Teraflops, SSDs, processing capabilities and ray tracing: these are the new battlegrounds in the next-gen console wars. But one of the most important features is often mentioned as a lesser priority. That feature is backwards compatibility, and like the speed of a CPU or the frame rate of a game, its support and inclusion should be mandatory.
Much of the conversation around backwards compatibility focuses on the idea of “moving forward” — in other words, leaving the past behind. This idea has featured heavily in Sony’s backwards compatibility ethos since the disastrous launch of the original $995.95 PlayStation 3 that allowed for Playstation 2 backwards compatibility.
To enable this, Sony added a dedicated “Emotion Engine” and GPU into the PS3. The feature was needed because of the architectural changes between the two consoles, but the added hardware blew out the PS3’s enormous cost. These hardware modules were removed in later revisions. Some European, South Korean and US 80GB PS3’s do have hybrid software-hardware support for PS2 games, but later models stripped all the specialised hardware out, removing PS2 backward compatibility entirely.
Sony developed a longer-term solution in PlayStation Now, a software-based streaming service that allowed PlayStation users to access PlayStation 2 emulation from a cloud server. The service (which is still live for PlayStation 4) never launched in Australia, likely due to its speed and data centre requirements. As it stands, PlayStation 2 games are currently only available to play on a PlayStation 2 console in Australia unless they’re part of the limited ‘PS2 Classics’ range for PlayStation 4 which contains around 50 games.
This history meant the PlayStation 4 was not backwards compatible with PlayStation 3 games — or games from any other PlayStation console. In a 2017 interview with TIME, Sony global sales chief Jim Ryan implied the reason for this lack of support was a lack of interest. “When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much,” Ryan said.
Despite the obvious allure of next-gen games, revisiting the past is a common and still exciting endeavour. Classics from across the PlayStation library deserve a chance to shine, even when existing technology has outpaced them. Games operate as important cultural touchstones and in many ways are like time capsules. Preservation is an important issue, and one enabled by backwards compatibility — but that’s not the only reason why the feature is essential.
Backwards Compatibility: PlayStation 5
Already, Sony and Microsoft have marked out uniquely different approaches to backwards compatibility with their new generation of consoles.
Unlike past consoles, the PlayStation 5 will be backwards compatible with “most” PlayStation 4 games. In March, it was confirmed that “almost all” of the top 100 most-played PlayStation 4 games would run on the PS5 but boosted frequency between the console generations meant all games required testing.
“The boost is truly massive this time around and some game code can’t handle it,” explained PS5 lead architect Mark Cerny in a console deep dive. “Testing has to be done on a title-by-title basis.”
This backwards compatibility is possible because the PS5 hardware is based on the PS4 from the ground up. While the PlayStation 5 represents a leap in games technology, outside of improvements to processing, storage and other capabilities, it essentially resembles the PS4.
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In a clarifying statement, Sony said they “believe that the overwhelming majority” of PS4 titles will be playable on the PS5. While this may mean some games slip through the cracks, the vast majority of PS4 games will be playable, although not necessarily with any added functionality or performance. Moreover, Sony is now offering support for developers who need it.
In May, the company delivered an edict that all games developed after July 13 would need to be PS5 compatible with support provided on an as-needed basis. This effectively ensures that all PlayStation 4 titles can be future-proofed for the next generation — a much needed step for a company who hasn’t always prioritised backwards compatibility.
As of writing, there are no confirmed plans to extend this PS5 support to older titles.
Backwards Compatibility: Xbox Series X
In comparison, the Xbox Series X boasts a robust system of backwards compatibility with games from multiple past consoles. In 2015, Microsoft introduced Xbox 360 Backwards Compatibility that allowed all users to play Xbox 360 games on an Xbox One. In 2017, this was expanded to encompass a range of original Xbox games. Many of these titles are available on Xbox Game Pass, making them extremely accessible for anyone to play.
Compatibility with past consoles not only adds to the vast library of a next gen console, it also enables players to revisit their favourite titles without the need to purchase it again. While absence makes the heart grow fonder and makes remasters or reboots more appealing, the simple fact is that people should be allowed to play the games they own. Last gen games shouldn’t gather dust as technology advances.
The Xbox Series X continues Microsoft’s practise of extending backwards compatibility across generations. The console will run games from Xbox One, Xbox 360 and the original Xbox, making up four console generations and a massive library of games. A new Smart Delivery system will also allow players who bought cross-gen Xbox One games to upgrade to the Xbox Series X version at no extra cost, ensuring a smoother transition between console generations.
In late May, it was also confirmed these games would not just be backwards compatible, but also feature a variety of improvements. Higher frame rates, steadier performance, maximum resolution, better visual quality and automatic HDR support were promised for all backwards compatible games. A ‘Quick Resume’ feature will also be available for past games to streamline gameplay.
The Future Of Games
Sony and Microsoft’s approaches to backwards compatibility are very different. Preservation and legacy are clear focuses for Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, while Sony has a narrower focus on bridging the PS4 and PS5 console generations.
All games have value that isn’t diminished by age or circumstance. While remasters are a great way to revisit past games and experiences old stories as new, they threaten to rewrite the history of games and their original creators. On a consumer level, it’s also a poor way of leaning on nostalgia and asking people to rebuy games.
When you consider how robust Microsoft’s backwards compatibility offerings are, Sony’s approach is disappointing. The PlayStation One, PS2 and PS3 have back catalogues that feature incredible games not yet playable on modern consoles. Ape Escape and the Digimon World franchise are my personal favourites, but the list is long. While remastered games can be fun, the real solution is much simpler: make all consoles backwards compatible. Sony’s rich gaming history deserves exploration.
Games have always been tied into nostalgia and emotion. They inspire loyalty, dedication and a fervour hard to find in other forms of media. Microsoft’s shown that legacy is worth preserving by offering such a robust line-up of classic titles, representing years of hard work, dedication and love from their talented creators and the players that experience them.
It’s essential we don’t let these games become obsolete.