, for one in automatically increases a console’s game library. This way, consumers still have games to play on the newer console while its own game library begins and flouiahes.

Another benefit is the convenience of not having to rebuy games. Consumers can feel cheated and bitter if they’re forced to buy a remastered version or subscription service to play a game that they already own.

We do have news regarding the ninth generation’s stances on backwards compatibility, and they’re hopeful. The new Xbox Scarlett is supposedly backwards compatible with every previous generation of Xbox. If true, this gives Microsoft a huge advantage over Sony.

The Playstation 5 is reported to at least support the PS4 library games. There’s however a phenomenal rumor that it may also support PS1, PS2 and PS3 games. While this has yet to be confirmed, it would be an amazing leap in backwards compatibility.

If both new consoles support nearly four to five generations of games, then who wins the next console war? While that question is too complex to answer right now, it seems undeniable that featuring backwards compatibility will be a major selling feature in the ninth generation consoles.

Featured Illustration: Jeselle Farias

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Matthew Payne

Matthew Payne

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