For those of us from a certain generation, the concept of backwards compatibility was a given, even if it wasn’t universal. The main reason for this was that all of Game Boy’s had it, as right up to the Game Boy Advance SP you could play practically any game ever released for the Game Boy. Then there was the PlayStation 2, which supported the vast majority of titles released on the original system.
Even though Nintendo is often thought of as being the main proponent of backwards compatibility, the Wii marked the first time that a home console would support titles from the previous system. As NES games were not playable on the SNES, no SNES games on the N64, and then Nintendo made the switch to a disc based system so that removed any hope of N64 games coming to the GameCube. The switch to a disc-based system did help the process of backwards compatibility, even though the GameCube and Wii utilised very different types of disc. Although the hardware also played a large role, as the Wii was essentially a more powerful GameCube and was emulating games at a hardware level, in a similar way to how old Game Boy games ran on newer systems.
Backwards compatibility is great for those of us with large (and ever increasing) videogame libraries as it allows us to go back and play the classics from yesteryear without having to unearth a past console and hoping that it will still function. Plus it offers the flexibility of not having to go through the hassle of plugging and unplugging different connections from the back of the TV. But there are some exceptions to this; even though the GameCube could not play N64 games, it did share the same AV cable input, which made switching between the two consoles easier than most, as well as proving a more up-to-date input for the N64 which came with an aerial input as opposed to the newer RGB (and SCART) inputs (I can’t comment on what was used outside of Europe).
What about when you’re making the decision to change ship and get on board with a different platform? This is where backwards compatibility can help ease the transition and catch up with games that were released on a platforms prior system that you did not own. This was actually a major selling point for me when I decided to “jump in” with the Xbox 360, mostly of course for the ability to play Halo 2 (as the possibility of it coming PC was seeming unlikely, although it did happen two years later) and also to play some of the other Xbox games that I had missed out on such as Fable. Despite the importance I place on this feature, the irony is that it was one I barely utilised, as I only got four original Xbox games for my 360. After getting Halo 2 and Fable: The Lost Chapters the other two titles I got were Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
In part this was due to the confusing implementation of backwards compatibility on the 360. Less than 300 games were playable, and unlike backwards compatibility on the Wii, here it was achieved via software emulation and also required updates from Xbox Live to work. Although backwards compatibility for Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 were built in, which was a very smart decision.
The PS3 was a different story. The first units that were released had full compatibility with PS1 and PS2 games via hardware emulation. However this feature was removed from the subsequent hardware revisions due to the extra physical components required, so as to allow the slim namesake and keep costs down. Yet oddly enough PS1 games were still supported.
The current situation is very different. As aside from the WiiU, the next gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony do not offer any physical backwards compatibility. Do you have a large collection of Xbox 360 games? Well lets hope that aging 360 still have some years ahead of it as the Xbox One doesn’t have you covered. Also those Xbox Live Arcade games are equally trapped. The same can almost be said for Sony, as the PS4 can’t play any of the PS3 you currently own and PSN titles are mostly restricted to the consoles. However there is a reason that I said almost and mostly. This is because there are many PSN games that take advantage for Cross-Buy and Cross-Save, meaning that even though you bought a game for the PS3, you also get a copy for the PS4 (and the Vita) and even better your save is carried over as well. As a result when I do ultimately upgrade to a PS4 I already have a sizable library to get me going. This isn’t true backwards compatibility, but it’s better than nothing.
Of course there is also the upcoming streaming service, PlayStation Now, which will allow you to play (at first) PS3 games on the PS4, Vita, and select TV’s. Again this doesn’t solve the problem of bringing over your PS3 library to the PS4 (part of the reason why I’m still holding off, I’m catching up on PS3 titles that I missed), but it will provide a good jumping in point for those who will buy a PS4 but skipped the PS3 entirely.
Discussing backwards compatibility is actually now an interesting phenomenon, because it’s only really found on consoles, it used to be a problem on PC’s, but with the vast majority of games being purchased through services like Steam and GOG this is becoming less of an issue. Especially with Steam, as you can easily move your entire library from one PC to another (including saves for some games). Because of the nature of console hardware backwards compatibility is difficult to achieve without compromising something else, and there is always the possibility of making a HD remake to appease calls for certain games to appear on the latest console. Although now with more unified PC-like architecture in the future backwards compatibility could be achieved on a wider basis akin to how it is on PCs. Although by that point will they even have disc drives? Maybe its time to go digital only, which might allow for backwards compatibility during the next switchover.