A Recap Of PlayStation’s Complicated History With Backwards Compatibility

Backwards compatibility is an important part of video games and video game history since the feature was introduced by the Atari 7800. A console’s value is usually worth a lot more if it can access your old games; sometimes you just want to revisit your old games out of either nostalgia or boredom, or both. Game developers can play older titles, either to get new ideas and inspiration for their next masterpiece, or just retweak older ones from decades past for an all-together current-gen experience. Long story short: it’s always good to go back.

PlayStation’s history with the concept is bizarre: it started the trend back in 2000 but somehow double-backed on this concept since the HD era of gaming. Let’s take a brief look at how this all panned out up until 2021.

2000

Sony Interactive Entertainment released the PlayStation 2, a cutting-edge gaming machine that was also the first-ever truly backwards-compatible console. Essentially, 99% of your PS1 library is playable on the PS2 thanks to the console’s I/O Processor (IOP) chip which contains the MIPS R3000 chip; the same one used by the original PS1.

Later PS2 models used software emulation and newer tech to keep the backwards compatibility feature going.

2005

Xbox 360 allows users to bring forward their Xbox catalogue of games to the new system. This was a clear influence of Sony’s backwards compatibility mission with the PS2.

Elsewhere, Sony had to figure out a way to reduce cost for its then next-gen console for the new gaming generation. Creating and manufacturing PS3s with PS2 hardware is pretty expensive.

This leads us to…

2006

The PS3 launched to a price tag of US$599. The news was met with much apathy.

It didn’t do well when compared with its more efficient and robust competitors: the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. The memes from the company’s E3 presentation didn’t help either.

At least your PS1 and PS2 games could still run on the beefy console. And let’s not forget, the PlayStation Network’s firmware 3.0 update added in PS1 backwards compatibility features for all PSPs (remember THAT portable wonder?).

The console’s R4000 chip meant that PS1 games could run natively on the PSP and could also be overclocked for faster loading and whatnot. This meant that you couldn’t play pirated games on your PSP as the firmware patched up exploits that allowed such things.

2007

Firmware and hacker group Dark AleX released a “custom” PSP firmware that found new ways to make your PSP play pirated games AND ran PS1 games through its PlayStation Network library.

Sony announced that its new PS3 Slim model will phase out the older PS3 “fat” models for cost reasons. In retrospect, these two pieces of information may be more related to each other than you would think.

2009

The PS3 Slim launched. While it looked sleek and nice, it had one distinctive feature: it couldn’t play PS1 and PS2 games.

Why was it removed? It was mostly for cost reasons and the fact that it was losing hard to the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii since 2006. Sony was losing money selling the original PS3 because of all of its beefy features, including its backwards compatibility hardware and software emulation inside.

Removing the GS hardware (the insides that led to PS1 and PS2 backwards compatibility) reduced the manufacturing price significantly.

2011

PS Vita launched. The system was built with playing its PSP back catalogue in mind, albeit in digital form and via the PlayStation Store.

2012

Probably influenced by Xbox 360’s classics method of bringing back older games through a digital space, PlayStation featured a PS2 Classics digital store featuring a good library of old games like Grand Theft Auto 3, Dark Cloud, and Godhand. Its 70+ games were on the PS Store.

2013-2014

The PS4 was launched and came with zero backwards compatibility for its PS3 titles. It plans to remaster its older PS2 and PS3 games down the line; examples include the Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and remakes like Shadow of the Colossus in 2018. This was because emulating PS3 games was complex due to the previous console’s architecture.

It didn’t really matter for Sony; the console dominated this particular gaming generation. It also helped that Xbox and Nintendo done effed up with their console reveals and launch.

2015

SIE added PS2 games onto its PS4 PlayStation Store. However, you cannot use your PS2 discs and slot them into the PS4. Rather, the selection of PS2 games from 2015 onward was curated internally.

This was because of technical issues; each PS4 title in its catalogue must support trophies, including the PS2 classics on the online store. This means in the backend, an old PS2 game needs the following to be on the PS4 storefront:

  • A PS2 emulator.
  • A copy of the PS2 ROM.
  • A specific code for the game to feature new trophies and other specific patches needed.

Naturally, this is a lot of work for many developers and publishers, especially inside SIE. Senior technical project managers have gone on record stating that it would take developers 2 to 3 months to add trophies for PS2 emulation, especially if they do not have the source code on hand.

2017

Sony Interactive Entertainment president Jim Ryan expressed disbelief at the idea that anyone would want to play the PS1 and PS2 versions of series like Gran Turismo. Here’s the takeaway quote:

“When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not used much.”

This basically cements the company’s stance with old PlayStation games over time.

2020

The PS5 was launched in November and December. It came with PS4 backwards compatibility for “99%” of its PS4 titles, but only a few select titles came with improved framerate and loading. Here’s a list of those games.

2021

SIE is closing down its PS3, PSP, and PS Vita online stores simultaneously. Given SIE’s Jim Ryan and his past statements, we won’t be shocked if this actually happened.

What Now?

It’s anybody’s guess, if we’re being frank. From a collector’s standpoint, people are going to be keeping their old copies of PS1, PS2, PSP, PS Vita, and PS3 games, be it physical or digital. Old PS consoles with these online store-only games will be more valued just like any PS4 with the PT demo still intact.

The question is whether this will lead to SIE remastering their past games down the line for the PS5, just like they did with its Uncharted trilogy. Or just ignore its past library altogether and look forward to the future. It seems like that’s the course the company is going for.

If so, this can be a bad situation as they threaten to hollow out the medium as a result of this “forward-thinking”. Yes, as base value the backwards compatible options from past PlayStation consoles are considered niche. And no, no one is going to go back to the Gran Turismo prequels.

But that’s not a good example. There are other PlayStation-exclusive titles worth looking back that should be brought forward like Square Enix’s 90s experimental run (Einhander, Vagrant Story). Many folks and hobbyists engage in such labors of love to recreate the PS1 style of gaming like this demake of Bioshock.

We do understand that PlayStation’s hardware architecture makes old titles harder to play as time goes on. But all this should not be an excuse for Sony to show a lack of interest in preserving its back catalogue. This is apparent especially since its competitor Xbox is doing a bang-up job bringing old games from the OG Xbox back and making them playable on any Xbox Series/Xbox One device via Xbox Game Pass.

Its Smart Delivery system also means that there’s no issue bringing Xbox One games forward to the Xbox Series, be it the game itself or its save files (via its cloud system). It’s quite a hassle for gamers to do inter-generation file save transfers for PlayStation devices; see the PS4-to-PS5 Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War issues that cropped up since November of last year.

Instead, it’s going the commercial route of pushing forward with the PS5, and this sort of thinking may devalue and hollow out the PlayStation brand and its classic library as a whole. True, it has dipped in nostalgia with Astro’s Playroom, but that’s just out of convenience and technically contradictory to its “no backwards compatibility” stance.

PlayStation is fine with reminding people about its history but isn’t bothered with the value of putting in extra work to preserve that history in a meaningful way especially with the new lessons they’ve learnt from past experiences.

Does it have a responsibility to preserve its gaming history? As a gaming cultural juggernaut, yes it does. Outside enthusiasts and volunteers can only do so much.

Only Sony can curate and preserve its history and the medium’s as a whole. Because if it doesn’t, there are alternate means.

Collectors and gaming historians/archivist are going to do their best to preserve the company’s legacy and library, even if it means resorting to piracy or reverse-engineering source codes and making it available to the public. If Sony has a legal issue with this, it has to remember that it didn’t have to be this way since years past. To paraphrase a line from a recent Castle Superbeast podcast:

“If your company is going out of its way to turning its library into abandonware, especially if the public is willing to pay for it, the moral quandary of preservation via piracy is near-absent.”

Author: Mr Toffee

Mr Toffee is a writer, editor, & all-around video game words guy for 9 years, give or take. He also did some story for games like Chain Chronicle and some podcasting on the side. Likes: bacon, Metallica, jogging. Hates: raccoons, oblivion. Twitter: @MrToffee

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