Yesterday, Microsoft made it possible to instantly stream a bunch of older Xbox 360 and original Xbox games to any device compatible with Game Pass. It’s another piece of evidence that Microsoft is taking backward compatibility very seriously this time around, and that Sony and Nintendo have fallen behind in a big way.
Sony in particular used to be a leader in this space. Right out of the box, you could play almost every original PlayStation game on a PlayStation 2. You could even use the same memory cards, letting you carry your old saves forward to the new generation. PlayStation 3 started off well enough in 2006. The earliest PS3 models could run both PS1 and PS2 software, the latter via dedicated hardware. Later models sadly ditched that hardware in favor of less accurate, software-based PS2 emulation. Later PS3 models removed even that, completely eliminating PS2 backward compatibility (PS1 remained). Things haven’t improved since.
You can’t play your old PS1, PS2, or PS3 games on your fancy new PS5 or less fancy PS4. The closest things Sony has to emulation on modern consoles are PS2 Classics (digital versions of older games with trophy support), and PS Now, which lets you stream a small selection of PS3 games on your newer hardware. This is all a huge step back from the company’s previous full-throated support for backward compatibility. And Sony seems to be moving in the wrong direction, having just announced the imminent closing of the PS3, PS Vita, and PSP digital stores, making it considerably harder to play old games even on their original hardware, let alone on Sony’s newest consoles.
For a while Nintendo, like Sony, was pretty good at making it possible to play older games on new consoles. You might have played GameCube games on a Wii, or Game Boy Advance carts on your Nintendo DS. But the Wii’s Virtual Console signalled a new era. While initially it seemed exciting, over time gamers became disenchanted with the trickle of VC releases, and when 3DS and Wii U came about, Nintendo restarted the entire process, releasing only a subset of classic games and forcing players to buy them anew on each successive platform. With even digital games locked to the old platforms they were purchased on, Nintendo’s online services continued to feel a decade behind those of its competitors.
The situation on Nintendo’s Switch is strange, too. Instead of offering the usual à la carte Virtual Console purchases, Nintendo’s locked an even more limited selection of classic games behind its premium Nintendo Switch Online subscription service. It’s adding additional games more slowly than ever, making Nintendo Switch Online more a nostalgic novelty than a serious way to maintain access to classic game libraries.
In contrast, Microsoft is doing an amazing job at keeping older games available, though it didn’t start out that way. The Xbox One launched in 2013 without any backward compatibility features. But in 2015, Microsoft added the ability to play some Xbox 360 games. In 2017, the company also added support for original Xbox games.
With the release of the Xbox Series X/S early last year, Microsoft continued its vigorous support of backward compatibility. The new Xbox consoles can play almost every Xbox One game, just as the PS5 can play most PS4 games. But all the Xbox 360 and original Xbox games previously supported on Xbox One are playable, too. All of this works seamlessly and with little issue. This cross-generational support lets players boot up four different generations of Xbox consoles and play the same game via System Link with no need for trickery or extra hardware. And while Sony’s shutting down its legacy PSN stores this summer, Microsoft continues to let me buy Xbox 360 games and DLC on its new machines from the same store system it launched with the Xbox 360 in 2005. Yep, it’s all still live.
Further, Microsoft doesn’t just support older games and consoles better than Sony, but it also improves them with features like Auto HDR and FPS Boost, giving older games a fresh feel on new machines. Even with this remarkable level of support for older titles, Microsoft continues to add more features. Last night, I played Oblivion on my phone. I didn’t have to buy it or download it. I just hit play and it streamed to my mobile device in seconds.
Microsoft’s retro game support is so good it makes Nintendo’s and Sony’s offerings look terrible in comparison. Nintendo doesn’t support old Wii or Wii U games on the Switch, locks its meager classic offerings behind a paywall, and even removes new games from sale after a limited time. Sony is shutting down its older digital stores and doesn’t seem to care about any games released before the PlayStation 4. Both companies continue to do little, and do it poorly, which is frustrating. They each have vast libraries of content and neither seems interested in or willing to support that old content half as well as Microsoft.
A decade or so ago, if you told me that Microsoft would be leading the pack when it came to supporting old games, I’d be surprised. Now, in 2021, Xbox is leading and I really, really wish Nintendo and Sony would follow its lead instead of being left in the dust.
Correction - April 1, 6:35 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article misstated several technical details regarding PS3 backward compatibility.