Best of ND 2014! Backwards Incompatibility

Classic and obscure video games continue to be lost with each new console launch.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 12/29/2014 15:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

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This story was selected as one of our best from 2014. It was originally published on January 28, during Issue 189.

We’re now into the sixth generation of consoles since NES, and with each subsequent system release, there are a number of games left by the wayside. For people like me who hang onto every console they own, it’s not such a big deal, but for those who don’t, there are dozens if not hundreds of games that they will never be able to experience. Think of how many wonderful Nintendo 64 titles are landlocked to the system’s gray cartridges. GameCube games that became miniature coasters once the Family Edition of Wii hit store shelves. While still salvageable, the very fabric of the history of the video game industry has been allowed to erode much too quickly and extensively.

It’s not a new problem, as those who made the jump from NES to SNES, Genesis to Saturn, PSP to Vita, and many other platform transitions besides had to make the decision to leave the old for the new. In 2013, however, these sacrifices are both frustratingly archaic and an easy way to lose entire chunks of gaming history. Again, not everyone keeps or is capable of holding onto their old systems, and sometimes those old beasts of burden break down on even the most careful of owners. As such, publishers must realize that the current status quo for playing old games needs to be modified. Technical advancements have made cross-system backwards compatibility a trifle, so it’s beyond time to get the ball rolling.

From a financial standpoint, I can understand the strategy of limiting what can and can’t be played on a given console. Forcing players to buy the same games over and over is a staple of the industry. The first time Pac-Man found its way onto a compilation cartridge, players learned very quickly that what was old could be new again (and priced as though it was, too). There’s plenty of cash to be made from re-releasing classic games or charging premiums to access an already purchased video game collection from a previous system (I’m looking at you, Wii U Virtual Console). Money is king in this and every other business, but by keeping their eyes affixed to players’ wallets, publishers are failing to recognize the historical importance of all those cartridges and discs floating around the world.

Eternal Darkness Screenshot

Services like the Virtual Console shouldn’t just be seen as revenue streams, but methods of preservation. Keeping as many great games from the industry’s past capable to be played, remembered, and appreciated is long past overdue. It’s impossible to imagine a world where works like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Henri Matisse’s The Dinner Table were lost and forgotten. Eternal Darkness might not be very highbrow by comparison, but it and thousands of other games remain known to only those who played them on the hardware that they called home. Video games will never be seen as legitimate art or entertainment until more care is taken in memorializing and respecting its past.

The video game industry simply must start making a more concerted effort to preserve its history. While HD remakes, re-releases, and limited backwards compatibility help, it’s not enough. Players who go as far back as the days of Atari can rattle off many a game that they enjoyed and have never seen again. The world would be a much drearier place if things like The Great Dictator, M.A.S.H., and The Starry Night were never maintained for future generations. There are so many innumerable titles that have been released in the past thirty plus years that remain obscured and forgotten. Companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft need to find a way to make both the hits and obscurities of yesteryear more readily available to modern players. With many developers shuttered over the years, it’s a tall order, but it’s in a situation like this where moving heaven and earth is a necessity, not a choice.

2 Responses to “Best of ND 2014! Backwards Incompatibility”

  • 745 points
    OG75 says...

    Robert says: “Services like the Virtual Console shouldn’t just be seen as revenue streams, but methods of preservation.”

    Amen Robert. There are so many games from yesteryear that deserve a spot on the virtual console service. Preserve before they’re forgotten!

    I love what the virtual console “is” but am continually frustrated by what the virtual console “isn’t.” At the end of the day, Nintendo is profit driven and releases games based on sales data we don’t have access to.

    However, just look at last Thursday’s North American VC releases for an example of frustration: Nintendo released the GBA version of Super Mario World. Wait, what? We already have access to the original version of Super Mario World in all its SNES glory. If you need to release a GBA title, may I suggest Metroid: Zero Mission?

    Not a hater. Love the VC, but couldn’t agree more with Robert’s sentiment.

  • 1570 points
    penduin says...

    One of the reasons I was most excited about the original Wii was that it was also every other Nintendo console up to that point. Through the VC, I would be able to play my entire collection on one machine, and the promise was it would carry forward into the next generation too. …Well, the “entire collection” thing sure never happened, and it’s very hard to consider the smeary, wrong-aspect-ratio, no-gamepad-support Wii mode as living up to the carrying-forward promise in any meaningful way. (Not to mention dropped GameCube disc support)

    Emulator software authors are more concerned with preserving gaming history than are those who hold the copyright and publishing contracts. I understand Nintendo wants (and financially needs) to focus on new things, but if they don’t take the lead on historical gaming, who will? Who else even could?

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