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 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.

  • ST:KOTOR please.
  • I wonder if Microsoft add original Xbox games to games with gold.
  • This would be awesome!  
  • Sweet! This will make the xbox one x THE defacto console to own going forward. Unless of course Sony up their game and do something nuts but other than ehancing resolution (over simplification) and focusing on VR I am not sure what else they can do. They already have a subscription service for older games and they failed to implement backwards compatibility with the PS3. Never the less I do hope they do add oroper PS2, PSOne, PS3 backwards compatibility soon.
  • It'd be quite a challenge for Sony to do the same imo... 360VC was pretty much a miracle.
    I'm a main programmer in a major game studio in Japan. Most people don't know and don't care about xboxes and when I told'em about 360 BC (that it'll also runs on all future xboxes), the 1st question from'em, are normally like "it'd be as slow as hell right?" "actually... faster..." Bonus.
    When I tell some of'em about MS's UWP/BC/FC/XPA/free-unlimited-cross-platform-cloud-sync/GamePass/etc investments, and that all game I buy from now on can runs on / sync between all xboxes, some even run on PC (win10, win10s, win10.arm).
    xbox family is now a complete ecosystem, and it is why I think buying 3rd-party-cross-platform-games from PsStore is literally, illogical.
    "But What about the security? UWP? It's also on PC right? I don't want that kinect camera to monitor my living, nah, no thank you."
  • Sony is pushing the VR aspect hard this year.  We had a Sony kiosk set up in Regina, SK for a week with four VR demo stations. Sony reps looked unhappy to be in the middle of nowhere. 
  • Might be in the minority, but NFL 2K5...please!!!!
  • "Xbox games won't see any enhancements to leverage the additional hardware, aside from more consistently hitting their target resolutions and frame rates" I refuse to believe this: if this is true then the the games are going to be almost unplayable on a 4K TV (as I have tried myself already). I am almost 100% certain that the games will be upscaled to 1080p/ 4K etc
  • Why would they be unplayable? People can play Atari 2600 or Nintendo games on an HD TV. All lower resolution content is upscaled to display on your TV... sometimes by the hardware sending the image out, otherwise by your TV. So certainly they will be upscaled by the Xbox One, but it will not be an actual resolution improvement. Anyone expecting them to be able to go back to the source code and make improvements is dreaming... the only thing they can do is what can be done as a global change at the emulation layer.
  • Technically they would play but the sheer fuzziness of the image will make them unplayable. As I said I have tried 480p xbox on a modern 4k TV and it is terrible. HD is 720p and FHD is 1080p so the resolution bumps are less dramatic. Also people who are into retro gaming don't play older consoles on modern TVs for this reason No they wouldn't be dreaming. Check out emulators like Dolphin and PCSX2: they can emulate games and improve the graphics dramatically via AF, AA, 24 bit colour, post pixel shaders and bumping up the internal resolution. Yes they cannot change the source code but Microsoft could easily do post-processing
  • I do not think you understand the definition of the word "unplayable". "Unattractive" maybe in your opinion, but not "unplayable". And yes, as I mentioned, a global type visual upgrade applied to all games is possible... but I doubt they will do it. I suspect they are going for accuracy to the original games. The potential for incompatibilities and inconsistencies is something they will not want. Certainly they will be upscaled, but that's about it. And they will play just fine.
  • Good stuff!  I loved Fusion Frenzy as a party game, and Fusion Frenzy 2 didn't meet expectations.