Of all the aspects of video game consoles, I feel as though backwards compatibility is the most arbitrary and neglected. From the beginnings of home consoles (well, at least post-1983 crash), there’s always been a push for things to be better – more bits, more colors, faster processing, more dimensions, more polygons, etc., etc.. Well, at least that goes for every other feature.
As a kid I put a lot of time into handheld gaming. The first console in our house was a Sega Genesis, but the first one that truly commanded my time and attention for years on end was a Game Boy Color (my first handheld was actually the Game Gear, and I sunk countless hours into Ax Battler, but that’s a story for a different time and way off base from talking about backwards compatibility). Game Boy made it possible from the Color, to the Advance, to the DS, to the 3DS to have at least some amount of backwards compatibility. With a cartridge based system, it was obvious why backwards compatibility had to be dropped at some point (cartridge ports take up actual physical space, which is at a premium with something that fits in your hands). Even the loss of GB and GBC compatibility with the DS was understandable – including additional processing abilities would have been a fair bit of work, and one generation of backwards compatibility was a lot more than Nintendo had ever done for any of their consoles.
I think part of the reason I got so used to backwards compatibility being the norm could be traced to the Playstation 2 and Game Boy Advance happening within a year of one another. Two systems with perfect backwards compatibility, both of which I had a large number of games on the old system and a large interest in the new one; it was the perfect storm to forever imprint the expectation of backwards compatibility in my brain. These two systems, the wonderful GBA and PS2 set my expectations high.
Then some time passed, and things changed, as they always do. Microsoft brought out the 360, which had “backwards compatibility” of a similar quality of the compatibility that Windows provides with older versions (which is to say hardly any at all). The 360 relied on software emulation of the original Xbox, which would have been fine if it wasn’t a pale fraction of the original console’s titles. The PS3 started with full backwards compatibility, but that was quickly dropped (at least they kept the PSX compatibility and dropped the price as well). The Wii… well, things were different on the Wii. Not only was it a functional GameCube, but the Virtual Console made it possible to play older Nintendo system games as well (in exchange for buying them all over again, but at much cheaper prices than a lot of the used titles go for).
It was sad to see such poor support for backwards compatibility, but I can certainly understand it. Including the ability to play older games is a cost, and one more easily avoided altogether than passed on to the consumer. Why risk loss of sales due to a higher price point so that people can play games they already own (when what you really want is them buying new games – that’s where the money is, obviously)? A lot of gamers don’t value the history of the medium, and it’s more profitable to sell digital downloads of that history back to them than it is to build in the hardware or software of the last generation of console.
I know that it’s impractical, and that it’s not profitable, but damn, did I love those glorious days of the PS2 and GBA, where the entire past and future was available to me. As a big fan of PSX and GB/GBC, being able to enjoy my old titles all over again and pick up all the new ones all on a single system was very exciting.
Things haven’t only changed for the worse, though. In a lot of ways, things are improving in strides. The advent of PSN and the Wii/3DS/WiiU Virtual Consoles means that it’s possible to play old titles. In some ways, it’s even better than backwards compatibility (I’d much rather pay $10 for a download of Earthbound than some insane amount for a physical copy). And in order to use that copy on a new system, there would likely be some irritating and expensive peripheral. Sure, it’s annoying to buy a game I already own again, but the benefits (playing it anywhere on a handheld (thanks PSP and PSN) or enjoying it without hauling our entertainment center three feet forward so I can get behind it and rewire everything) make it worthwhile if the game is good enough and the price is right.
My dream for the future is a simple one: an ever expanding library of “virtual consoles” and titles available on them. If I could buy roms legitimately for play on my computer, I would do so in a heartbeat (not everything ever all at once, but I’d be very happy to have digital copies of everything I have physical ones of). Making old titles difficult to gain access to doesn’t drive sales of current titles – it eliminates a revenue stream for companies, puts money in the hands of used game sellers and drives people to download illegal files because $300 is insane for a four disc Sega Saturn RPG (insane, but worth it). Sadly, the video games industry doesn’t seem terribly interested in pouring a lot of energy into the past, so I don’t hold too much hope for growth of the virtual console world in the future. Who knows, maybe we’ll all get lucky and the industry will prove me wrong.