Backwards compatibility isn't just a nice feature for any console to have. In a way, adding backwards compatibility to any console reflects the manufacturer's willingness to go the extra mile towards preserving video games made for older generation gaming platforms.
What Is Backwards Compatibility?
By definition, backwards compatibility is a "property of a system, product, or technology that allows for interoperability with an older legacy system." Or, basically, it's the feature responsible for making PlayStation 4 games play on the PlayStation 5 or making Xbox 360 and Xbox One games run on the Xbox Series S/X.
Why Is Backwards Compatibility in Video Games So Difficult To Do?
Backwards compatibility should be a no-brainer, right? After all, it's a neat feature that gives older console owners a reason to shift to a new platform, and also gives prospective buyers another reason to buy a console that just released. However, just like everything else in life, the topic of backwards compatibility isn't as simple and it's not just because manufacturers supposedly want to make more money.
To better understand this, you'll first have to understand the three primary ways manufacturers achieve backwards compatibility on their consoles.
Make the new console a more powerful version of the older console
A good example of this is the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo Wii U. Both consoles are essentially just more powerful versions of the consoles that they replaced. In the Wii's case, it's basically just the GameCube 2.0, which would essentially make the Wii U the GameCube 3.0. In a similar sense, it's how newer PCs can still play games made for PCs decades ago. It's because Nintendo used components for the Wii U that were compatible with the same software used for the Wii and GameCube.
The big problem with this is that it severely limits the manufacturer's options for future consoles, and as a result, it gimps the potential performance of any console that they plan on manufacturing going forward.
Add the hardware of legacy consoles into future consoles
This method was what Sony did for the PlayStation 2 and the early builds of the PlayStation 3.
To make the PlayStation 2 backwards compatible with PS1 games, Sony essentially had to build the PlayStation 2 to still have the same hardware necessary to run PS1 games. Sony did the same thing with the earlier builds of the PlayStation 3, which is why they were backwards compatible with PS2 games but future builds weren't.
The biggest issue with this method is that it makes consoles a lot more expensive than they should be since you're essentially housing hardware components for two consoles into one. This is the reason why Sony later dropped the backwards compatibility of later builds of the PlayStation 3, which coincided with a significant price drop.
Software emulation is arguably the most convenient method when it comes to adding backwards compatibility for older platforms to newer consoles. Instead of physically adding compatible hardware, a console can have a program that "emulates" the hardware of older consoles so that it can execute the same programs and run legacy games.
As with other approaches, there's a problem with software emulation as well. In this particular case, for a console to properly emulate older consoles, it needs to have significantly more powerful hardware because of how much processing power emulators require to run older games just as well as their original consoles did.
In Sony's case, developers found it difficult to work with the CPU architecture of the PlayStation 3. So, even though the PlayStation 4 was quite powerful, the problem lay with the way they built the PlayStation 3. As a result, the PlayStation 4 wasn't backwards compatible with the PlayStation 3. Meanwhile, Microsoft found far more success with the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One. Both console's more standard CPU architecture is largely the reason why you can run Xbox 360 games on your Xbox One and why the Xbox Series S/X can run Xbox One and Xbox 360 games.
Thankfully, Sony has since learned its lesson. The PlayStation 4 had a more PC-like architecture. Because of this, the PlayStation 5 is backwards compatible with PlayStation 4 games.
Which Consoles Today Are Backwards Compatible?
Now that you know why and how some consoles are backwards compatible and why some aren't, it's time to dig into the meat of the topic. In particular, why backwards compatibility is important for console gamers and why gamers should pay attention.
For starters, it's become harder and harder to get your hands on working older consoles and the games for them. Even if you did manage to get your hands on one or if you kept your legacy consoles, that still doesn't guarantee that you'll have access to older games forever. Older consoles can and will break down eventually. Case in point, the Xbox 360 was plagued with numerous issues that resulted in it becoming useless after a certain amount of time. Although Microsoft later addressed this by redesigning the Xbox 360, many users still had to throw away their Xbox 360 because of the so-called "red ring of death".
The good news is that Microsoft is at the forefront of backwards compatibility. The bad news is that Microsoft might just be the only console manufacturer right now that actively tries to make future consoles backwards compatible. At least, not from a purely financial standpoint. It's worth noting that Sony did make sure that the PlayStation 5 is backwards compatible with most if not all PlayStation 4 games. However, keep in mind that this was probably done as a way to mitigate the severely thin library of the PlayStation 5.
If it's any consolation, Sony does offer a viable alternative with PlayStation Now. Although the PlayStation 4 nor PlayStation 5 cannot play physical disc versions of legacy titles, some PS2 and PS3 games are available to play on the cloud-based game streaming subscription service. The only issue with this is that you don't exactly "own" the games you get to play. Not to mention, you can only access them if you maintain an active subscription for $9.99 a month.
On the other hand, the Nintendo Switch is not backwards compatible with previous Nintendo consoles and accessories. The same goes for physical versions of older titles. Instead, Nintendo's way of supporting older titles is to re-release them on the Nintendo Switch (if they think that it makes sense financially) or via the Nintendo Switch Online subscription service, which costs $3.99 a month.
Why Is Backwards Compatibility Important?
At this point, video games are a piece of history. Thus, future gamers should be able to enjoy such pieces of history at their leisure. Not making future consoles backwards compatible can make it difficult if not impossible for newer gamers to get the chance to play older titles. This also creates a market where older consoles and physical versions of older games go up in price. This is what happened with Super Mario 3D All-Stars.
The point we're trying to make here is that backwards compatibility shouldn't just be a nice feature to have. It should be a hard requirement going forward. It's a key element of video game preservation. It is what will allow older games to enjoy games from their younger years. At the same time, it is also what gives newer gamers a chance to play yesteryear's best games.
On a positive note, Sony has started changing its ways. In particular, Sony recently announced that they're no longer pushing through with the closure of the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita digital stores. Unfortunately, the public backlash wasn't enough to save the PlayStation Portable's online store. But, hey, a win's a win, no matter how small it is.
Admittedly, backwards compatibility alone isn't enough to guarantee the accessibility of older games. However, it is a small but significant step towards video game preservation. It will help ensure that certain titles don't just disappear completely.