Hands-on with Xbox One's original Xbox backward compatibility

Previously this year, as a part of the E3 2017 Xbox press conference, Microsoft announced an expansion of its backward compatibility program to original Xbox titles. Following up on its Xbox 360 equivalent that allowed Xbox One owners to play select games from their existing libraries, the program's latest evolution opens the console to three generations of gaming.

Earlier this month, we had a chance to get hands-on with original Xbox backward compatibility, as a part of a showcase for Microsoft's Xbox platform offerings in the months to come. Paired with the classic party game "Fuzion Frenzy," this provided the opportunity to see how backward compatibility is shaping up on current hardware, as well as what to expect from the feature this fall.

A decade later, it's exactly as you remember

Like its Xbox 360 counterpart, original Xbox backward compatibility is achieved through emulation, by digitally imitating the environment of the original hardware. Despite the differences in hardware and the OS, these games run in an application similar to games built for the Xbox One.

In most ways, Xbox backward compatibility shares similarities to the existing feature for Xbox 360, by attempting to create a near-identical experience to the original console. Maintaining comparable performance, the gameplay feels identical to its original Xbox counterpart in most ways. If it weren't for the four Xbox One controllers hooked up to the console to play, had I been told this was running on an original Xbox console, I'd have been fooled.

Fuzion Frenzy

Fuzion Frenzy (Image credit: Microsoft)

This authenticity also extends to the technical side of gameplay, with untouched versions of the games that shipped over a decade ago. Running in their original forms, Xbox games won't see any enhancements to leverage the additional hardware, aside from more consistently hitting their target resolutions and frame rates. Without only two Xbox games having been announced for backward compatibility so far, it will be interesting to see if games more demanding for the original hardware see significant improvements when ported over to Xbox One.

Xbox backward compatibility also brings back some standards of the era – the most prominent of these being a 4:3 aspect ratio. During a period where a shift was seen in display technologies, the console was caught up in a move to widescreen, despite only a fraction of the library supporting variable ratios. Unless a game outputted at 16:9 on the original console (Fuzion Frenzy doesn't, for example), these games will have vertical black bars down either side on Xbox One. This is to be expected from older titles, so don't go hoping for your new widescreen 4K HDR TV to enhance Xbox games.

Reviving an era of icons

While Xbox 360 backward compatibility opened the console to hundreds of new titles, the program's latest iteration opens the console to several forgotten classics of the early 2000s. So far Microsoft only confirmed two games for launch: Fuzion Frenzy and Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. But this is assumedly only a fraction of the library set for launch.

I have some concerns surrounding how many games will actually make their way to the console, with licensing issues to overcome before a title is playable via backward compatibility. Many studios have moved to new projects or shut down entirely, meaning some the original Xbox legacy will be held back by legalities.

However, as a game, Fuzion Frenzy also holds up on Xbox One and its appeal as a classic party game still shines through. Prior to the inception of Xbox Live, its competitive couch-multiplayer is outright timeless, serving up 45 simple, yet absorbing, mini-games that just can't be recreated with online play. The potential of Xbox backward compatibility is undeniably impressive, with a wave of iconic titles potential seeing a second life.

Ultimately, what you'll be getting from backward compatibility is a near-identical experience to games running on original Xbox hardware. Like Xbox 360 support for the console, seeing a revival of previous generation games is a welcome sight – especially when an initiative is being taken to migrate your existing purchases in the process.

While legal complications mean a fair amount of games won't hit Xbox One, as a concept, backward compatibility still has a promising future.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.