Hot Topic - Backwards Compatibility: Good or Bad?

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 -