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PS5 Backwards Compatibility? More or Less…Or just less.

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Of all the things Sony opted not to give us with the PS5, the omission of PlayStation 1, 2, and 3 compatibility is particularly troublesome. When Xbox set out to increase platform value with their backward compatibility initiative in 2015, they set a new standard for preservation of old titles and compatibility with current hardware. That effort continued with each of their following consoles, including the forthcoming Series S and Series X. And while it’s very likely that this strategy was rooted in the almost immediate relegation to 2nd place for the Xbox One and a floundering exclusive software library for the system, it no less marked a significant win for Microsoft. With that effort and technology, they had proven that backward compatibility was not only possible, but also feasible, and that the player base would be receptive to it if they had owned any previous generations of Xbox software.

Well, Sony wasn’t hearing it. I can only speculate that their staunch refusal to preserve, standardize, and optimize their previous generations was a decision rooted in prudence and profit.

The Case for Prudence

When considering the future and the value BC would bring to PS5, it’s a proven point that backward compatibility doesn’t sell systems. Look no further back than the PS3, Xbox One X, and Wii U. All of these consoles were released with at least 2 generations of BC functionality and none of them sold well enough to maintain or regain the momentum of their predecessors. In fact, the PS3 didn’t start to sell well until the price dropped, largely due to the removal of PS2 backward compatibility. And with Sony’s focus being on getting PS5’s sold and into your living room as quickly as possible to continue to feed the money machine that is PSN, they crunched the numbers and made their decision: Spider-Man Miles Morales over Metal Gear Solid IV. Godfall over MotorStorm. Destruction All Stars over Twisted Metal. And Demon’s Souls over…well, Demon’s Souls.

The Case for Profit

PlayStation profit

On the profit side, a proper solution and investment into BC tech would have likely been a much bigger hurdle for PlayStation than it was for Xbox. PlayStation’s generations stretch back further and their catalog is much deeper (3079 PS1, 4490 PS2, 2206 PS3 games) when compared to Xbox (1001 Xbox, 2085 Xbox 360 games). When you throw in the wrench that is the PS3’s cell architecture, it makes matters even more complicated.

Contacting developers and publishers to do new work on old games would have come with its own problems. Some studios are defunct and no longer in operation. Some properties are no longer owned by their original studios, so it would take minor miracles to get these games patched and running smoothly on new hardware. On top of that, licensed IPs and soundtracks under different ownership make reproducing some of PlayStation’s more notable games impossible. There’s no doubt that it would have been a more significant time and monetary investment to mirror Xbox’s BC solution with PlayStation’s catalog of games.

To offer a little more balance to the discussion, Sony has quietly commissioned the port, remaster, or remake of a majority of the best selling PS3 games. And a good chunk of the more notable titles in the PS2 and PS3 libraries are available on PS Now, a service that is still relatively cheap for those really interested in playing through old PlayStation games. But if you’ve got more obscure PS3 downloaded titles or PS1-PS3 discs you had been desperately clutching while watching the press briefings this year, you’re just plain old out of luck.

Still, none of that excuses the lack of effort.

A for Æffort?

We weren’t asking for the entirety of the almost 10,000 game PS1-PS3 library to be accessible on the PS5. After all, Xbox has made around 600 Xbox and Xbox 360 games available or optimized through backward compatibility after 5 years of the feature being live. That’s just shy of 20% of the total Xbox and Xbox 360 game library. They optimized what they could, simply ported the rest, and didn’t bother with games that were no longer viable because of IP complications. It’s not a complete solution, but Xbox actually tried. PlayStation didn’t.

If the aforementioned reasons were, in fact, real hurdles to a quality BC solution on PS5, some form of emulation would have been the much easier compromise. Mostly, because these solutions already exist. Combing the doldrums of the internet for a solid 2 minutes would net you a functioning PS1 or PS2 emulator. Sony has long managed their own software emulation solution to run PS3 games through PS Now. Having old games unlocked and then downloaded by granting the license from recognizing the game disc (which is how physical game media currently works on PlayStation anyway) or from our PSN purchases would have been the least they could do. (Yes, your PS3 purchases are still in there. Log into your PSN account from this browser and then click here. Your PS3 purchases should be at the end of the list.)

Still Silent on PS4

PS4 backward compatibility was an easy decision for a company with over 110 million PS4s in homes all over the world. Jim Ryan has confirmed PS4 games will continue to be released for the foreseeable future, so it follows that Sony would double down on their PS4 offerings by allowing their flagship PS5 games to come to PS4 as well. What isn’t clear, though, is exactly what the faster, stronger PS5 will do to the 99% of PS4 games that have been stabilized to run on the next generation system.

While the existence of a PS5 boost mode has been confirmed and reiterated by Mark Cerny since his burnt-steak of a tech talk back in March 2020, we have been left with only speculation about how individual PS4 games will run on PS5, and what benefit they’ll receive from this boost mode, if any. And since they are apparently working through the PS4 catalog to optimize each game on a case-by-case basis, there’s no way of knowing what you’ll get when you pop your favorite PS4 game disc into the PS5 this fall. Boost mode may improve your game considerably. Or it may crash it. Who knows?

Not A Good Look

That lack of transparency is a stark contrast from Microsoft’s forward facing approach for this generation. Part of that strategy has been to put their new hardware out in the open and in the hands of media and critics, allowing for some detailed breakdowns of how their system will handle new and old games. And while there has been no actual next-gen content available in the early Xbox Series X hands-on coverage, Microsoft has made a shrewd decision to give people a glimpse of how the games they’re already familiar with will be improved. Forthcoming and transparent? I can’t help but appreciate that kind of effort from the Xbox overlords.

For Sony to field no retro game backward compatibility solution – instead of at least a half-assed one – is not only confusing, it’s insulting.

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