Back to the Future: A Look at the History of Backwards Compatibility

The Xbox One is now able to play selected titles from the original Xbox and there is much rejoicing. People continue to clamor for news about the Virtual Console on the Nintendo Switch. It seems that everywhere you go these days, people want their modern consoles to be backwards compatible or at least able to play some form of a company’s older video game titles.

For an older fart like me, it’s weird to see. I’m used to a world where I was the only video game dork that wanted to play a game that was more than a few years old. Other players were always jumping onto the newer stuff and the hottest new technology and I felt like the outcast for still having the last gen console or for still wanting to pop in a game from years before. It’s great to see that gaming has become timeless to many, but it’s still weird to me.

Of course, I also remember a period of time when backwards compatibility wasn’t even a thing. The new console came out and if you wanted to play the older games on it, you had to hold on to that older console. Personally, I was fine with that, but a lot of consumers were not. This was an issue going way, way back, so this week I’m going to take us back to some of the earlier cases of consoles that either had backwards compatibility or that faced issues because of a lack of it.

 

Atari 5200

 

The Atari 5200

The younger set might not even realize that there were a myriad of video game consoles that came out well before the Atari Video Computer System (a.k.a. the Atari 2600), nor that few of them that pre-dated the wood grain beast even had the ability to play interchangeable cartridges. That said, the public got real used to the idea real fast and by 1982 the name Atari actually meant ‘video game’ to a large swath of consumers. The VCS was a fixture in millions of American homes, but the technology was badly dated and the company finally realized they needed to try to upgrade if they were to try to stay on top of the market.

The result of that was the Atari 5200 in late 1982. The console was far more powerful than the VCS, meaning that Pac-Man actually resembled the arcade Pac-Man this time rather than the puke colored LEGO nightmare that gamers got from the VCS version. The console, however, came with its own set of problems out the gate, the least of which was the joystick but the loudest of which was the reaction of the very consumer base that had made Atari king.

Back then, people didn’t upgrade items very often. People wouldn’t generally get a new car or new refrigerator or new television set until the old one just wasn’t going to work anymore. When an upgrade was needed, older items still worked on it. Record players, for example, could still play the records the consumers already had in their collection, so when that 20-year-old record player finally broke for the last time it was no big deal to just take up where they left off with a brand new one.

People who had just bought an Atari VCS 1-to-3 years before the 5200 came out were not very happy to learn that the shiny new toy wouldn’t play all those games they’d purchased for the older console. Making matters worse here was the fact that most of the 5200 launch library were the same game titles that had already come out for the VCS, just better versions of them. They balked at the idea of investing in a brand new expensive item if it meant they had to re-purchase the same game library to match.

Atari tried to fix the issue by releasing an adapter that plugged into the 5200 that allowed consumers to play their existing Atari VCS carts, but by the time it saw the light of day the console was already considered a flop. The ability to play most cartridges that belonged to the renamed Atari 2600 was a big feature in the later Atari 7800 console, but it ended up being canned in 1984 before seeing wide release during the heyday of the original Nintendo. By then, most had already moved on and the only enjoyment that came from the 7800 having the feature was from the rap songs the company featured in their television commercials.

 

Sega power base converter

 

Power Base Converter

This one was odd, as SEGA of all companies took this into consideration despite the fact that what we came to call the SEGA Master System failed to truly catch on in America. Nonetheless, this adapter was released for the SEGA Genesis console, allowing consumers to play their old SMS games on the new 16-bit powerhouse. Few really clamored for such a feature, but it was there if they wanted it, likely proposed by Alex Kidd in a vain attempt to stay relevant as the face of the company.

It wasn’t hard for them to do that, really, as the Genesis mostly was a Master System under the hood. Nonetheless, the adapter didn’t sell super well and has become a somewhat sought after item in the modern-day collector’s market. If anything, it gave SEGA the ability to say they did something else that Nintendidn’t, as we’ll get to next.

 

SNES ad

 

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System

As much as the Atari VCS had dominated in its day, the original Nintendo Entertainment System did so even more in North America. For most of its initial run, the NES held over 90 percent of the North American video game market. Even after 16-bit competition had arrived in stores, consumers continued to buy NES consoles and games. There was a brand loyalty here if anything else, as consumers opted to stick with what they knew over the new kids on the block.

That brand loyalty was tested with the SNES’ introduction. Much like the case was with the Atari 5200, parents didn’t understand why they were being asked to replace the Nintendo they had just purchased a few years earlier with a new one, much less one that couldn’t play the stack of expensive games they’d already purchased for the older unit. The anger over this was so high that several television media outlets covered the outrage, along with some parents’ groups that accused Nintendo of predatory marketing.

Ironically, the idea of backwards compatibility was reportedly considered for the SNES, but the idea was scrapped due to the additional cost involved. The competing 16-bit consoles already had a head start in the marketplace as it was, and even without the compatibility feature the SNES was going to be more expensive than the competitors at launch. Instead, Nintendo released a reduced price redesign of the NES and focused on battling back against the snarky SEGA marketing that sparked the 16-bit console wars.

Interestingly enough, this controversy didn’t kick Nintendo in the butt the way it did Atari, showing perhaps a preview of things to come in the consumer market regarding the willingness to upgrade things all the time.


What Came After

For a while after the 16-bit wars, nobody really brought up backwards compatibility. The main issue may have been what I led into this article with, being that consumers were too busy being enamored by a speedy blue hedgehog and the reintroduction of a grumpy video game gorilla to care about the games of yesteryear. With the exception of Nintendo’s handheld systems, nobody was really offering backwards compatibility or clamoring for it. Re-releases of older games on the consoles of that era also didn’t typically sell that well, as people wanted Tomb Raider instead of the Konami Classics Collection. Up until the PlayStation 2 came out, consumers had simply gotten into the habit of buying a new console and a stack of new games when the technology and opportunity presented itself.

Over time, the market has changed. People want to play older titles and they want to play them so badly that if the companies don’t give consumers the ability to do so, they’ll do so themselves even if it means breaking copyright law. Nobody really moves on from old titles anymore, which I think is wonderful. But never forget that, once upon a time, the past was either left in the past by the companies or the consumers at almost every turn.

 

Author: Patrick Scott Patterson

Patrick Scott Patterson is a 36 year veteran of the video game world. His philosophy states that the past of our industry and culture must be preserved in order to understand where we are and where it is all going.