Gaming consoles—home and handheld alike—are designed to be convenient and easy to use; it’s one of their primary selling points. If you won’t take my word for it, ask hardware titans like Nintendo or Sony, who’ve both shown off their next-gen systems. The Wii U user interface saw some serious upgrades in terms of navigation, as did their online store and Miiverse, and Sony spent the majority of their PS4 conference showcasing the system’s social and accessibility aspects, ranging from the new “share” button to save-states on a live game when the console is powered down. And we can expect Microsoft to flaunt similar features for their Nextbox at this year’s E3.
I’m looking forward to instantly booting my previous save as much as the next guy, but there’s more to console improvement than loading and downloading times. Games make the system, after all. Why, then, is eliminating an enormous portion of a system’s library becoming more and more frequent among consoles? Backward compatibility is often thought of as a necessity, and was once important enough to make or break a system—a point to which the most successful console in history, the PlayStation 2, will attest. As a result, many were left dumbstruck when the functionality began to disappear.
Though the original model of the PS3 offered PS2 compatibility, later versions of the system offered nothing of the sort. The same can be said for the Wii and Xbox 360; doing away with previous-generation compatibility in later console releases seems to be the norm nowadays. And, unsurprisingly, newer systems from the same developers have followed suit. The PS Vita is UMD-proof, and we already know that the PS4 won’t play PS3 discs. And although Nintendo has kept the DS line universally compatible for now, the Wii U’s gamepad is useless for Wii games—though you can still play original Wii titles via the traditional Nunchuck and Wiimote.
This clearly isn’t a new trend in gaming, but it has become far more prevalent. To the dismay of old school fans everywhere, virtually every hardware developer has knocked backward compatibility to the lowest rung on their priority list. However, they haven’t simply thrown previous-generation classics out the window. No, they’ve simply been replaced with a far more lucrative and convenient solution: digital copies.
Although it doesn’t quite fit the backward compatible bill—being able to play physical copies of older games on a newer system—having access to digitally available versions of our favorites has proven somewhat advantageous. We’ve still got access to hundreds of classic titles, right? Better still, we’re now able to go back further in time through most online stores. Nintendo offers several Super Nintendo classics, and the PlayStation Network’s PlayStation One archive is constantly expanding. Plus, you can keep all of your hidden gems and childhood favorites in one convenient location: your hard drive.
Well, funnily enough, that’s where the biggest problem with this shoddy patchwork of a solution lies.
Cheap and plentiful as they are, downloadable titles are also the reigning champ when it comes to hard drive eating. Because of this, the viability of digital copies is limited to a system’s HDD capacity—which is to say nothing of player outrage of being unable to redeem their physical copy for a free digital copy. But, as nice as that feature would’ve been, it’s no surprise that it was never implemented. And, although we may see something similar in the future (Sony has already hinted at a universal PlayStation archive for their PS4), simple business sense isn’t siding with players on this one.
Think about it. What has the elimination of backwards compatibility accomplished? It not only freed up consoles to be further streamlined (again, look at later versions of the PS3 and Wii), but simultaneously incentivized consumers to own and purchase both systems (the current and previous generation). At the same time, it created an enormously profitable avenue for digital distribution, which was already a hot button among developers this generation. What company in their right mind would turn down the option of effectively reselling the same product to a market that has already proven that they will buy said product?
So, although I’m a bit bitter about it myself, I’ve no choice but to declare the loss of backward compatibility inevitable. Luckily, there’s more to be had here than oh-so-horrifying realization that gaming is in fact a competitive industry. Your favorite retro titles are more likely to show up in your online store of choice if their physical counterparts can’t be played, which means you won’t have to scour the overpriced copies on EBay to get your hands on them. Plus, as we’ve already seen, eliminating backward functionality can prove healthy for a system by literally freeing up space for improvement, albeit marginal.
And, although we’re sure to continue seeing the same digital access that we’re all so familiar with, we at Cheat Code Central have one final tip for you on how to avoid the backward compatibility issue entirely: Don’t sell your old console.
Date: March 28, 2013