The Lost Art of Backwards Compatibility

Back in 1991, parents were upset with Nintendo over the release of the Super Nintendo. Retailing for $200 and lacking the ability to play all those NES games they bought for their kids, mommies and daddies everywhere thought they were being swindled by the Japanese gaming giant. It’s now 2013 and Sony is facing similar complaints as their latest next-gen console, the Playstation 4, isn’t backwards compatible with Playstation 3 games and can’t transfer Playstation Network titles as well. However, these complaints at Sony aren’t just coming from frugal parents demanding their money’s worth, but from the loyal Playstation fanbase wishing to play their old games on a new console.

History Repeats Itself

While the PS4’s backwards compatibility problem is disheartening, gamers didn’t need EA’s warning that this would happen for the next-gen consoles. This trend has stubbornly made itself present all the way back to the launch of the Xbox 360, where the system’s limited backwards compatibility with the original Xbox left consumers flustered. Microsoft tried to amend this problem by updating the list of backwards compatible games on the Xbox 360 every few months, but some Xbox games were horribly patched and Microsoft stopped adding new titles in 2007. Sony didn’t waste a minute to mock their American competitor over the backwards compatibility blunder, but later suffered the same ridicule when the PS3’s backwards compatibility with the PS2 was also faulty. Newer PS3 model can no longer play PS2 games, as Sony cut this feature off to reduce the system’s pricy cost.

The only seventh generation console that featured true backwards compatibility was the Wii, as it could play Gamecube games and offered downloadable classic games through the Virtual Console store. However, Nintendo ended up removing this feature from the Wii in the 2011 revision and the Virtual Console’s gaming catalogue never expanded as much as it could. Worse, the Canadian-exclusive Wii Mini removed online connections, limiting owners to Wii games. The Wii U also can’t play Gamecube games, but Nintendo has apparently taken a page from Sony’s playbook by offering HD ports in its place, with the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker remake as an example. Handhelds aren’t immune to this problem either, as the Nintendo 3DS can’t play Gameboy games and the PS Vita can’t play PSP games, since they use different video game formats.

Cloud to the Rescue

There is hope for PS3 owners wanting to play their games on the PS4, as the official Playstation Europe account tweeted that previous Playstation games will be playable through the system’s streaming service, presumably called the Playstation Cloud. How this method will exactly work is still up in the air. If Sony handles the situation similarly to the PS Vita, then PS3 owners will have to buy their games again through the Playstation Network. They could offer low prices on these games like what Nintendo is doing for Wii U owners with their new Virtual Console service, but players will still be buying what they already bought.

Is there a way Sony can please their audience as they ask them to open their wallet in exchange for backwards compatibility? If Sony treats their streaming service as Netflix Instant, where Playstion Plus members could play a wide selection of PS3 games anytime they want, then it might work. However, Playstation Plus membership would likely go up significantly to compensate for the cost. Sony could make their streaming service more like Hulu Plus, but could gamers deal with constant advertisements? Especially when Xbox Live is still criticized for plastering ads all over the dashboards of Xbox Gold members.

Live Long and Prosper

If Sony fails to obtain backwards compatibility in any shape for the PS4, then they should ensure a long life for the PS3 and reduce its price, as suggested by analysts. Microsoft made a big mistake when they ditched the Xbox to the curve in favor of the Xbox 360, when they knew the new system couldn’t satisfy the needs from previous console owners. In contrast, the PS2 was only discontinued worldwide this year, while Gamestop stopped carrying PS2 games a year before. With a long lifespan, PS3 owners won’t feel forgotten when the PS4 enters the gaming market this holiday.

Regardless of what happens, the lack of backwards compatibility has rarely proven to be a kiss of death for a video game system. Parents from the 90s still bought the SNES despite their complaints and made the 16-bit console a success. While it’s uncertain if the PS4 will enjoy similar success due to the current backlash they’re facing, PS3 owners should continue to take care of their console until Sony has this backwards compatible mess straighten out.