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Xbox backward compatibility has changed my expectations for game consoles

Xbox disc
Xbox disc (Image credit: Windows Central)

One of my all-time favorite Xbox One moments was Microsoft gaming lead Phil Spencer's on-stage reveal of Xbox backward compatibility, bringing hundreds of classic Xbox 360 and (more recently) OG Xbox games to the Xbox One era.

Through technical wizardry and doubtless hundreds of hours of hard work navigating licensing issues, Microsoft's Xbox backward compatibility team has delivered over 500 million hours worth of gameplay to Xbox One users as of a year ago, and that figure is likely far, far higher now. Heavy hitters like Red Dead Redemption, various Call of Duty titles, and classic Xbox exclusives like Crackdown have since hit the program. Some have even gotten 4K visuals on the Xbox One X, such as Fallout 3, more closely matching their PC counterparts.

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Xbox backward compatibility (often referred to as back compat) has exceeded expectations on all fronts, especially on my part. Back compat has made such an impression on me, in fact, that it has affected the way I see both Nintendo and Sony, whose consoles offer limited, if any, backward compatibility, despite having a far, far bigger pool of classic games to draw on.

A complete ecosystem

What Xbox back compat creates, for me, is the sense of a complete digital ecosystem. And perhaps more crucially, forwards compatibility. Microsoft has essentially committed itself to future generations of Xbox consoles that feature backward compatibility for older titles. While we won't know for certain in the short term if all Xbox One, and Xbox backward compatible games will be playable on the next-gen rumoured Xbox "Scarlett," I've been heavily given hints from those in the know that this will be the case. If it pans out, that's awesome.

The idea that my game library should travel with me has gradually become a bit of a given.

In an age where Microsoft and others are exploring Netflix-like cloud streaming for our digital game libraries to any device, the idea that my game library should travel with me has gradually become a bit of a given, for me. I suspect this is also true for dedicated PC gamers as well, where you can fire up 1980s MS DOS games on a modern Windows 10 PC without any issues. It's this "ultimate" backward compatibility on Windows that inspired Xbox head Phil Spencer to push for it on Xbox One as well, as covered in this excellent Gamasutra piece.

"I grew up as a PC gamer, and the thing I love about the PC ecosystem is I can still go boot up Age of Empires 2 and I can go play that game. It's funny, I was looking at the World Video Game Hall of Fame, there's like Solitaire and Donkey Kong, but console has this construct that actually makes it hard to go back and play some of those old console games. Because the format is so tied to the hardware itself."

As someone who plays casually on PC, it's easy to take for granted how Windows has this extensible decades-long backlog of software that by and large just works across generations. And while it has held Windows back in some ways, it also remains the platform's biggest strength.

Xbox, like Windows, now feels like a continuous ecosystem that could (and hopefully will) continue to span hardware generations. There may come a time when the Xbox One can't run downgraded versions of the latest 4K/8K 60/120 FPS games on future consoles, but those future consoles should be able to access the deep history of previous generations, ensuring that the content you have purchased travel with you. Microsoft's primary console competitors don't seem to have made the same commitment.

Back compat expectations

The fact we have some elements of PC-like backward compatibility on Xbox One now is truly sublime. However, I've begun to take it for granted. Now that I'm financially in a position to consider adding other video game consoles to my gaming life to go with my Xbox One X and my PC, I can't help but feel a twinge of "ugh" over the fact PlayStation and Nintendo aren't leveraging their back catalogs more. This is perhaps even more egregious on Nintendo's part, given how they have explored emulation on previous devices.

The PlayStation 4 is by far powerful enough to emulate PlayStation 2 titles, and Sony has proven it with a fairly decent list of a few dozen titles. There are few games in that list that I'd call true classics, though, and the PS3's list of downloadable backward compatible PS2 games is far, far larger, with over three hundred titles. The earliest models of the PS3 even came with full PS2 backward compatibility, but the feature was stripped out with new model revisions. Sony has also done a great job porting some of its classics, such as The Last Of Us, to the PS4, but Microsoft's method of essentially emulating the full Xbox 360 catalog pending developer approval seems far more effective.

Switch

Switch (Image credit: Windows Central)

You would think the Nintendo Switch would be the perfect console for backwards compatibility, especially given the tight ownership Nintendo maintains over its core franchises. Nintendo's previous console, and its line of DS handhelds, enjoyed a feature known as the virtual console, which brought insane amounts of classic games to those systems. The Nintendo Switch however, has, well, pretty much nothing. It's pretty depressing considering how small the portable console's library is (and how much of it I already own across Xbox and PC).

In an interview with IGN, Nintendo stated that its new subscription service will be its successor to the virtual console. Sadly, you won't be able to buy to own Nintendo's legacy content on the Nintendo Switch. Sony is doing something similar with its PlayStation Now game streaming subscription service, which features dozens of PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2 titles, far more so than you can purchase outright on its modern systems.

Both of these features are a huge departure from what Microsoft is doing, and frankly, just not what I want. Not only does Microsoft sell Xbox back compat games digitally, you can simply use the discs you already own, buried in a closet. You could argue it will make far more cash for Nintendo and Sony to go down the subscription route, but as someone who likes to buy to own, that simply doesn't interest me.

Back compat yourself on the back, Microsoft

Backward compatibility doesn't get the appreciation it deserves, despite being utilized by millions on a daily basis. These are games past their prime, which future generations likely won't be interested in, but Microsoft is essentially preserving history by granting new life to those ancient disc collections you may have. If you purchased it on Xbox 360, you can play it on Xbox One, simple as. And sure, maybe Microsoft will suddenly pivot and offer backward compatibility as a premium feature of its cloud streaming service, but, I think it's safe to say that's unlikely at this point.

I spent my youth playing classic games on PlayStation and Nintendo consoles of yore. While I can appreciate the licensing issues Sony would have to deal with in regards to PS1 and PS2 games, Nintendo simply doesn't have that problem with its first-party lineup. When I look at the Nintendo Switch in particular saying they'll "maybe" give me "some" of its legacy content on a monthly subscription basis, I can't help but roll my eyes and close my wallet. I think I'll stick with Xbox and PC for the foreseeable.

Related: Full list of Xbox backward compatible games

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

23 Comments
  • 100% agree! :)
  • I need Jet Set Radio Future but fear music licensing will prevent that from ever happening.
  • I still dream of the day C&C Tiberium Wars comes. *sigh*
  • The PS2 and PS3 (original) set my expectations for backwards compatibility (also Nintendo handhelds to an extent) and so far no one has matched it, although Microsoft is now the closest current gen system to that utopia.
  • No one calls it back compat. Please stop.
  • Are you saying you're incompat with back compat?
  • I can't even.
    You can't exist.
    Because, I am no one. I call it back compat.
  • Fun fact. The community has already put some emulators on the Nintendo switch. The original Xbox was a dream for modder and fans of emulation
  • btw, average Joe can compile & sideload an emulator onto their Xbox One hassle free without hacks.
  • Agreed, I still have my OG xbox. I may go mod crazy on it. Love that old thing!
  • > And perhaps more crucially, forwards compatibility
    Win10 and UWP (and XPA) for Xbox is a strong indication for FC.
    And if MS wants to continue their GamePass business, FC is necessary. ps: normally, I refuse to buy the same game multiple times (e.g. virtual console games, remaster or hd remake) across generations, but Xbox's BC/FC effort solved my concern. > What Xbox back compat creates, for me, is the sense of a complete digital ecosystem
    I too, value my investment and time (game lib and saves), and this is why I dropped PsStore and Steam. PSNow with old games...
    1) no enhancements for 4k (or 8k in the future)
    2) year later, can we achieve 0 lag 4k? 0 lag 1080p on the go? Stream on the plane or bullet train? doubt.
  • Cool Spot!!! 😱😱😱. I had that game on the Sega Master System lmao. Well said Jez, its the backwards compatibility that sold me on the xbox one x more than anything. Also it's given older games a new lease of life in terms of getting new gamers into the classics as well as giving the pre-owned market a kick in the right direction. So you can get a little more out of your games. As opposed to collecting dust in the store room in a games store. Still not sold on digital yet, as games are more expensive than physical media. As well as the uncertainty if I buy a game for £60 what happens if I am no longer able to access them (removed from the store), I've bought a several apps but they can no longer be downloaded through my library - not a fair comparison but that's the risk you run with digital stores. The most I'll spend digitally is £20 on a single game and that's pushing it. The other issue is hard drive upgradeability. I've had many usb ports die on me after a few years, so whose to say the say won't happen on consoles if the ports are constantly used with external hdds/ssds.
  • I just hope backwards compatibility doesn't keep them from getting rid of the optical disc drive (ODD) for project scarlet. I'd rather have them spend that cash on a larger or faster SSD than on an antiquated piece of tech, I've no use for. At least I hope they release a Scarlet SKU that is without ODD, call it a pure performance version.
  • Just because you have no use for it, doesn't mean others don't lol. But I agree a optical disk driveless sku would be nice to have, but it better allow better storage upgradeability. When 2 tb ssds become cheaper, I might think about going all digital. Optical disk boxes take alot of space and by then should have access to gigabit fibre :).
  • My bold guess... the absence of optical disc drive will def come. An external option will be in place, and it will be future compatible.
  • Agree fully with this article. Microsoft has done a really great job by making Phil the head of Xbox. He is turning Xbox into a major powerhouse and if he keeps improving Xbox with more pro consumer features and services they can top Sony in the market.
  • Backwards compatibility is one of the greatest console features of all time. Xbox having it just makes them different from Nintendo and Sony and playing a mix of old and new games is a delight.
  • MS could avoid license issues just by negotiating ahead of time that games could be brought forward and played on all future Xbox's going forward. You would think it would be possible to negotiate deals like that ahead of time.
  • Well, for me BC is just a feature or a convenience. Nothing major like some people on forums have been hyping since E3 2015. ofc it doesn't matter how most of these people probably didn't hype it before 2015... Anyway, like I said it's a convenience. I'm actually currently playing an old gen game. Both my PS3 and 360 are connected to TVs, so it doesn't really matter to me. And even if it wasn't, it'll take me less than two minutes to connect it. Like I said saving 2 minutes isn't that much of a big deal to me... MS still got the edge over the competition here. It's good that they are doing it, ofc while this is a positive I don't think it's as important as making new games... The focus should not be on this type of feature/convenience... Having said all that, I hope this will inspire Sony/MS to have full BC in their next console...
  • Xbox has a lot of features over the playstation. BC, 4K blu ray/ Dolby atmos vision support, games pass, cross console play support, play anywhere etc etc. I mean Sony fanboys keep hyping the small handful of exclusives that are actually worth buying. Yet games like Fifa, Fortnite, COD and gta are consistently at the top of sales charts. So what does that tell you?
  • well not fortnite obviously but you get the point.
  • You know, PS4 has a lot of features XB doesn't. Real remote play, VR, cross buy/save, PS Now, shareplay, ability to change both internal HDD along with supporting external, free2play games that are actually free...
    Small handful? LOL
    Keep telling yourself that. The PS4 has way more AAA exclusives... Look it up.
  • Xbox has cross buy/save in Play Anywhere, "shareplay" (although it works differently and is actually significantly better, basically anyone can play anything on a host person's console, and a person can play any games they own on another person's console, so for instance I could set my home console as my housemates machine he can play absolutely anything I have purchased digitally on it for free, and I can still play absolutely any game I have paid for on any console I use, even if the console host doesn't own the game) and free2play games that are actually free. Also PS Now is the same as Game Pass you just aren't crippled by your connection on Xbox. I agree on the remote play, VR and the ability to swap out hard drives.