The Ever-Switching Future of Backwards Compatibility Is In Jeopardy

The prospect of the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo's new hybrid home/portable console, is the realization of a long-promised vision: console-level games made available on-the-go. Lots of other portable consoles have tried this only to fall back on a larger backwards compatible catalog of games. I love my Vita and 3DS and their unique games, but I'm increasingly finding myself playing games on them that originally appeared on other platforms first.

I've been thinking a lot about the future of backwards compatibility. Between broken PC and console ports, the choice to buy games digitally or physically, and how it expensive it is to collect old games, it's been harder to figure out what games in the archive will be easier to pick back up down the road. The convenience of accessing old games on newer platforms isn't necessarily a system seller, but it's a significant added bonus when some games are rare.

Let me explain: a few weeks ago, I bought a video game for a console that's no longer in regular production. I bought an MVS copy of Windjammers for the Neo Geo. For the uninitiated, Windjammers is a sports game best described as a cross between frisbee and air hockey, with mechanics that work much like the original Pong. If you never got to check it out at an arcade, watch the gameplay video below.

Awesome, right? Earlier this year, I played it myself for the first time and knew I had to find a way to play it at home. The problem is there is no legal, affordable way of obtaining or playing a copy. SNK, the fighting game-focused developer that only recently returned from the dead, decided that the Neo Geo family of consoles wasn't financially viable for years. Plus, the game's developer Data East went bankrupt in 2003. The only port of Windjammers was available on the Wii Virtual Console in Japan, before being delisted on December 24, 2013. The intellectual rights for Windjammers were acquired by a company called Paon, a Japanese developer of some Donkey Kong games, but the trail runs cold after that, and no plans have been announced for a Windjammers re-release.

Sure, you could emulate Windjammers through well-established arcade machine emulator MAME, but the legal status of that is grey. The emulator itself is legal, but obtaining game ROMs is not unless you own the respective cartridge or disc. Also, building an arcade cabinet at home isn't for the feint-of-heart. Conflating the problem is that obtaining Neo Geo hardware is expensive. Arcade Works, the company making a $500 consolized version of the arcade machine, is backlogged with orders, and making your own Neo Geo from scattered parts is a technical process.

Maybe this is on me for getting in over my head with the Neo Geo. I'm trying to experience games the way they were intended, while also respecting the fact that video game companies have to make money to survive. It hasn't been easy. Over time, industry insiders discovered that video game companies aren't the best stewards of their original game code, and archivists, collectors, and gamers alike are scrambling to keep copies of old games for historical preservation. No Don't Die's David Wolinsky interviewed two such game curators earlier this year, one from the Library of Congress and the other a college professor, revealing that a lot of work on this falls on fans because game companies are still interested in making Greatest Hits or remastered versions of games to keep old games current:


"A lot of the heavy lifting in terms of game preservation work has actually been done by gamers, people who worked at game companies. People who have developed emulators generally don't come from the academic community. A lot of this has just been done by the fan community...The longer stuff goes the harder it is to preserve it."

- Jerome McDonough, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

"If we can all agree on the fact that the Library of Congress is not going to share these trade secrets but rather retain this information for purposes of future preservation and retention for the game companies themselves then I think we can start to make some progress."

- David Gibson, Processing Technician, Library of Congress


Enter Nintendo. Of the major video game companies still in business, Nintendo has been better than most at letting new and old fans play games from their impressive back catalog on their modern-day consoles. Starting from the Super Mario All Stars collection on SNES that united their NES classics, to the re-release of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past on Game Boy Advance, to the 3DS remasters of Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64, and the latest Wii and Wii U's Virtual Console, Nintendo has made some amount of money re-releasing their old games. In 2007 alone, Nintendo made $33 million on the Wii's Virtual Console service, equating to about 7.8 million downloads of old games.

Additionally, Nintendo's split audience of old and new fans forced the company to make many of their consoles backwards compatible with the cartridges or discs of the previous generation when possible. The original DS can play GBA games, the 3DS plays DS games, and the Wii supports Gamecube discs. The forthcoming NES Classic Edition is using emulation to fit 30 NES games into a miniaturized version of the original console. These resold game libraries have some noticeable omissions worth revisiting, but Nintendo has done a better job acknowledging their storied franchises than Sony or Microsoft, who have only recently been paying attention to backwards compatibility support.

However, Nintendo has been less excited about fans emulating their games on their own. Some amount of its back catalog is available for download on the PC for free, albeit illegally. In 2009, Nintendo famously lost a pirating lawsuit to prevent gamers from using third-party flash cards to create their own software on DS cards, which could open up a backdoor to get ROMs playable on the handheld. Separately, the company actively shuts down lots of fan games with DMCA takedown notices, including the recent Metroid II fan game, AM2R.

The gambit of the new Nintendo Switch is interesting in this context. Last week's reveal trailer showed footage of first-party games like Splatoon. But it also featured third-party games that appeared on non-Nintendo platforms, Skyrim. Are these games playable via emulation, or is Nintendo releasing separate Switch-specific versions of these games?

Changing to Switch-specific game cards prevents Nintendo from making the Switch completely backwards compatible, as the Wii U has disc-based games and the 3DS has its own cartridges. However, it's still possible that digital versions of these games might run on the Switch. Developer DeNA is partnering with Nintendo to build an online Nintendo Account-system much like PSN and Xbox Live so that consumers only have to buy an old game once for it to work on any Nintendo console moving forward.

Nintendo also faces a declining console market year after year, with sales of the Wii U lagging behind some of its predecessors. The company indicated that they're interested in separating Nintendo games from Nintendo hardware, which is why the Super Mario Run mobile announcement was a big deal. Will they offer a Netflix-style monthly service where $10 per month gives you unlimited access to every Mario game ever made? Will my digital versions of Monster Hunter Generations or The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD work on the Switch? Will the Switch be Nintendo's last console before they sell character licenses only, as a third-party developer and publisher? Will Nintendo care enough to open up their vault?

The future of backwards compatibility depends on the present of new hardware, a tradition now challenged by Sony's PS4 Pro and Microsoft's Xbox One S as mid-generation console upgrades. Sony made a big deal about making some PS3 games available through Playstation Now and released a sizeable library of PS1, PSP, and PS2 downloadable games on the Vita and PS4. Remember when the PS2 could run PS1 games, and the launch PS3 could run PS2 games? Microsoft continues to bring more and more Xbox 360 games playable on the Xbox One. Nintendo games will almost certainly be preserved by an avid fanbase, some of whom actually work at Nintendo, but the rest is unclear.

Will the games developed for these consoles work best on the platforms they were developed for, or better on newer hardware? As the Neo Geo situation has shown me, enterprising players will find a way to get old things running on new system setups, but it's troubling that these companies ignore or battle these efforts. For example, the fan-made and supported Dolphin emulator on the PC makes most Wii games look noticeably better.I've maintained a personal collection of physical cartridges, discs, and hardware, but I'm really worried about the real problem of disc and bit rot that ruins my old favorites, physical or digital.

Also, let's say these game companies go bankrupt for whatever reason. What happens when game services like Steam, Xbox Live, and PSN permanently shut down someday? Where do my purchases go? How will I keep my games? If video game companies continue to crack down on emulation projects or don't cooperate with preservation efforts, the best games of yesteryear will never be playable by future generations.

There should be more accessible ways to preserve and play games from the past that don't rely on fans keeping them alive. Otherwise, Windjammers and games like it will be lost to time. Then my nostalgia will be just that: a faded memory of once great games.