When the PlayStation 2 released nearly eleven years ago (wow, really?) its PS1 backward compatibility was touted as highly as anything else on the spec sheet. The ability to ditch the old system but still play its games helped ease the transition between generations, gave PlayStation fans a reason to stick around, and provided the PS2 with an edge that Gamecube and Xbox couldn’t touch. As Sony’s system became a success, it was no surprise to see the feature show up on their competitors’ new products as well—Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance and DS used backward compatibility to tap into the company’s existing handheld install base, and by the seventh console generation all three major systems were playing old titles. But since then, backward compatibility has been disappearing: Sony cut out the PS3’s support for PS2 games years ago, Nintendo’s DSi/DSi XL dropped the GBA cart slot, and now even the Wii is getting a GameCube-free version.
But a lot has changed in those eleven years (that number still doesn’t seem right). Is backward compatibility still an important feature?
Nintendo’s new version of the Wii, confirmed only for the UK so far, will come out this holiday season with a streamlined design and a lower price tag to make up for its lost capability. The system will ship as part of a value bundle that includes Wii Party and Wii Sports, though we’re a little surprised not to see a classic controller in the package since the new design doesn’t support GameCube controllers. The current Wii console will be phased out in Europe.
Backward compatibility fans are likely disheartened to see another console neglect it later in life. Is support for previous generation games destined to become a transitional feature that gets pulled after a few years? There are a couple of important factors to consider. Systems that can support old games through software emulation (like the Xbox 360), rather than costly retro hardware in the box, are more likely to continue doing so. But another noteworthy factor is the ability to offer classic games for download. When the PlayStation 2 launched, consoles simply didn’t have online stores to monetize old titles. Now that developers have the option to sell their old games all over again, they have less incentive to support backward compatibility in the long term.