With E3 around the corner, we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Microsoft’s backwards compatibility program for the Xbox One. Announced by Phil Spencer on-stage at Microsoft’s E3 presser last year, the program allows players to revisit a growing number of Xbox 360 games that might otherwise have been left behind, and now seems to be a good time to take a look at the current state of backward compatibility on Xbox One.
There are currently over 150 games available, and while the most sought-after titles (as voted for at the Uservoice page) such as Black Ops II, Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption have yet to surface, there are still some heavy hitters ready to play right now – games like the entire Gears of War saga, Halo Reach, Halo Wars, and Alan Wake. Some publishers seem to be happier than others to make their games available on the service, with Sega in particular showing strong support; just this week we’ve had Jet Set Radio HD, Sonic & Knuckles and Phantasy Star II added, among others. Here’s hoping for Sonic Generations and Racing Transformed before too long.
Backward compatibility was Microsoft’s big surprise announcement last year, and one wonders how they might follow that up next month. Spencer has previously indicated that he’d love to see original Xbox compatibility make its way to the Xbox One, and while I’d personally love to see that happen (if only for the Sega exclusives still stuck on that platform), I think we’ll likely be waiting a while for that; while additions to the 360 catalogue have picked up a bit recently, it’s still going to be a while before the bulk of that catalogue is available on Microsoft’s newest machine, so that’s undoubtedly where the team’s focus will be for the foreseeable future. Having said that, Mike Ybarra, one of the main minds behind 360 BC, has indicated that his team have a couple of things in the pipeline that are on the same scale as that E3 2015 announcement, so who knows? It’ll be interesting to see what they bring to the Los Angeles Convention Centre next month.
There’s an ongoing joke about backwards compatibility that says it’s the feature everyone wants but nobody uses, and that past the first year of a new generation, as the hardware beds in and more games begin to take advantage of the additional power, it gets forgotten. For my part, I’ve always made rather sparing use of backwards compatibility in generations past, but to my mind, two things make the Xbox One feature particularly great.
First of all, I’m still playing 360 games. The previous generation was a long one and I’m sure I’m not the only one who still has some kind of backlog on their last gen systems – I’m yet to play South Park: The Stick of Truth, which is one of the games playable on the Xbox One. Knowing I can get around to it whenever I feel like it without having to hook up another system is pretty handy, and I hope some more of the games in my backlog, like Binary Domain and Asura’s Wrath, get added down the line. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my 360 hanging around, but it’s not always hooked up, unlike my Xbox One, which is always connected in order to feed my Halo 5 addiction.
Secondly, there’s the way the feature integrates with your existing library. You can of course simply put a compatible disc in, download the game and then play, but it’s the ease with which your digital purchases carry over that makes backward compatibility such a pleasure to use. Maybe you bought The Witcher 2 on the Xbox store a few years back, or got Gears of War 3 via Games with Gold? Perhaps you bought Shadow Complex back during 2009’s Summer of Arcade? All of them will simply appear in your download list on the Xbox One, ready to go when you want them. I already have around 50 Xbox 360 games installed on my Xbox One, and it almost makes the console feel a little bit like my PC Steam account; I can just pick from a bunch of games and then launch one without having to get up and switch discs. Add to that the ability to use Xbox One-specific features like taking screenshots or game clips, or even livestreaming, and they may as well be native games.
While the backward compatibility program hasn’t noticeably moved the needle on console sales (and I imagine that the main aim of it was to encourage 360 owners to make the jump), it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser for those already deep within the Xbox ecosystem, and it makes me wonder what Microsoft’s plans are going forward. We’ve had comments from Spencer about mid-gen hardware refreshes in the last few months, and with the recent PlayStation 4 Neo leaks – including the expectation that it’ll be both backwards and forwards compatible – it’s looking like the console landscape will be moving to a model of iterative hardware, with the focus on an evolving platform, rather than a specific piece of hardware. Imagine buying a console in 2026 that also gives you access to everything you bought back in 2006. Or even 2001. What if there’s no PS5 or XB2, but instead just a ‘PlayStation’ and an ‘Xbox’ that play all of your games, past present and future. Wouldn’t that be pretty amazing?
To me, Xbox 360 backward compatibility feels like Microsoft’s first step in enabling a future like that. It’ll be interesting to see where they go from here.