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Game consoles and the death of backward-compatibility: Why we don't care

The Nintendo Wii's dropping support for the GameCube in a recent redesign. Here's why it really doesn't matter.

Will you miss these?
Will you miss these? Scott Stein/CNET

Today's news from overseas about Nintendo's slightly redesigned and price-dropped Wii isn't much of a surprise, with the Wii U around the corner. Neither is the new Wii's dropping of backward-compatible support for the GameCube and its peripherals. In fact, it nearly comes as a footnote.

Honestly, some people might be shocked that the Wii can even play GameCube games at all. Those small discs, looking like giveaways from some '90s music magazine, slot into the current Wii's disc slot (even though DVDs won't work). Even the GameCube controllers--and other peripherals--plug in via a door on the side. That's generous of Nintendo, but hardly necessary. Unless you have a large collection of GameCube discs, most memorable Nintendo games are easily gotten via Virtual Console downloads, re-issued Wii-ified versions, or improved franchise sequels.

Do we care about backward-compatibility in our game consoles? Well, maybe we used to. It's getting harder and harder to care. Here's why.

'Next-gen' consoles are getting long in the tooth, and have plenty of games as it is.
The PlayStation 3 removed its PlayStation 2 backward-compatibility years ago. At first, people cried out: once the PS3 library was large enough and had enough quality discount and used games out in stores, it hardly mattered. The Wii is the same way. Why focus on GameCube games when so many Wii games are out there to be played?

The Xbox 360 started adding backwards-compatibility with a list of Xbox games, then stopped. In the end, there are only so many hours in the day, and so many games to play.

Handhelds are, arguably, the more important territory for backward-compatible gaming: Finding small, cheap used Game Boy Advance cartridges or UMD discs to stick in your handheld game system is no easier than hunting for old PS2 games. Nintendo had Game Boy Advance support on the Nintendo DS, then dropped it. The 3DS supports DS games. The PSP Go tried to drop UMD discs for download-only content, but was discontinued. The PS Vita won't be able to use PSP UMDs, but Sony's online store has plenty of digital versions of PSP classics. Which brings us to...

Downloadable game stores are repositories for retro.
They also re-charge you for titles you already own. Still, having all that content on PSN, Xbox Live Arcade and the Wii Shop adds hundreds of games to already-large libraries, and offers the average person more than enough old-school gaming to give them their fill...and then some.

The trend's growing in the app age: Apple's App Store, Steam, and GOG (Good Old Games) are all cheap, gigantic catalogs for games, brimming with old titles. Good Old Games is a favorite around the CNET offices: retro games are cheap and plentiful, although you'll need a PC to play. Steam's frequent sales offer classic games for next to nothing. Most notable of all, Apple's game-changing App Store has thousands of games, many of which are retro or retro-inspired, with nearly none under ten dollars. If the future of handhelds, or of gaming in general, lies in what Apple has birthed, then it simply doesn't pay to hang onto old discs.

The negatives: out-of-print classics, saving money.
The obvious downside to losing backwards compatibility is twofold: first, we lose access to some great games that may never again see the light of day. Some collectors and fans may bemoan this, but the real truth remains that most great games eventually come back out of the woodwork in some way, shape or form. (See: Rez, Marvel vs. Capcom) For the rest, you can keep your old console.

Saving money: Well, yes, we deserve to play our old games and not have to re-purchase them again later on. The same argument holds for books we re-purchase on our Kindle, or DVDs we buy in digital format or on Blu-ray. The bigger concern I see with the future of backward-compatibility is not what happens with old discs, but with old downloadable games with DRM.

Will a PlayStation 4 play or import PS3 games bought over PSN? Transferring games from one console to another borders on the ridiculous if you're an Xbox 360 owner, and impossible if you're a Wii owner. The 3DS finally allows digital transfers of old DSi Shop games, but some titles are prevented from making the leap if they're no longer on Nintendo's e-shop: like, inexplicably, one pinball game I purchased.

What do you think? A big deal, or not a big one at all? Backwards-compatibility issues strike all tech, just in different ways. After all, even the App Store faces backwards-incompatibility with some games and apps and older iPhones.

If you really care, buy an old console/handheld.
Plenty of Dreamcast and Game Boy fans rally around old hardware they've held onto or picked up again. Sega has made a whole side business out of repackaging and shrinking down the Sega Genesis. Heck, you could even seek out an Atari 2600, just in case you don't care for emulators.

The good news about old games is this: storage keeps getting cheaper and systems are getting more and more powerful. Old games can be re-released by the dozens on compilation discs and for download. In another ten years, you'll probably be able to tons of older games via cloud-based delivery for what amounts to pennies, much like Netflix instant streaming.

Backwards-compatibility is what it's always been: a hook to lure new owners to software-deprived new platforms. Once a software collection's sufficiently developed, backwards compatibility is dropped. Dare we ever think it will be otherwise?

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