Backwards compatibility has become a hot topic in the current console race as of late, with Microsoft surprising everyone by adding the ability to play 360 games to the Xbox One and Sony answering with talk that it is working on PS2 emulation for PS4 (which most people suspect will ultimately just mean being able to buy PS2 games digitally and not actual backwards compatibility). We also put up a survey recently gauging your thoughts on backwards compatibility as a whole, the results of which you can check out here.
BC–as I’m going to refer to backwards compatibility from here on out for my sanity and yours–definitely has an interesting history in the console world, as often the subject of excitement (when it happens) as disappointment (when it doesn’t). Here is a look back at the sordid history of BC on consoles prior to the current generation.
[EDIT: Some of the information I originally had in the Atari 7800 section wasn’t entirely correct, namely my assertion that the 7800 was Atari’s answer to the NES and that Atari made the 7800 BC specifically to compete with the NES. As several people pointed out, the 7800–BC and all–was designed several years before the NES launched, so very little about its design or planned launch was directly influenced by the NES. Atari had fully planned to launch another system whether the NES ever existed or not. I have reworked that section of this article to reflect that. Thanks for the tips, guys!]
Atari 7800, BC with Atari 2600
The Atari 7800 was actually released to limited test markets in 1984, a year before the NES launched, but its nationwide launch wouldn’t happen until May of 1986 (and in Europe the following year). The 7800 faced an uphill battle for a number of reasons–dated hardware and the public’s (not entirely fair) association of Atari with the market crash, among others–but the biggest problem was simply having the juggernaut that was the NES as a direct competitor. For what it was worth, Atari did have the foresight to make the 7800 backwards compatible with the Atari 2600, both games and accessories. This gave the 7800 much more titles to boast out of the gate, and the fact that so many of those titles could be found in bins for literally a buck each at that point was definitely something you weren’t going to be saying about NES games for the foreseeable future. Although, in a lot of cases when it came to those dirt-cheap 2600 games, you certainly got what you paid for. Interestingly enough, the direct predecessor to the 7800 was actually the Atari 5200, which the 7800 didn’t support in any way. It would’ve mattered very little in the end anyway, as by 1987 the NES had a hold over the market that Atari–or anyone else for that matter–had no chance of competing with no matter how many old games its system played.
Sega Genesis, BC with Sega Master System
The second major console to have off-the-shelf BC was the Genesis, which had the built-in ability to play Sega Master System games. The only catch was that you needed to buy an additional accessory–the Power Base Converter–in order to actually play the SMS cartridges. The Super NES was originally planned to feature BC with NES cartridges, a feature which was obviously–and tragically–cut before the system went to market. The fact that the Genesis could play its 8-bit predecessor’s games and the SNES could not should’ve been a major selling point for the Genesis. Unfortunately, the SMS barely sold a quarter of what the NES sold worldwide–and only about 5% of what it sold in the U.S.–so it wasn’t an especially groundbreaking feature to support a library that most gamers were already largely unfamiliar with. The Power Base Converter wasn’t a huge seller, so Sega didn’t manufacture an especially large number of them, making them very highly sought after among Sega collectors–often fetching higher prices than a standalone Sega Master System. When Sega’s Saturn launched with a cartridge port in the back that looked an awful lot like Genesis games would fit in it, a lot of people naturally assumed that the Saturn was able to play Genesis games. This ultimately ended up not being the case, unfortunately–that slot was to be used with various accessories that just so happened to have a very similar size and shape to Genesis cartridges. And in a pre-internet era, most of us wouldn’t discover that disappointing fact until we tried unsuccessfully to jam a Genesis game in there.
PlayStation 2, BC with PlayStation
This probably remains the most significant BC decision in gaming history. The PS1 was the undisputed champion of its generation, and going into the next generation the PS2 had a hype train that was impossible to derail (just ask the poor Dreamcast). The PS2 on its own would’ve been a massive hit out of the gate, but the system’s ability to play almost the entire PS1 library and most of its accessories was one of the smartest things Sony could’ve done (next to having it play DVD movies, of course). The PS1 continued to see major AAA games released after the PS2 launched–including Final Fantasy IX, Dino Crisis 2, Mega Man X5, Spyro 3, Medal of Honor: Underground, and many more–and the PS1 and PS2 libraries co-existed in those first few years in a way that no other console overlap ever has. PS2 owners didn’t think twice about continuing to buy new PS1 games along with their PS2 games, and the PS2’s ability to smooth out the textures and speed up the loading times on PS1 games sealed the deal. So popular was this BC that Sony promised that all PlayStation consoles going forward would be fully BC with all previous ones. As we all know, they totally kept that promise.
Wii, BC with GameCube
In addition to its focus on streamlined, motion-controlled gaming, the Wii was being touted as a system that was going to play all of the Nintendo games. At a time when “downloading classic games” on consoles generally meant being able to buy such exciting titles as a standalone version of Ms. Pac-Man on the original Xbox, the idea of being able to digitally access games from the entire history of Nintendo consoles (and more) was extremely exciting to gamers hardcore and casual. And in order to cement the Wii’s planned position as the ultimate Nintendo game machine, it also featured full disc-based BC with the GameCube library and most of its accessories. Nintendo took this a step further and even let developers build GameCube controller support into their Wii games if they so chose, which was a very cool way of taking advantage of the system’s compatibility with GC accessories. As it turns out, the reach of Nintendo’s Virtual Console didn’t go quite as far as they promised it would, and the GameCube’s library technically ended up being the “classic” console that had the most games playable on the Wii by a pretty considerable margin.
Xbox 360, BC with Xbox
This is where the all-too-brief age of assuming that consoles were going to keep being fully BC began to fall apart. After Sony and Nintendo seemed to set the precedent for it with their last two offerings, Microsoft followed suit with its Xbox 360 by offering BC with the original Xbox…but only partially. Rather than fully building the hardware or the emulation directly into the console itself, Microsoft instead had to individually build the emulation for each Xbox game that it made playable on the 360 before you could play those discs. The company started off ambitiously, bringing over a number of titles and promising many more, and when all was said and done they did end up making close to 500 Xbox games playable on the 360. However, that only accounts for a little over half of the Xbox’s total library, and it also leaves off a number of popular and well-liked games while inexplicably including a very large number of completely forgettable titles that nobody cares about. On top of this, the playability of Xbox games on the 360 is far from perfect, with people reporting bugs ranging from minor audio and visual hiccups all the way up to game crashes and corrupted save files. Sony was definitely poised to use this botched BC plan to their advantage when they launched their competing PlayStation 3 the following year. But did they? Read on…
PlayStation 3, BC with the PS1 and PS2 (kind of)
Sony should’ve had the clear upper hand going into the seventh console generation after back-to-back victories by pretty significant margins. The PS3 definitely could have put the 360’s halfhearted attempt at BC to shame with what was most certainly going to be full compatibility with both the PS1 and PS2. Unfortunately, Sony decided that only a certain PS3 models were going to contain PS2 functionality-the $600 model, of course. As if that weren’t bad enough, like with most console launches of the modern era, launch day PS3 systems were susceptible to hardware failure. So when Sony cut PS2 functionality from all of its new PS3’s not long into its lifespan, it made that relatively small number of PS3s that exist that still play PS2 games to be the ones that are the most likely to fail (if they haven’t already). All PS3s still have PS1 BC, but considering that most people still have to keep PS2s around anyway–especially since the PS3 doesn’t accept PS1 memory cards so you’d have to start all of your games over to play them on PS3–it isn’t all that special to have two black boxes next to your TV that play games from a 20 year old system. Maybe what Sony meant all those years ago is that all future PlayStation consoles would play PS1 games. Okay fine, so that means the PS4 plays them, right? Right?
“…but what about Nintendo’s handhelds?”
I was mostly keeping this about consoles, but I would be remiss–and probably chastised–if I didn’t mention Nintendo’s history of consistent BC in its handheld platforms. Beginning with the Game Boy’s first true successor, the Game Boy Color, and continuing on through the 3DS, every single Nintendo handheld has been BC with at least its most direct predecessor, and sometimes several of them. The only exception to this–beyond novelty spin-offs like the Game Boy Micro–was, of course, the Virtual Boy. And who knows…that system might have had a bit more luck if it were designed to let you play Game Boy games through the headset in some fashion. I also firmly believe that the Sony Vita’s complete exclusion of any PSP disc functionality at all played a big part in that system not catching on as well as it could have. Nintendo had set a pretty strong precedent over the previous 20 years that portable systems be compatible with their ancestors, and Sony was unwise to just completely ignore that tradition.