Nintendo and Next Gen Digital Backwards Compatibility

virtual-console

The latest Nintendo Direct teased a lot of stuff for late 2013 and beyond, but the announcements of the most immediate concern affect the Wii U’s OS, including Virtual Console’s debut on the hardware. Nintendo’s handling of it brings up a lot of business issues, but also technical ones that aren’t immediately perceptible.

So they’re gonna try to bring the Wii’s Virtual Console library to the Wii U’s eShop over the next few months, but they can’t bring over every game at once, and there’s also an upgrade fee for each game you already own but want to play with all the Wii U’s basic features. This contrasts with other services that just let you bring legacy software over to new hardware without any additional charges or hassles.

The biggest problem for Nintendo is the fact that they’re bringing the old software over to new hardware. This is a problem that all game console upgrades face but one that Apple or Android don’t really have to. People are used to those operating systems now, but each one is a single OS running across a range of devices. Each game console on the other hand is its own OS and architecture that isn’t really supposed to run legacy software.

That’s the challenge of backwards compatibility, which neither Sony nor Microsoft has yet had to face when it comes to digital media. Nintendo has at least been able to ensure that all of your digital media from the Wii will play on the Wii U, if only with limited functionality. The same thing happens when you run digital software from the Nintendo DS on your 3DS — the system boots into DS mode, locking out any 3DS-specific features, yet no one has called Nintendo out on this.

The only area in digital distribution of legacy console software that you can really say offers better service is Sony’s handling of digital PS1 games. Nevermind them being the same price as NES games on Virtual Console, but Sony has ensured that you can play any digital PS1 game you buy on your PS3, PSP, or Vita with all the basic functionality of each piece of hardware. It’d be amazing if you could play all those Virtual Console games across your Wii, Wii U, and 3DS as easily. The reason you can’t though is almost definitely more of a technical problem than a business problem.

Sony has probably just about perfected one large emulator it uses for all its PS1 games, so all it has to do is port that one emulator to any new hardware they make. When Nintendo brings a game onto Virtual Console however, it creates a new emulator for that individual game. The result is more accurate emulation of each game, but brining Virtual Console to new hardware means porting all the games one by one. All those Virtual Console games were emulated one-by-one to work on the Wii alone, that’s why they created Wii mode in the Wii U’s main menu, which basically switches the Wii U into a Wii while you’re playing any Wii software.

Really, the same thing happens when you play a PS2 game on the PS3. It logs you out of PlayStation Network and momentarily disconnects your controller. I think digital PS2 games work the same way, but you also have to re-buy those anyway.

Porting each individual Virtual Console game to run natively on the Wii U probably brings in new costs for Nintendo, and Nintendo has chosen to lay those costs onto the consumer in the form of $1 fees for upgrading each NES game or $1.50 for each SNES game. It may very well be a valid argument that Nintendo should’ve just shouldered that cost themselves. That’s probably the real core of the whole argument you could make against their move. I think it’ll be interesting to see how this looks after we see what kind of backwards compatibility Sony’s and Microsoft’s next consoles offer.

Chances are looking good that Xbox 360 content might be compatible with the next generation Xbox — the only challenge being the move from a PowerPC to an x86 processor. Things may be tougher for Sony though, having probably elected to ditch the Cell processor from the PS4. I imagine PS1 games will still transfer right over since they’ve gotten that emulator down pat. Who knows, it might even reintroduce native PS2 backwards compatibility. The part that’s cloudy is games made specifically for the PS3.

Anyway, since the upcoming consoles won’t be available until at least the end of this year, and Virtual Console on the Wii U may not really get started up until the latter half of 2013, we can only really speculate right now. Digital backwards compatibility is probably gonna be one of the hot-button issues in gaming come later this year.

BULLETS:

  • Nice pay-what-you-want PDF of Zac Gorman’s comics, art, and other works: http://t.co/KryYKF7d
  • Honestly, I like Wired’s headline for their response to Nintendo Direct: http://flip.it/oTV17 
  • I feel like Ni No Kuni is the console JRPG that we should’ve had back in 2007, not at the end of the generation.
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One thought on “Nintendo and Next Gen Digital Backwards Compatibility

  1. [...] A while ago I did a post talking about the challenges Nintendo faces in getting its digital library running on the Wii U. People have criticized their handling of backwards compatibility on the system, but at least the Wii U has backwards compatibility. [...]

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