Published on January 17th, 2013 | by Chris Powell1
Why you should be worried about retro gaming next generation
It’s crazy to think that a few years ago, if you wanted to play a SEGA Genesis or NES game, you had to actually drag that sad, forgotten system out of your dank, moldy-sock infested closet, dust off the pubes and cobwebs and pray to the video game gods it still worked. Fast forward to today, and retro gaming has been made incredibly convenient thanks to the current generation consoles. If you want to play a popular retro game, chances are you can download it on the digital stores for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii.
As the next console offerings from Sony and Microsoft are on the horizon, they bring a sense of excitement for something entirely new and different. While they certainly and justifiably bring a lot to look forward to, there are also many unanswered questions that could pose problems for gamers who invested significant money towards purchasing their retro games digitally.
The question I keep asking and fail to get answered is ‘What is going to happen to our digital games we’ve purchased on our consoles?” Since neither company has officially stated whether their consoles will support backwards compatibility, perhaps we should look at their past actions and see if it may shed any light on that question.
First up is Sony
As the Japanese console giant was riding high coming off the incredibly successful PlayStation 2, they gave us Americans full backwards compatibility right out of the box with their new consoles, as they stuffed an Emotion Engine in the launch 20GB and 60GB PS3s. This inclusion was a great decision as gamers were accustomed to having that backwards compatibility in all of their disc-based consoles, starting with the PlayStation 1 and continuing with the PS2. However, in February 2007, Sony announced it would cease PS2 backwards compatibility and remove the Emotion Engine from subsequent models altogether. This was believed to be a cost-cutting measure aimed at lowering that outrageous price for the PS3.
In a post on the company’s ThreeSpeech blog, a spokesman said, “We will continue to offer firmware upgrades to increase the number of titles that are compatible, but rather than concentrate on PS2 backwards compatibility, in the future, company resources will be increasingly focused on developing new games and entertainment features exclusively for PS3, truly taking advantage of this exciting technology.” In truth, Sony never really added backwards compatibility through software updates.
So that brings us to the PS4, which, according to reports won’t have the CELL processor and instead one manufactured by AMD. The chances of Sony including a CELL processor in the PS4 is slim to none. Do you really think Sony will offer software backwards compatibility for the PS2 or PS3? Not likely either, considering there are thousands of games released across the PS1, PS2 and PS3, and if it ever does happen, we’ll likely only receive Sony first-party titles. Crash Bandicoot and Ridge Racer anyone?
What’s more, we also need to look at how Sony has completely screwed the pooch when it comes to PlayStation Vita backwards compatibility. Obviously because it doesn’t have a UMD drive, the Vita can’t play physical PlayStation Portable games, but Sony has been releasing firmware updates, which has slowly increased the compatibility of some games across the PlayStation Network. However, the PSP still can play significantly more titles than the Vita and probably will continue to do so for quite some time.
The potential ace Sony has up its sleeve is Gaikai, the cloud-based gaming company it purchased last year. We’ve heard very little about how Sony plans to implement that acquisition, but one way it could is using its cloud technology to stream PS1, PS2 and PS3 to your PS4. This could be an efficient way for Sony to add backwards compatibility to the PS4, which would increase its perceived value to consumers. Additionally, Sony could tie the backwards compatibility feature to PlayStation Plus, giving the subscription service even more added value and importance.
Either way, the jury is still out on this one, and unless Sony really has their shit together, I’m not too comfortable that we’ll be able to play all our retro and digital games that we’ve purchased on the PlayStation Store on launch day.
Now on to Microsoft
You think Microsoft has a much better track record when it comes to backwards compatibility? Think again. When they released the Xbox 360, just like Sony, company spokesmen preached the importance of backwards compatibility. In fact, on May 19, 2005, then-Xbox PR manager Michael Wolf told GamesIndustry.biz, “At launch, Xbox 360 will be backward compatible with the top Xbox games. Our goal is to have every Xbox game work on Xbox 360. You will not need to purchase a new ‘version’ – your original games will work on Xbox 360.”
Microsoft held true to their word, at least for awhile. An entire backwards compatibility team was assembled at Microsoft and tasked with releasing software patches that would enable you to play original Xbox titles. But as the months went by, the updates slowly became few and far between. In June 2006, Peter Moore finally muttered the words we all feared, ”Nobody is concerned anymore about backwards compatibility. We under promised and over delivered on that. It’s a very complicated thing… very complex work. I’m just stunned that we have hundreds of games that are backwards compatible. More are coming, but at some point, you just go, there’s enough, let’s move on, or people aren’t as worried about a game being backwards compatible – and I like to think we’ve upheld our end of the bargain in making at least two or maybe three hundred games backwards compat.”
Actually, Peter, you twit, I still can’t play my copy of ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth. And to think, you actually used to be the president of SEGA of America? Tisk, tisk.
Anyway, while Microsoft’s story for getting rid of backwards compatibility was because no one cared for the feature, they were actually ramping up to start selling us games digitally. That’s why the 15GB hard drive that came with launch 360s just wouldn’t suffice. From a business standpoint, I can understand why they did it. Why should they keep investing resources and money into releasing software updates to make Xbox games backwards compatible with the 360 when they could simply resell you the game altogether? Brilliant, right? Well, read that quote by Wolf once more. His last sentence was “You will not need to purchase a new ‘version’ – your original games will work on Xbox 360.” Ummm, I kind of think they are making us purchase new versions.
Oh yeah, Nintendo
While the Wii U is easy to dismiss for many of us, Nintendo has come through with backwards compatibility for its new system. However, there’s a catch. You’ll have to download an entirely separate Virtual Console channel to give you access to the old store where you can download your previous purchases.
There’s also a way to hook your Wii to your Wii U, but I’ve heard it’s fairly cumbersome. Why couldn’t Nintendo just create an easy way for its customers to import their digital games, save files and profiles to their new system? Let’s hope Nintendo learned from its silly online model with the Wii and continue to upgrade it on the Wii U.
Oh yeah, there’s also a region lock on the Virtual Console, so you can’t access any of those great Japanese games. Sucks.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, we’ve already established that both Sony and Microsoft have and will go back on their word if it means more money in their pockets. So who’s to say all the games you’ve purchased on your PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will work for the PS4 and Xbox 720?
If you look across both systems, you’ll see some amazing offerings of retro titles. The PS3 has some great NEO-GEO, Turbo-Grafx 16, and SEGA Genesis and Master System titles. The 360 has some classic arcade titles, as well.
We’ve invested a lot of money to buy these games, fully trusting Sony and Microsoft to ensure we’ll always be able to play them on their latest console. While not many people are talking about this issue now, if Sony and Microsoft don’t offer across-the-board backwards compatibility for our digital purchases on launch day, there will be a huge backlash from consumers. We really hope they figure this shit out.