How much effort should today’s console makers put into keeping the classics in print and playable on modern hardware? There’s a lot of room for debate, but one PlayStation exec just weighed in with what has to be the Worst Possible Take.
The Take isn’t just about backward compatibility, or about what Sony plans to do with its library of classics. It cuts to the heart of the appeal of older games in general.
“When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much,” Sony’s head of global sales Jim Ryan said this week to Time.
Understandable enough, but then he goes on: “That, and I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games,” he continued, “and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?”
Let’s first tackle the issue of backward compatibility. Both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launched in 2013 without the ability to play games from previous console generations, but Microsoft started adding backward compatibility on a game-by-game basis in 2015.
Sony doesn’t seem as hot on the idea. This is a sentiment as old as console transitions themselves—us older gamers didn’t really get much use out of the adapter that let us play Atari 2600 games on our Atari 5200s. Yes, people want to feel that their “investment” in thousands of dollars’ worth of previous-generation games won’t become trash if they upgrade to a new game machine. But once they actually get that machine, they’re generally too enticed by new games to put much time into the old ones.
So Ryan is on the right track that backward compatibility—the idea that you’d be able to just pop a PlayStation 2 disc into your PlayStation 4 and play it—probably wouldn’t be a good investment on Sony’s part. But then he drives right off the highway and into the weeds with his “why would anybody want to play this” assertion.
Note that we’ve now sped right past the specific topic of “backward compatibility,” and now we’re talking about “older games” in a more general sense. This rationale—games made with older technology are not appealing—is an argument against not only the ability to pop a PS2 disc into a PS4, but all straightforward re-releases of older software for new hardware. I bought a library of PlayStation 1 games for PlayStation 3 and Vita, where they are currently languishing. I have a PS4 now, and, yes, I would like to play them on Sony’s most powerful gaming hardware. Yes, I do think this looks good.
We can disagree over whether we find the low-polygon Gran Turismo games appealing—they strike no nostalgic nerve in me, but you might feel the same way about the simple pixels of Super Mario Bros. For some, low-poly is the new pixel art: Just browse through the #lowpoly hashtag on Twitter to see the burgeoning community of artists and game makers who are currently making art based around the aesthetic embodied by PlayStation 1.
Sony’s strategy on PlayStation 4, so far, seems to be that these “ancient” games have to have a new coat of paint. Here’s Parappa the Rapper, but “remastered.” Here are some PlayStation 2 games, but with HD upscaling and Trophies—it’s not a real game without Trophies! You might appreciate these upgrades, but the increased amount of effort required to do these necessarily keeps the selection limited and the price high.
Console makers should do more to keep history alive and in print, and allow players to have legal access to as many games as is feasible on modern-day hardware. HD versions like what Microsoft recently did with Phantom Dust or Sony’s new Parappa are part of that, but the one-off nature of these products doesn’t work at scale.
I don’t have to bust out an old reel-to-reel film projector if I want to watch Casablanca (which Ted Turner once refused to show on television unless it was colorized). We shouldn’t have to hook up a PlayStation 1 to play Metal Gear Solid, either, no matter how “ancient” it looks.