[Written by Bain]
A few years ago myself, Drew and Nate sat down and discussed the situation of Backwards Compatibility and (to use a somewhat melodramatic turn-of-phrase) the ‘Death of Videogames’ that can occur if games are left behind on ‘dead’ systems. I’m aware that there is a whole other side to this discussion which is PC gaming, where certain classic games are actually dead and GONE FOREVER (like MMORPGs where the servers have gone down) but to keep this relatively short I’m focusing on the console side of things for now.
Anyway, when we last discussed this a couple of years ago I was feeling pretty grim about the apparent lack of support for backwards compatibility but don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a depressing piece, moaning about things I hate in the games industry (I’ll leave that to the other guys!). Fortunately the situation has improved dramatically in recent times and I’m delighted by this! For a start, Nintendo has started to crank-out more and more classic games on to their virtual console, expanding to include N64, DS, GBA and original Wii games on the Wii U. It would be nice if the 3DS got some more support on this front (it only has NES and original Gameboy games) but if you have a Wii U it now feels like the perfect place to get your fix of old school Nintendo masterpieces – one of my favourite consoles ever is the Gameboy Advance and it’s amazing playing classics from its library like Metroid Zero Mission and Castlevania Aria of Sorrow on the TV or Wii U gamepad which feels like using a huge and beautiful GBA!
What’s more, Microsoft suddenly surprised everybody by implementing backwards compatibility last year into the XBONE so that it can play certain 360 games. The library certainly isn’t complete and I doubt they’ll get ever game running but there’s already some great games from the previous generation. I’ve been able to enjoy the likes of Beyond Good & Evil HD, Gears of War 2 and The Witcher 2 without having to jump back to the 360 and it’s certainly a much better way to play any games that use the d-pad given that the XBONE controller has a vastly superior one to the old 360 pad.
However, why does backwards compatibility even matter? I’ll address this by going through a couple hypothetical questions (that I’ve actually had put to me in real life). Other people may not feel the same (or as strongly) as me about these matters but I think most folks should at least be able to appreciate why this is something that interests others, even if doesn’t do much for them.
Hypothetical Question 1: Why do you want to play old games anyway? They might have been okay when they came out but now they suck.
Answer: This is easy – no they don’t suck.
To elaborate a bit more, I do often see the opinion bandied around that old games are somehow inferior to newer games, or perhaps that certain genres (often associated with older games) are inherently inferior to others. Sometimes I’ve seen this phrased along the lines of “I used to like Mario/Sonic as a kid but now I’ve grown out of that and play things like Skyrim or Call of Duty.”
Well, I simply call ‘B.S.’ on that viewpoint which is insanely narrow-minded. If you love something like 3rd person cover-shooters or huge open-world RPGs which can only be realised with modern technology then good for you but in no way are they ‘superior’ to 2D platformers or side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. The fundamental point of a videogame is surely to be entertaining and it’s a well-known fact of human existence that what entertains one person might not entertain somebody else. If you can’t grasp that and feel your opinion is inherently correct while others are just wrong… well, maybe you’re some kind of sociopath or have a personality disorder…? Regardless of its genre, regardless of when it came out and regardless of the age of the person playing it, I say any game can still be loved and respected if its core gameplay is good.
To compare the situation to the film industry – I sure as hell don’t think that The Avengers is better than Lawrence of Arabia just because it’s newer and has lots of CGI technology that didn’t exist back in 1962. Nope, I believe that Lawrence is Arabia is still an absolute masterpiece and one of my favourite films, just as I believe that Sonic 3 & Knuckles is still a masterpiece and one of my favourite games. Thankfully it’s easy to still play Sonic 3 & Knux on modern consoles and PCs these days but if it weren’t and had been left to ‘die’ on the SEGA Megadrive that would be just as tragic as if people today couldn’t watch Lawrence of Arabia.
Hypothetical Question 2: Why can’t you just play those old games on their original systems? Why do they need to be re-released or made backwards compatible?
Answer 2: Well, this is the bigger question and there’s a few replies to it. Let’s go through them one at a time…
(A) Fortunately this doesn’t affect me personally but for a lot of people it’s simply a case of money – sometimes to get a new console (and new games for it) folks have to see their older hardware yet there might still be plenty of old games they’d like to go back to. Often consoles that have included this feature at launch (when a new console’s library tends to be weak) have really benefitted from it, such as the PS2 being able to play PS1 games or Nintendo handhelds being able to play the previous generation (something still going on with the 3DS).
(B) For others, including myself, it’s a case of space and convenience. I currently have four consoles hooked up to my TV at the moment and while some of them lay dormant for months at a time, throughout a 6 month period I am sure that I will use all of them at least once. If I also needed to have a Megadrive, N64 and various other old consoles on-hand to play everything I might want to that would be a huge pain in the backside – imagine the time lost in switching them around, re-wiring them into the TV and wrestling with a crazy network of cables and wires to find out what to unplug and what to plug in. Yes, a lot of old consoles do technically still work but making classic games more convenient to play is a great thing (a thing I’m willing to pay good money for!).
To make another comparison to the film industry, I can view every movie or TV show that I want to watch using just a single device.
(C) Another bonus, which also applies to me, is display and controller quality. I will argue (very passionately) that many old games hold up really well when it comes to raw gameplay and often the actual graphical assets but unfortunately modern TVs make many older games look awful and a lot of old controllers feel, well, pretty crappy nowadays. As I was saying earlier, I love a lot of GBA games but when I dig out my old GBA SP it feels really uncomfortable to hold and the screen quality is pretty dire. However, running these games on something like the Wii U virtual console makes them look beautiful and the controller (be it gamepad or pro-controller) feels so much more comfortable in my hands.
Likewise, I really wouldn’t want to use a classic NES controller to play something like Super Mario Bros 2 (the BEST classic Mario Bros imho) when there are now much more comfortable, ergonomic alternatives about these days.
To use another comparison with films – Sure, I could watch Terminator 2 on a scratchy-up, crappy VHS player that was made in 1991 which is how it was originally released but frankly I would rather enjoy watching the blu-ray version on a nice modern HD-TV… and the same applies to games!
Another factor which didn’t really fit into either of those questions is that sometimes people might have completely missed a whole console but if they buy its successor and that has backwards compatibility suddenly they have access to a huge library of games they may end up loving. I know of a couple of people who’ve picked up an XBONE that never owned a 360 and are now really happy to be able to access some of the best games from that system’s library without having to pick-up a whole other console which would (A) cost a fair chunk of money and (B) be fighting for space / HDMI sockets around their TV. I personally got to experience a couple of great Wii games on my Wii U since I had skipped over Nintendo’s previous console – without backwards compatibility I would never have been able to play the delightful Kirby Adventure Wii (that’s not sarcasm btw, it’s genuinely awesome!).
Anyway, I have hopefully made a couple of interesting points about why backwards compatibility can be a great thing. I just want to finish by saying in no way am I part of the crowd that ‘demands’ Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo should include this feature in all their consoles from a feeling of being entitled to it. Backwards compatibility is an awesome benefit and I love it when gaming companies can implement this feature but I’m aware it costs them time and money to do so and sometimes it obviously isn’t worth it to them. I just hope that going forwards backwards compatibility proves to be profitable for both the game developers and consumers so that we see more and more of it and thus more awesome games that are new today don’t end up becoming unplayable relics somewhere down the road.