Backwards Incompatibility

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A PS4 can do almost anything a person wants, except for one, crucial thing; play PS3 discs. It’s not the end of the world, of course, particularly when taking into consideration the streaming functionality that Sony has designed to remedy this lack of true backwards compatibility. Still, it’s an odd omission, considering the system’s own discs remain BluRay based. Before any tech wizards start lambasting me about the inherent limitations that would make playing PS3 discs easily possible, my primary cause for concern goes beyond inconvenience; backwards compatibility is just one way of keeping the history of video games alive.

We’re now into the sixth generation of consoles since NES, and there are a lot of games that remain in the shadows. I’m one of those people who hangs onto his consoles, but there are plenty who don’t, and with each round of systems that hit the market, many classic and obscure games get lost in the transition. Think of how many wonderful PS2 titles are confined to their original discs because the PS3 quickly ditched its backwards compatibility and they never found their way onto PSN. Wii owners experienced a similar disappointment when the Family Edition of the system debuted and GameCube games became unplayable.

It’s not a new problem, as those who made the jump from NES to SNES, Genesis to Saturn, PSP to Vita, and many other platform transitions besides had to make the decision to leave the old for the new. In 2013, however, these sacrifices are both frustratingly archaic and an easy way to lose entire chunks of gaming history. There’s no technical limitations to blame for a lack of backwards compatibility, anymore, just greedy business tactics (and the occasional expired licensing deals, but that’s a story from another day).

Forcing players to buy the same games over and over is a staple of the industry. The first time Pac Man found its way onto a compilation cartridge, players learned very quickly that what was old could be new again (and priced as though it was, too). From a financial standpoint, I can understand the strategy of limiting what can and can’t be played on a given console. There’s plenty of cash to be made from re-releasing classic games or coming up with ways to charge some sort of premium to access an already purchased video game collection from a previous system (I’m looking at you, Wii U Virtual Console). Money is king in this and every other business, but by keeping their eyes affixed to players’ wallets, publishers are failing to recognize the historical importance of all those cartridges and discs floating around the world.

EarthBound is a perfect example of this. Prior to its re-release in Nintendo’s eShop, the game was in an extended state of limbo. The only way for fans to play the game was if they had an old copy (or the deep pockets necessary to buy one on the secondary market) and a functioning SNES. That was it. Nintendo had let a true masterpiece of a video game sit in obscurity for years before they finally succumbed to fan wishes. It was the equivalent of Paramount refusing to put the movie The Godfather on DVD. In no other medium of entertainment or art is there such flagrant disregard for preservation.

That’s really what it boils down to; preservation. Keeping as many great games from the industry’s past capable of being played, remembered, and appreciated. It’s impossible to imagine a world where works like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Henri Matisse’s The Dinner Table were lost and forgotten. Eternal Darkness might not be very highbrow by comparison, but it and thousands of other games remain known to only those who played them on the hardware that they called home. Video games will never be seen as legitimate art or entertainment until more care is taken in memorializing and respecting its past.

It’s a topic I’ve touched on before, but the video game industry simply must start making a more concerted effort to preserve its history. While HD remakes, re-releases, and limited backwards compatibility help, it’s not enough. Players who go as far back as the days of Atari can rattle off many a game that they enjoyed and have never seen again. The world would be a much drearier place if things like The Great Dictator, M.A.S.H., and The Starry Night were never maintained for future generations. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of video games that have been released in the past thirty plus years that remain obscured and forgotten. Companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft need to find a way to make both the hits and obscurities of yesteryear more readily available to modern players. With many developers shuttered over the years, it’s a tall order, but it’s in a situation like this where moving heaven and earth is a necessity, not a choice.

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