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Hot Topic - Issue 7
Each Issue's Hot Topic features brief, free-form commentary from the Armchair Arcade editors on an issue currently in the news...

Backwards Compatibility: Good or Bad?



Photographs: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout and Image Formatting: David Torre

In this month’s Hot Topic, we take a look at the ins and outs of backwards compatibility, which has once again become a talking point thanks to all the discussions around the coming next generation of systems from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo…


Bill Loguidice, Armchair Arcade Editor; New Jersey, USA: Unless it means absolutely no technical compromises in the new hardware and little added cost, I’m against it.

The basic idea behind backwards compatibility in new hardware is to allow a company a better chance of migrating as many of their old customers to their new hardware as possible. If a new system is released without backwards compatibility that system starts at absolute zero and can only stand on the value inherent in whatever new software is made for it. Considering the titles many new systems launch with, this can be a very bad situation. If the games are more compelling on your competitor's new platform, there's just as much incentive for a consumer considering purchase of a new system to look at all of the available competitive options more closely.

The first time this really became an issue was when Atari released the Atari 5200 in late 1982, which was not compatible with the then dominant Atari 2600, much to the confusion of many consumers. With little in the way of launch games to generate interest, sales of the rival ColecoVision, which, like Mattel's Intellivision, did offer a module to allow play of Atari 2600 games, exceeded that of Atari's new system. It wasn't until around the videogame crash of 1984 and the release of their own compatibility module did sales of Atari’s 5200 begin to outpace Coleco's system.

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System
The SNES didn't necessarily suffer in sales from a lack of backwards compatiblity with the popular NES, but consideration for the previous generation may have hindered the performance of the final system
After the crash and initial recover - which began as an industry reset with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) - backwards compatibility seemed to matter less and less, culminating with a relatively minor uproar by the time the Super Nintendo (SNES) was released sans backwards compatibility. Interestingly, what's considered the SNES' one true flaw - the processor - was rumored to be the way it was due to backwards compatibility plans, which were eventually scrapped. This, however, brings me to my next point, which is the major issue with backwards compatibility in new systems—compromise.

Throughout our industry's history, we've seen the ugliness that backwards compatibility can cause in what should have been more advanced designs. To give just one example, Atari's 7800 system, the replacement for the 5200, was designed to be backwards compatible with the 2600 from the start, with an eventual add-on to play 5200 games. Since the 7800 shared a lot of the same hardware features as the 2600, there were a few key limitations in the architecture, most notably with the sound capabilities, which were exactly the same. Therefore, a mid-80's system had to contend with the limitations of mid-70's audio hardware. The idea around this limitation was to use an add-in chip inside each of the 7800's cartridges, but cost concerns kept the chip out of all but two games. Of course this aspect of backwards compatibility and limitations has come up many times since, with everything from the PC (still using legacy technologies from the early 80's) to the PlayStation 2.
The Atari 7800 Console
By the time Atari's 7800 was released two years after originally intended, the advantage of its backwards compatibility was probably negated by the compromises in hardware


Another issue is one of software support. If a company's new hardware can play most of a prior, successful system's titles, what incentive is there for developers to create software for that new system when there are more potential customers using the old hardware, while those with the new hardware can utilize them as well? The answer is there is none, especially if that old hardware is still selling in droves. This was the fate that befell the Commodore 128, which was able to use almost all of the existing software and hardware for the most successful computer of all time, the Commodore 64, and, oh, by the way, could also run the thousands of titles available from the CP/M world. Unless a type of forced migration or the enticement of new technology outweighs the benefits of what a consumer already has - like Sony with the PlayStation 2 versus PlayStation and Nintendo with the GameBoy Color versus GameBoy - this can be a very tricky situation for companies to navigate.

One final issue with backwards compatibility is one of perception. How can a company show off the flashiness of their latest technological masterpiece when everyone is running outdated software on it? I remember seeing kids walking around with GameBoy Advance systems and GameBoy Color or regular GameBoy games sticking awkwardly out the top. It makes me wonder how many parents really knew the difference, or upgraded, versus those that just bought the cheapest software on the shelf—which brings us back to our backwards compatibility poster boy, the Atari 7800. Many 2600 games were labeled for both systems, further adding to the perception that the 7800's capabilities were not that great. It's like when people see the HDTV symbol on a TV program and don't have an HDTV or subscribe to HDTV service. It's not HDTV, but some think that it is and don't get what all the fuss is about. Backwards compatibility brings nothing if not the need for consumer education.
A selection of various Gameboy cartridges spanning multiple hardware generations - 4 in 1 Fun Pack for Gameboy, Harry Potter for Gameboy Color, and Final Fantasy 1 and 2 for Gameboy Advance
Nintendo did a nice job maintaining compatibility across three generations of hardware with their GameBoy, GameBoy Color and GameBoy Advance lines, but have oddly moved away from that with their newest handhelds. Does Nintendo believe in some of the ideas expressed within this Hot Topic?


So what's good about backwards compatibility besides the corporate benefits described in my opening paragraph? It does provide much needed access to "historical" software, no matter how shallow the depth. Our industry certainly needs to keep software available longer rather than casting it aside a month after release for the next hot item. It also keeps the number of systems the average consumer has to maintain down to a more reasonable number. As a collector, I can afford to have dozens of systems in my house, but most really don’t want that “luxury”.

Finally, what are my thoughts in regards to the coming generation of systems? I like Nintendo's intended approach with the Revolution, even though excepting the GameCube’s discs, it doesn’t use the original software mediums, meaning it’s not true backwards compatibility (Even though we have to pay for them yet again, having access to these old intellectual properties is a great start to bringing gaming in line with other industries, like music and movies, where access to older product is a given). I'm skeptical of the final quality of Microsoft's Xbox 360 backwards compatibility, but respect the idea of no new hardware compromise software emulation. For Sony, I think the PS3 will be a bigger test for the commercial value (cost) in backwards compatibility than the PS2 ever was, so it will be interesting in the final evaluation both how and how well it’s achieved. Lastly, there’s Apple, whose greatest strength with the Macintosh is its rabid fan base, so they need to offer good compatibility with older software once they finalize the shift to Intel architecture. Between what Apple does and Microsoft’s success or lack thereof with the 360’s compatibility, we could finally see more radical shifts in PC architecture than previously possible.

Mark Vergeer, Armchair Arcade Editor; Netherlands, Europe: I am all for backwards compatibility, or compatibility in general for that matter. If you look at videogames as a serious art-form / a serious form of entertainment that has a longer life span than just a mere couple of months or a few years at best, you're better of with (backwards-) compatibility then with closed proprietary standards that will be forgotten by the company that invented them as soon as there's no more money to be made. Support for devices capable of playing back the proprietary format game-media dies out as soon as the firm that owns its copyrights decides no more money is to be made. So older games end up becoming unplayable, fast. Just look at the older MS-DOS games, quite a few (if not the majority) of them will flat out refuse to function on modern Windows XP machines. Soon 3Dfx-only games will only live on in our memories. Same goes for the games of many game systems that are out there. Although I must admit Sony and Nintendo (the handheld department that is) do have a very good track record when it comes to maintaining backward compatibility.

I say that if we do take this video-game culture serious and we want to preserve this culture for future generations then we'd better open up those closed off systems that have lost their economic appeal so that future devices are able to run the media or run the game code. I think emulation (software emulation) might be a good if not only way to preserve the game experience/culture since most of the companies don't care about preserving their treasures.

Of course keeping a device backwards-compatible does create some technical difficulties, maybe even stand in the way of true progress, but it needn't be that way. Keeping devices backwards-compatible and making sure all the weird old copy protection schemes of the former older hardware incarnations still works with the new at the same time is what makes things so darn complicated and expensive in my opinion.

And then again, I am a retrogame fan so I like playing the games on the original consoles too. I love all the typical nick knacks of all those old systems, not only consoles but computer systems.

But in regard to backwards compatibility I say: "yea", either that or 'open up' closed systems after they are not commercially viable anymore...

David Torre, Armchair Arcade Editor; California, USA: Backwards compatibility is often used as a bullet point when selling a new console. Being a collector of video game consoles, I don't find backward compatibility to be particularly necessary. I'm a purist. With few exceptions, I want to play a game on the original system it was made for -- even if the system that succeeds it has pixel-perfect compatibility with the previous generation.

Spy Hunter for PS2 - A car that is also a boat driving on the water and running under a huge explosion
Spy Hunter on PS2 looked like a PS1 game running in a higher resolution. Instead of using the PS2's advanced hardware to create realistic-looking explosions and scenery, the explosions and scenery in Spy Hunter were obviously layered sprites - a graphical effect made popular on the PS1.1
Oftentimes, you have limitations that are introduced when trying to keep something backwards-compatible. I think a good example is the PS2. Perhaps Sony could have experimented with a significantly different controller design if the system wasn't backwards compatible (sorry, I've always hated PSOne controllers). If the PS2 wasn't backwards compatible, perhaps the first run of games for the PS2 might have had noticeably better graphics than PSOne games (Spy Hunter, anyone?).

I think the best way to do backwards compatibility is through an add-on module, such as the Atari 2600 adapter for the Atari 5200. If you package the adapter separately, game companies are less likely to make games that look like the previous generation, and the company that makes the system has more freedom to make the new console different from the previous console. Why compromise? Make it so people have to plug in the old controllers and old accessories if they want to play older games!

Mathew Tschirgi, Armchair Arcade Editor; Georgia, USA: Backwards compatibility is great for consoles, although troublesome to implement at times. Those who are just jumping into a console for the first time can pick up a lot of classic games for cheaply that will work.

At a certain point, backwards compatibility can get ridiculous. Expecting the next-generation Nintendo console to be backwards compatible with the GameCube, Nintendo 64, SNES and the NES would be a bit silly, but that is where compilation re-releases come into play to reintroduce old games for a new generation, as well as remind older gamers what made the older games good in the first place.

Emulation on a newer console can never be as perfect as it was on the original console, but it's better than having nothing at all to play older games on.

Donald Ferren, Armchair Arcade Editor; Arkansas, USA: Backwards compatibility can be a very good thing. There are a lot of gamers out there like me that have very limited funds. Having this as an option on a console system really opens up the library of games available for that system. Even if I could afford multiple systems, it also saves shelf space--I can have one console next to the TV instead of two (or more).

There is also the added benefits of possible enhancements of the old games on the new system. The PlayStation 2 has options for increasing the graphics and disc access speed. This allows for better looking and faster PS1 games.

I do recognize that there are a few drawbacks, such as a very few incompatible games on the new system. This is greatly outweighed by the fact that you don't have to come out with a "new" version of the game on the new system--you can play the old game as it was meant to be played. Too many times we've seen compilation packs of old games come out for a new system, only to be disappointed when the emulation is poor to passable at best.

Overall, backwards compatibility in new systems is a very good thing.

Cecil Casey, Armchair Arcade Editor; California, USA:
As it stands I consider backwards compatibility useless in the older generations of game consoles. There was such a leap foreword in processing and (here is the bad word) graphics, that there was little reason to emulate a TI-994/A with your Sega system. But in the rough and tumble early days of videogames we wanted something new and different. Now we can't get something different to save us.

Fast forward to today. Is Madden ’04 that much different from Madden ’05 on another system? The answer is no. Why is that?

Well it could be that they all use the same graphical engine to cross develop for each of the machines. I know you remember EA bought Renderware. The software graphic rendering and physics engine that works for many systems like the PS2, and Xbox?

You know, it has been the holy grail of programmers, 'write once, use forever'. If you use the same game base and add a few graphic layers to it is it really a new game?

Could you play the same game on older hardware? Or even current hardware?

The real question is why would a hardware developer put in backwards compatibility in a current generation of hardware? It seems to be against their interests. Most if not all of the profits back to them are on game sales, not hardware sales. In fact you have seen Microsoft selling the Xbox as a loss leader to get software sales.

Adding retro abilities to a system can only do one thing. Add fan loyalty. Do you think Sony or Microsoft care about that?

That was my initial reaction to this, but now as the newer generation of consoles are thinking of going to market some time within a year or so, I am thinking about what I want to play and what they will offer off the shelf. On one hand I have a large collection of PS2 and GameCube games, and both Sony and Nintendo have committed to maintaining support for this library. On the other hand I have not invested in the Xbox and as far as I can see Microsoft is sticking with their mandatory upgrade policy.

My friends that do have Xbox do love it and I would love to play the A-list titles more, especially Halo 2 on Live. I am hearing that Live is the central point of the 360. Now that you have friends you play with online, will you have to upgrade to still play with them? Or even worse, if you upgrade will you lose all of your friends? Nothing like a new console with no big launch titles that you can not play your favorite games with.

Microsoft, if you can hear this, that sound is my money staying in my pocket. Once you pull your head out, I will pull my money out.

Image Credit:
1Spy Hunter PS2 screenshot - GeekCulture.dk

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Comments ...
bullet Fighter17 | 10 Jul : 23:01

Comments: 64

Registered: 05 Nov : 06:31
My two cents:

Backward Compatibility is not important at all!
I believe that backward Compatibility is great, but it's not the system main selling point. You don't see PS2 ads that telling you to buy the PS2 because it plays PS1 games perfectly (which is a lie). Look at the SNES, it didn't need backward compatibility to win the 16-bit wars. Backward Compatibility is nice, but it's not important, also backward compatibility will have problems there, and there.

bullet Fighter17 | 10 Jul : 23:09

Comments: 64

Registered: 05 Nov : 06:31
Also, about Nintendo backward compatibility with their new system.

So, you can download games off the interent and play it on Nintendo's new system for a fee. Also, that means that Nintendo is going to hunt down ROM sites that carry their old games. (Hey, Nintendo want people to download the games from them for money, not get it for free on the net.)

Also for this topic, I think we should do a audio convertsation like we did last time with emulation. But the rule is that I have to be in the convertsation!!!

P.S.: LOL!!!

bullet diego_sc_1 | 11 Jul : 02:45

Comments: 2

Registered: 24 Mar : 00:35
I couldn't agree more, backwards compatibility should not be a selling point for any console and shouldn't compromise the power of the newer hardware with that said, there's one issue, have you thought of the future, like 15 or 25 years from now, how hard will it be to find a working 2600 or a commodore 64, I mean nothing lasts forever and anyone who's had a console for more than 10 years must have realized that; there a might be a time in which not a single working 2600 or NES will exist in the entire world, if this dark times ever arrive, I'd be happy to own a console with backward compatibility. Of course this will make sense if this backward compatibility is actually good, and not crap like most emulators.

bullet davyK | 11 Jul : 05:07

Comments: 76

Registered: 19 Jan : 08:40
There are 2 parts to my thoughts about backwards compatibility.

1) If I buy new hardware it is to buy new games that (hopefully) I have not experienced before. So from that point of view I have no desire to have it as a feature since all I am really getting from it is the convenience of having 1 less box in the house!

2) However, we are a point now where there is a considerable quantity of old games that still have a degree of merit and are playable when compared to modern games. They also exist in genres that have fallen out of favour - not because the genre is flawed, but because it has perhaps been explored to its limit and/or has simply fallen out of fashion.

Hardware has a finite lifespan. This has not been a big factor up until now because of the relative age of videogaming and the robust solid-state nature of older machines. Since the early 90s we have moved to a media that requires moving parts, (drives, lasers etc.) and these machines will simply not stand up to the same rigours as the older machines. This means that we and our offspring will not be able to experience certain games as they were meant to be.

There are 2 ways around this (apart from the expensive business and keeping and maintaining the hardware).

Emulation, if done properly (probably best done via cooperation between the IP owners and the open source movement) will fill this gap for most games. Unfortunately titles such as Donkey Konga and Samba de Amigo will in all liklihood pass into history...

The alternative is the remake with an original mode as an option. A very good example of this is the underrated Qbert for PS1. As long as every effort is made on behalf of the developer then games can live on in spirit in this form (the GBA library shows us how kids today can access 15 year old games that would be almost sinful to miss!), and also be available in its actual original form for anyone interested in the history of the origin of what they are playing.

bullet davyK | 11 Jul : 05:14

Comments: 76

Registered: 19 Jan : 08:40
Another point(!)

Apart from the hardware, the actual media itself has a finite span. ICs in old arcade machine PCBs are actually crumbling - their contents must be saved for future use/regference and indeed this is the raison d'etre for MAME - another point for emulation.

Emulation and remakes can also offer us a better experience sometimes - anything that can banish loadtimes has to be an improvement!


bullet Bill Loguidice | 11 Jul : 10:56

Comments: 307

Absolutely. However, it is important to separate emulation from backwards compatibility in this discussion. Emulation is critical from a clinical standpoint for preservation, backwards compatibility is a feature set.

bullet davyK | 11 Jul : 11:28

Comments: 76

Registered: 19 Jan : 08:40
Yeah...I suppose what I was trying to say (and getting lost in my thoughts in the process) was that backwards compatibility may be done via emulation or through the architecture of the hardware.

The 7800 story teaches us that the hardware route is fraught with problems, and may have a detrimental effect on the next generation of games. Emulation has its problems too but in the long run is probably the most viable as hardware becomes more and more powerful , and the older hardware becomes less accessible.

If XBox 360 is backwards compatible via emulation that will be impressive as no console has been able to emulate the previous generation. It is an indication of the power availabe today - and not just from multiple cores which can have overheads and perhaps not deliver the theoretical power available.

bullet ARK1 | 16 Jul : 21:23
Comments: 1

Registered: 16 Jul : 21:07
Hi. First time poster.

You guys make great points but you're forgetting an important part. This goes along with the 5200. People invested a lot of time and money to build up a respectable 2600 library, only to learn that they can't use those games on the 5200 (without the adaptor that was later released). So they fell they can't use the 5200 without admitting that they wasted their time.

Quite frankly, people still WANT to play those old games that will never be rereleased on the newer systems, and many people don't have the room to have two systems hooked up to the TV. Backward compatibility helps reduce the number of systems hooked up. Sorry guys, but not everyone wants 10 game consoles hooked up.

Also how come nobody has mentioned the Genesis? From the start Sega promoted the fact that the Genesis was backward compatable with the Sega Master System through the use of the Power Base Convertor.

bullet Bill Loguidice | 16 Jul : 22:35

Comments: 307

First off, we're well aware of the Power Base Converter. I have one that I use as my Sega Master System, since it seems to be 100% compatible and I can freely play my card and 3D games on it, which are among the most interesting uses of the specification. Second, the Power Base Converter was not much of a factor, as despite solid sales, the Sega Master System had nowhere near the relevance of the Nintendo Entertainment System, so the compatibility factor or lack thereof was not as significant. With those two point in mind, it's important to remember that these Hot Topics are not definitive histories or statements, just off-the-cuff commentary in article format to encourage thought and discussion on a relevant subject. Since that's the case, we can't consider every scenario. Feel free though to bring up others, as there are many, many other compatibility situations that are worthy of discussion.

Finally, in regards to the 5200, I acknowledged in my commentary that many were disgruntled over the idea of not only the new hardware not playing the old stuff, but the fact that they had to buy new hardware at all. The same thing happened by the time of the Super Nintendo, though to a much lesser degree. Certainly you still hear that today and that's a motivating factor behind purchases of last generation hardware. Certainly that will be a factor with the PS2, Xbox and GameCube when the Xbox 360 ushers in the next generation. Unless you're really into the scene, the latest and greatest is not the biggest motivator to making a system choice.

The main problem comes in when people try to think of computers and videogames as similar to other types of technology, like television or music with CD's. Technology life cycles are much quicker in the world of games and it's often a shock to a lot of people. As much as I like to compare videogames to other forms of media, there are many ways that it's unique. This uniqueness often creates issues for the average consumer, as there are often a different, foreign set of rules involved. Device clutter is just one example of this different set of rules, as in reality, unlike having two DVD players, having two game machines is not redundant. The two game machines serve the same basic function, but play different games. The two DVD players would both play DVDs. One DVD player may be better than another spec-wise, but they still serve entirely redundant functions. The same can't be said for two different game machines, especially ones from a different generation. Frankly, if some can have a VCR, satellite/cable box, DVD player, home theater receiver and a game system, it's not unreasonable to think that they can have another game system or two in addition. After all, wach game system can be considered another home theater component.

bullet forcefield58 | 17 Jul : 10:12

Comments: 34

Registered: 23 Nov : 22:54
I personally don't have a problem with backward compatibility, that is, I don't care if it is a feature on modern consoles. I'd make a console choice based on the games "coming out", not what the manufacturer did before, in the case of Xbox vs the new Xbox. I don't have a problem buying or having multiple consoles. Back in the day the decision to buy a particular console over another was primarily driven by the games coming out and secondly by my devotion to Commodore and Atari. Note: The devotion didn't last that long as both sort of did themselves in.

bullet Molloy | 24 Aug : 13:29
Comments: 10

Registered: 30 Mar : 13:50
I just love backwards compatability. I have 3 different systems hooked up to my TV (Dreamcast, PS2 and Gamecube), I don't want to have any more cluttering up my living space.

I bought R-Type Delta yesterday (found it in a 2nd hand bin) to play on my PS2. Very enjoyable it is too. Yes, the graphics are dated but the gameplay is much faster paced than R-Type Final.


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