Readers, as you may or may not be aware, Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, recently said during an investor Q&A session that backwards compatibility is an extremely important part of transitioning from one console generation to another, since the new hardware does not have many games at the beginning of its life cycle. This rule is one Nintendo’s handhelds have followed for a long time but its consoles have only recently picked up; the Wii is the first of Nintendo’s actual major console releases to have any sort of backwards compatibilty. Thinking more about Iwata’s statement, I have to agree that backwards compatibility is important for a number or reasons.
One reason is, as Iwata says, that backwards compatibility helps ease the transition into new hardware. There is, of course, a large amount of overlap, though; a rather large percentage of Wii U purchasers will undoubtedly be Wii owners, after all. Still, backwards compatibility could be a major factor in some purchases of a console, especially among new adopters who may be on the fence.
Backwards compatibility is far more important for handhelds than consoles, though. It is entirely feasible to keep multiple generations of console hardware on a shelf or a desk; it is far less practical to carry around a Game Boy, a Game Boy Advance, a DS, and a 3DS. In this, Nintendo has done a decent job, as the majority of their handhelds have been compatible with the previous generation’s games; Nintendo even went as far as adding two different game slots on the first iterations of the DS, a feature that to this day I still get a great deal of mileage from. Being able to play older handheld games on relatively newer hardware is, to me at least, extremely important; I have assembled over the years a decent-sized collection of GBA games and around twenty of these titles are still games that I have not finished.
Nintendo also has financial incentive for backwards compatibility, especially software emulation. The Virtual Console’s allows Nintendo to make money off of games years after their releases. Final Fantasy is at this point a twenty-five year old game, and Nintendo still can make money through VC sales of the original NES version. Of course, the North American Virtual Console’s shoddy support means the pool of games is frustratingly small, but the idea of the Virtual Console is sound. This is not a concept unique to Nintendo, obviously, as Steam, the Xbox 360, and the PS3 also all allow for the purchasing of older games. Putting older games on sale as cheap digital releases just makes sense. After all, the game is entirely finished and the only real development needed is on the software or hardware used to play the game; design, coding, testing, and localization are all long since completed on the title.
One more consideration about backwards compatibility is the preservation of games for historical and even recreational purposes. Unlike books, which can easily be printed in new editions, or films and music, which are relatively easily brought to new hardware formats, games are dependent on the hardware for which they are developed. Good luck getting a cartridge of E.V.O.: the Search for Eden to fit into a GameCube; the hardware is simply not designed for it. With video game study becoming an increasingly legitimate academic pursuit, it is important to find some sort of way to preserve older games so that they may be experienced and studied by future generations of scholars.
Overall, I feel that backwards compatibility is something that is extremely important to me but probably not to the average modern gamer. Gaming culture is very much about “the next big thing”, and I highly doubt that most of the people buying Call of Duty: Black Ops II have any plans to go back and play the first two games. My nostalgia-driven view of gaming is very probably not widely held among gamers, but I believe I can safely say that there are enough of us out there who do care about backwards compatibility that it will never completely die off. The Wii U has been confirmed to be backwards compatible with the Wii, and I would be somewhat surprised if the next Sony console launched without PS3 game support.
What are your thoughts on backwards compatibility, readers? Will backwards compatibility be an important part of the next console generation? And if backwards compatibility with older hardware fades away, will older games be preserved? Is emulation the main way these games will survive to future generations? As cartridges and CDs fail, I should think so, but perhaps there are other ways to preserve these games. Comment, readers, and discuss it!