Backwards compatibility has been a wild ride throughout gaming history. Sometimes it’s just there; other times it vanishes without so much as lip service. It feels like we as gamers can never really decide how we feel about it, and developers try to fit it in where they can, but aren’t afraid to let it go for higher concepts. But lately, it seems like the overall stock of backwards compatibility has blown up higher than ever. More and more efforts to preserve, port, and bring back older games to be playable on current hardware are sprouting up. From the all-time high value of IP and storytelling, to finding ways to make older games valuable again, in 2018 the idea of making older games new again has been more important than ever.
First of all, it’s important to accept that “backwards compatibility” is kind of a nebulous concept. It’s been done different ways over the years, from software emulation to straight-up older hardware hiding amongst newer hardware. Sometimes, ideally, you can use your old games in your new system. But I would also argue that things like re-releases are also forms of backwards compatibility. Things like the PS2 Classics line for PS3, or even remaster collections that bring older games to modern platforms are arguably backwards compatibility. Things like Xbox Originals kind of live in-between, because they work with the discs, but are also newly purchasable digitally and have significant resolution boosts. It’s semantics but it helps my argument here, gimme a break.
For me, this really clicked into place with the recent growth of the Yakuza series. This was a series that has been going on since the PlayStation 2, but it was never really popular. Even in Japan it wasn’t a massive success, although games don’t need to sell nearly as well over there to warrant sequels. But when Sega started pumping bucks into its non-Sonic Japanese games again in America, things got really wild when Yakuza 0 dropped on the PlayStation 4 and suddenly the series became a pretty big player. But while that game is a great starting point for the series, fans had a tough time figuring out where to go next.
This brings me to the point about IP. IP, more than ever, is making the entertainment world spin. And with IP comes continuity, and the innate appeal of being able to dive into a multi-part series that requires audience investment. It’s the ripple effect the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had on everyone from consumers to executives. You can’t just drop a sequel several years removed from ta game without making sure the previous entries are as accessible as possible. Now, even the Yazuka games from last generation are being glossed up a little and released on the PS4 at a budget price point, because the demand for the whole story is at an all-time high. It’s the same with Shenmue, with Kingdom Hearts, with Halo. There’s a reason Microsoft and 343 didn’t just consider Master Chief Collection a botch and move on. The demand for those games to have compatibility with modern hardware is still raging.
Meanwhile, speaking of Microsoft, the whole backwards compatibility thing has become a platform on which the company is using to boost its hardware while it still figures out its AAA exclusive situation. Microsoft of course has an advantage with its powerful hardware and PC-based history. It has been a lot of engineering work, but both 360 and original Xbox games now work on Xbox One. And while the earlier data showed a more niche use of this feature, it has exploded in the last year or two. Because Xbox, by shining the light on its library, has reminded gamers that making older games available feels good.
A final example is all the little mini consoles sprouting up like adorable weeds that make shoppers go nuts. The NES Classic, SNES Classic, Neo Geo Mini, Mega Drive whateveritscalled, and all the higher and higher quality single-game units you can find at Walmarts and Targets and the like (shout out to Oregon Trail). These are also arguably forms of backwards compatibility: It’s tough to get older hardware working well with newer TVs, so here’s a new device, that looks like the old device, effectively rekindling the experience of playing these classic games on their original hardware. It’s more of a novelty, but for many people, these little guys are so successful because of that reason. I mean, holding the new SNES controller models in your hands is something else. But having the device innately HDMI-ready and with some of the best emulation to date on an official product is crucial.
I know I’m stretching categories and definitions here. But sometimes when you’re dealing with technology, demand is demand, and the route taken to meet that demand differs in various spaces, for various reasons. It’s impossible to make new consoles play all the old games just by jamming all the old games you still have laying around in. But if we can find ways to get those games running on new hardware, even if it means making an additional purchase, that’s still an adaptation. It’s still a form of compatibility, and it’s still in more demand than ever. People want to have access to the full set, and they don’t want to plug their old consoles in.