Note: This is the second half of a two-part cooperative editorial written by two separate authors about the recent Wii U news involving the Virtual Console. Part one is titled: Wii U Virtual Console Can’t load Wii Saves for Older Games?
To get a better grasp of the debate with Nintendo’s recent announcement regarding the Wii U’s Virtual Console upgrades, Joel and I felt that a look to the history of backward compatibility was appropriate. The ability to play games from the previous generation has been prevalent on handhelds – the Game Boy Advance played Game Boy cartridges, the DS and DS Lite ran GBA carts, and the 3DS continues to play DS titles. In addition to Nintendo, SNK provided for backward compatibility with the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and Sony’s Vita plays digital PSP titles.
Consoles have been a different story, however, where backward compatibility was rare. Aside from the Atari 7600, and the Sega Power Base Converter add on for the Sega Genesis, the first mainstream implementation of the feature was in the PlayStation 2 – since the CPU of the original PlayStation system was used as the PS2’s I/O module, backward compatibility was simple to execute. This method was used with the PlayStation 3 as well, as early units included both the Emotion Engine and Graphics Synthesizer chips. The Wii, built on a similar architecture to the GameCube, was able to accomplish backward compatibility with similar ease.
As the manufacturers needed to reduce costs, backward compatibility was the obvious choice to cut. Early on, Sony removed the Emotion Engine from the PS3, limiting compatibility to software emulation, and later cut the Graphics Synthesizer as well, ending all support for PlayStation 2 titles. In a similar effort to slim down, Nintendo removed the GameCube ports and memory card slots on the Wii, making the unit no longer backward compatible. Meanwhile the XBox 360 had very limited backward compatibility accomplished through emulation.
Looking at each system’s implementation of backward compatibility, a pattern begins to appear as the ability to play legacy games only continues so long before it is removed. Even though the cartridges fit, Game Boy games could not be played on the DS. The DS and DS Lite supported GBA titles, but the games would not “sleep” when the lid was closed like DS titles, and the cartridge slot was removed from the DSi. Consoles and handhelds have had their backward compatibility removed as they mature, with manufacturers believing that the most important time for a console have the feature is when the console is first released.
There has been a significant change to this dynamic in recent years, however. As much as “hardcore” gamers hate to admit it, the smartphone industry has had a tremendous effect on the gaming industry. And all those games downloaded onto your phone or tablet, linked to your account? When you upgrade to a new device in one, two, four years, those purchases come with you. Apps like Sword & Sworcery EP, Tweetbot, or SpellTower are not tied up on an old device, but freely mobile to other, future devices. This not only makes customers happy, but keeps consumers within that ecosystem; iOS users have invested in apps and are hesitant to move to Android, and vice versa.
So far, at least, Google and Apple have not developed away from old software, and that may well set consumer expectations for digital purchases, at least. This is where concern over Nintendo’s announcement of their Virtual Console upgrade program has caused some waves – the worry over losing save files, the cost to upgrade, and the segregated interface.
It is a jarring difference because of what consumers have come to expect thanks to the mobile sector. But historically, the setup is just as consoles have always experienced. The cost to upgrade is seen by Nintendo as a sort of convenience fee: you can still play the games you have as you always have, with the Wii remote or classic controller, or you can pay the fee to open up the Wii U Gamepad, Miiverse, and all the other new functions that were not available before.
So, is Nintendo a harsh mistress for locking away new functionality on our old content? Have we become spoiled by Apple and Google allowing us to transition our content gracefully(so far at least)? Let us know in the comments.