20 moments that defined Xbox: #14 — Backwards compatibility

By Luke Albigés,
Being on the back foot always forces one to make bold plays in the hope of turning the tide. With the previously-discussed botched Xbox One announcement having set Sony up to build a commanding lead early in the generation with its cheaper and more powerful PlayStation 4, Microsoft needed to dig deep if it was to make up ground. And it did exactly that, with exciting consumer-friendly features and services the likes of which you simply couldn't find anywhere else in console gaming. We'll be looking at a few more of those over the rest of this defining Xbox moments feature series, but for now, we turn our attention to the first such feature since that major loss of momentum at the start of last gen — the introduction of backwards compatibility on Xbox One for many older Xbox games.

This announcement at E3 2015 wasn't Microsoft's first foray into the tricky world of backwards compatibility, of course. Xbox 360 had this feature from launch, if only for a selection of original Xbox games, but the roster steadily grew over the course of the 360's run. With the two consoles using different hardware architectures, it seems getting old games running was not a simple process, as each individual title required its own software emulation profile for optimal performance, hence the curated list rather than any kind of blanket 'everything works, sort of' solution. Even with tweaks to the process on a game by game basis, though, quite a few Xbox originals still didn't perform as well as they did on their native system — the list of issues is primarily made up of audio glitches and frame rate drops, with a few more serious game-breaking problems and the occasional interesting oddity, such as Ninja Gaiden's unlockable NES games not working. Who knew an emulator running inside an emulator wouldn't end well? Some of the worst offenders were later removed from the service after Microsoft presumably couldn't get them running properly (Sniper Elite and James Bond 007: Nightfire were effectively unplayable), but removals were rare and additions plentiful, with 360 back-compat supporting over 450 titles by the end, which is almost half of the entire Xbox library.

In need of a hit to get some Xbox One momentum back, Phil Spencer delightedly took to the E3 2015 stage to announce that this popular feature would be making a comeback, with support for over 100 Xbox 360 games planned to roll out for all users later that same year. The programme would later be expanded, with a 2017 update introducing support for select original Xbox games as well, which today makes Xbox Series X|S (which itself can run practically all Xbox One titles natively) the only major console to have ever allowed users to play the same version of a game across four generations of hardware. Recently-appointed Blizzard boss Mike Ybarra was on Team Green at the time, and shared the stage with Spencer for the original announcement of Xbox One back-compat, showing off a little bit of Mass Effect gameplay on Xbox One before closing with a somewhat pointed comment aimed at Microsoft's competitors: "We won't charge you to play the games you already own."

super mario 64

To understand why that's such a big deal, you need look no further than Nintendo. While classic games like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past clearly couldn't run on the latest console natively due to the Switch's fairly obvious lack of any slots to stick chunky old cartridges into, these and many other Nintendo greats have been made available on loads of other platforms over the years via things like Virtual Console, mini-consoles, and standard ports, meaning most avid Nintendo collectors have probably shelled out to have the classics available on current hardware many, many times by now. I couldn't tell you how many times I own Wind Waker at this point, but it will still never be enough. Of course, with all of those devices using different storage media, there hasn't exactly been an easy way to rerelease those old games without having to charge for them again, but still, Ybarra's comment was clearly aimed in this direction, with the disc-based Xbox lineage offering a much smoother path towards a buy once, play forever future.

It's not just Nintendo, though... that comment could just as well be seen to be aimed at Sony. The Japanese tech giant actually got off to a really good start in terms of backwards compatibility, with all original PlayStation games running on PS2, and both generations of games working — region-free — on the original chunky PS3 model. Later revisions would remove this functionality, and seeing PS1 and PS2 Classics pop up for purchase on PSN might suggest that Sony got a little greedy and saw a way to bring in some extra cash. Either way, the dream would die with the PS3 anyway. Its famously complex architecture meant that PS4 would not natively allow for any older titles to be played on the system, although the new PS5, like Series X|S, does at least play practically everything from the last generation. However you slice it, Microsoft is the console industry leader in this field by a mile, and it's such a fantastic feeling to be able to stick a disc you picked up two decades ago in a console that's barely a year old and have it run fine.

Backwards Compatibility

The current backwards compatibility programme was paused in the run-up to the release of Xbox Series X|S, with the team redirecting its attention towards making sure the new console played nice with all of the last-gen games. The trade-off was more than worth it, though, with Series X|S adding new features like FPS Boost and Auto HDR to select back-compat games to make them not only playable on modern hardware, but better than ever. As a special 20th anniversary surprise, Microsoft brought the programme out of retirement to add more than 70 new games to the backwards compatibility pile, although the announcement was bittersweet — while it was certainly great to see more games added, MS also indicated that this would be the last major update to the programme.

"While we continue to stay focused on preserving and enhancing the art form of games, we have reached the limit of our ability to bring new games to the catalog from the past due to licensing, legal and technical constraints. Thank you for being part of this journey with us," wrote Microsoft's Peggy Lo on Xbox Wire, leaving many fan favourites stranded on old hardware forever. I'll own my fat original Xbox for as long as it remains the only way to play Jet Set Radio Future (so likely now forever) and my 360 until Lollipop Chainsaw gets the remake it so obviously deserves, but you can't have everything, I suppose. And what Microsoft has given us via this feature is a hell of a lot better than nothing.

That's a wrap for today — and seemingly forever in terms of more games being added to the back-compat list — but we'll be back with more Xbox defining moments tomorrow and all next week as we hit the home stretch of this series. So now, it's your turn. What's the one game you wish would have received the back-compat treatment? Do you use the feature regularly? Was MS right to focus so heavily on this? Let us know!

Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.