Backwards compatibility on consoles was first introduced in 1983 with the Videopac G7400 (what was going to be Magnavox Odyssey 3)
which saw a very limited European release. Only a short year later Atari added the feature with the Atari 7800
, which also saw a limited US (this time) release in 1984 but was later fully re-released in 1986. Making it the first globally released backwards compatible games console. Even before those two consoles, backwards compatibility was available through a module for Atari 2600 game cartridges since 1982. Released by Coleco for it’s own ColecoVision which spurred a legal battle
between Coleco and Atari.
“The first backwards compatible console. Isn’t it cute?”
Despite it’s early introduction, and excluding adapters such as the Genesis/Mega Drive, Master System Adapter and the introduction of backwards compatibility in the handheld market by the Game Boy Color. Backwards compatibility did not become a mainstay and a selling point with consoles until the PS2 reintroduced it in 2000.
“Backwards compatibility. Sort of…”
With the enormous success of the PS2 (155 million lifetime sales) an entire new generation of gamers was introduced and perhaps spoiled, by the convenience of backwards compatibility.
Unlike many other console features, backwards compatibility has no negative effect on the consumer, it’s presence can only be beneficial, it’s absence inconvenient. With the PS2 the feature had become a common point for discussion and a major selling point for consoles that succeeded it. Gamers could now move into a new generation without leaving their previously build libraries behind.
“The Playstation 2. The King of Consoles”
Alas the future was not as rosy for backwards compatibility, and dark clouds started to gather as early as the succeeding generation.
First the Xbox 360 cunningly promised backwards compatibility with the original Xbox ‘top selling games’ in Microsoft’s 2005 E3 Press Conference
. In the end, and after several updates only about 270 Original Xbox games were backwards compatible and varying across regions. With some titles suffering glitches and bugs to this day. Incidentally, a limited selection of original Xbox games was made digitally available through the Xbox Live Marketplace. With prices that sometimes doubled the used physical copy going rate.
"Beware the tongue of the devil"
Sony, in its own 2005 E3 Press Conference
promised that the PS3 would be backwards compatible not only with it’s PS2 older brother, but with it's PS1 grandfather (an industry first). To the appeasement of many gamers. Sadly the joy was short lived, since by the time the console made it’s way to Europe, due to a desperate attempt at cutting costs after a floundering launch in the US and Japan, the newly manufactured PS3 consoles removed the Emotion Engine chip from inside the ensuing models. Subsequently severely limiting PS2 games backwards compatibility (software emulation was also dropped for later models).
The original Japanese and US 20/60GB models are sought after for their complete backwards compatibility, fetching good prices on eBay. No European market complete backwards compatibility model exists. But PS1 compatibility has remained in all models including Slim and Super Slim. On the digital front, through the Playstation Network several PlayStation 1 and 2 Classics had become available to download for the PS3, PSP and eventually the Vita. Also several PS2 games (usually as compilations) saw HD releases in fully boxed retail form and price.
"I took some of its guts out, but is still my baby!"
The Nintendo Wii was the only truly backwards compatible game console of its generation, including controller and memory card support. Though recent models have dropped Gamecube compatibility to cut costs. Nintendo also introduced some of it's old library digitally through the Virtual Console, some games released in some regions for the first time (Super Mario RPG in Europe ex.).
With one foot into the eighth generation of consoles it looks like backwards compatibility has become a want of the new minority ‘core’ market and it’s not the selling point it used to be only a generation ago.
The Nintendo Wii U following in the Wii’s footsteps seems to be the only true backwards compatible console this generation. Microsoft claims that backwards compatibility means you're going backwards
(though has since theorized adding it through the cloud), and Sony promises to allow at least a slimmer of backwards compatibility through its much touted cloud system.
"This guy thinks you're backwards. He also now works for Zynga..."
Of course as much as the lack of physical backwards compatibility is nothing more than an inconvenience the fact that our digital games can’t be transferred to the new systems for no reason other than because. Is a travesty.
The reason backwards compatibility, a very welcome feature has become so irrelevant for these big companies, is not only because "only 5% of users play old games" but also, because through digital means or otherwise, they want to sell you the same games you already own, again, again and again.
If you are one of that 5% that plays old games, and you want keep playing your old library while you build a new one, better be prepared to make a lot of space under your TV set. You're going to need it.