Strange Brouhaha

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Uh..."backwards-compatible" in what sense?

The PS2 is a great gaming console. It has great games (I've been playing Burnout 3 lately). It is backwards-compatible with the original Sony Playstation. "Backwards-compatible" means that it will play absolutely any game made for the PlayStation. This is possible because--if I remember correctly--the PS2 uses PlayStation silicon for one of its subsystems. It's not an emulator, it's an actual PlayStation. The controller ports are the same, so you can use PlayStation controllers with the PS2, and the memory card slot is the same, so you can use PlayStation memory cards in the PS2 (and indeed you must, if you play PlayStation games; the PlayStation can't write to or read from PS2 cards).

The Game Boy Advance is a great handheld. It has some pretty good games (I'm still slogging through a season of Baseball Advance). It is backwards-compatible with the original Game Boy. "Backwards-compatible" means that it will play absolutely any game made for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color. I can still play this absolutely frustrating Game Boy Formula One game that I have, and it's just as frustrating on the GBA as it was on the original. (The Nintendo DS, I think, sacrifices the total backward-compatibility, but it does play GBA carts.)

Backwards-compatibility is hot in console gaming. After all, gamers have a lot of money invested in their library of titles. You want gamers playing your newest console, even if they mostly play the older games, because you know that eventually they will move to next-generation games--and you want them to stick with you. It makes good sense from the business side, although it's not mandatory: look at Nintendo's consoles.

So we come to the XBox 360, the recently-announced sucessor to Microsoft's XBox. Microsoft is claiming that it is backwards-compatible. "Backwards-compatible" in this case apparently means that it won't play any original XBox games until they're recompiled. So you can't just stick an XBox disc into the 360 and play.

Now, the situation is entirely understandable, given that the 360 has entirely different CPU and video architectures. We learned the hard way in the mid-90s, with Apple, that the switch from CISC to RISC processors was a difficult one. At a certain point, Apple just had to say "No more 68K software!" It was a wildly unpopular decision, but they had to sacrifice backwards-compatibility for forward thinking. I think Microsoft needs to do the same thing here. The 360 is NOT backwards-compatible in any commonly-held sense. Just cut the doublethink.


  • Supposedly, the PS2 is actually not 100% backwards-compatible. I have no information other than that, though.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:18 PM  

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