A huge amount of backwards compatible games are coming to the X-Box One, both hugely popular ones and less popular cult titles.

The beautiful promise of backwards compatibility – and the sad reality

From April 26, approximately 3% of all original Xbox games will be available in their original form on the Xbox One. That’s more than you can play on the Playstation 4 – but still far, far from what we hoped for, writes Adam Goodall.

On Tuesday, Microsoft announced that they’d be bringing 19 games from the original Xbox to the Xbox One. This brings the total number of original Xbox games available on the Xbox One, backwards-compatible and in as close to their original form as possible, to 32.

Which is great! I grew up playing Xbox games; me and my sister sacrificed two years of our weekly allowance to get an Xbox launch bundle in 2002. And though old Wheezy (each Xbox had its own randomised name, which is the kind of innovation that I’m all in for) has long since died, the games I played on him meant a lot to me. I’m glad they’ll get a new life. Or some of them, at least.

Remember when games used to have covers?

BLINX THE TIME-SWEEPER

Blinx the Time-Sweeper is one of those games. I really liked Blinx, even if the character was basically Bubsy with an early 2000s edge. It looked great for 2002: Blinx ran around Seussian landscapes that twisted and tilted into the sky, fighting gooberish time monsters with big googly eyes whose fluorescent colours popped against the cobbles and curves. It also had a range of time manipulation mechanics – you could pause, record, fast-forward, rewind or slow down the action – that were fun to play with and beat Braid to the punch by six years.

For every Blinx, though, there’s a Dr Muto, or a Toejam & Earl III, or a Vexx. Vexx was one of the victims of Acclaim’s collapse in 2004. The game hasn’t been re-released since, despite video game publisher Throwback Entertainment buying the rights in 2006. Dr Muto’s publisher, Midway Games, went bankrupt in 2009. And even though Toejam & Earl III’s publisher is still around, that game isn’t available anywhere. It’s not even back-compatible on the Xbox 360. I enjoyed all of those games, too.

Another relic from a different time.

BREAKDOWN

I’m highlighting some middling games here, sure. I’m probably the only person with fond memories of playing the Dr. Muto demo in Noel Leeming Palmerston North. But there are also strange and idiosyncratic games like Breakdown, a first-person brawler I desperately wanted to play but never did, that are being forgotten in the same way.

I only ever played Breakdown in my head, filling in the gaps left by screenshots and reviews in Official Xbox Magazine. I can play it next Tuesday, though, if I want to really traverse the gap between what I thought it was and what it actually is. I can’t have that same experience with Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors, the stylish and obscure demon-killing game from Dark Souls developers From Software. I’d need to set up a Trademe alert for that.

This is the problem. After April 26, approximately three percent of all original Xbox games will be available in their original form on the Xbox One, not remastered or ported or remade. That’s better than what’s available on the Playstation 4: one PS2 game, the comic book-styled first-person shooter XIII, is available in its original form on Playstation Now. It’s also better than what’s available on the Switch, whose retro offers are almost entirely drawn from Hamster Co’s Arcade Archives series. And you’re shit out of luck if, say, you want to revisit Breakdown but you don’t own an Xbox One.

The preservation and accessibility of video game history is too reliant on the industry’s own beneficence. The majority of back-compatible Xbox games on Xbox One have been published by Disney, Microsoft or THQ Nordic. Will Ubisoft ever be interested in making Rocky Legends or Deathrow backwards compatible? Will Vivendi bother with Metal Arms: Glitch in the System? And what about games like Psi-Ops and The Suffering, whose publishers have dropped off the face of the earth?

In a 2004 paper titled ‘Use of a Game Over: Emulation and the Video Game Industry’, a group of Northwestern University academics addressed Sony’s litigation against two emulator developers, Connectix and Bleem. They wrote that the litigation showed that the games industry was ‘threatened’ by emulators because they exposed and undermined the industry’s dominant business model: “planned obsolescence; a singular, controlled user experience on the console manufacturer’s hardware; and a profit model dependent on margins from software sales.” That model hasn’t changed.

This is, no shit, what games used to actually look like.

PANZER DRAGOON ORTA

I have Panzer Dragoon Orta. I got it from the Cash Converters in Palmerston North last year, $10. I haven’t played it yet, partly because of time and partly because, while it’s back-compatible on the Xbox 360, it apparently crashes after the end of the third level and you have to play at least twenty hours worth of those first three levels to get around that.

Video game preservation can’t be done by halves. Take the Xbox 360. The 360 runs a software emulator for the original Xbox rather than incorporating legacy hardware like the PS3 does. That means that when you put an old Xbox disc in a 360, it downloads an emulation profile so that you can run the disc. But Microsoft stopped releasing and updating those profiles in 2007, which means hooks and hang-ups like that third-level crash in Panzer Dragoon Orta are just there. They’re part of the experience now, even if they weren’t before.

Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy is a game which is unlikely to be revived by this new slate of backwards compatability releases.

HUNTER THE RECKONING

In a talk he gave at the 2016 Game Developers Conference, video game archivist Frank Cifaldi pointed out that piecemeal emulation has limited potential. If it’s piecemeal, it’s usually limited to one platform; the pool of what’s emulated is small and often arbitrarily chosen; and there’s typically no added value – no archival material, no commentaries, nothing but the bare bones.

Microsoft’s commitment to backwards compatibility on the Xbox One is a good first step but it is also the definition of piecemeal. There is no reason that Hunter The Reckoning, a messy top-down action RPG with a corny goth aesthetic, should be more accessible to the public than any of the games I’ve mentioned before. Hunter The Reckoning is really good. I had a lot more Official Xbox Magazine demo discs than I did actual games because my dad used to get unsold magazines from dairies, and the Hunter demo was one I came back to again and again. But it’s no more or less significant or worth playing than Psi-Ops or Toejam & Earl III.

Knights of the Old Republic II is one of the more popular (if maligned) games in the new slate.

STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC II

Four and a half years into this current console generation, none of Sony’s PS One Classics range have been made available on the PS4. Nintendo has abandoned the Wii U, which had a strong Virtual Console line-up, and has made no public announcement about a Virtual Console on the Switch. Microsoft’s made 466 Xbox 360 games backwards-compatible and are genuinely committing to making them look better on new hardware, but only 3% of original Xbox games are available to Xbox One users.

Beyond those three companies, we’re seeing the history and development of a significant cultural medium disappear because corporations want to protect their corner. In his GDC talk, Cifaldi points out that from a random selection of thirty significant games released in 1989 only one is available on more than one platform. Compare that to cinema, or literature. Imagine a world where only one of Cahiers du Cinema’s top ten movies of 1989 was available at all, and it was only available to people who owned a $400 piece of hardware. It’s an utter failure of the video game industry’s secretive, hypercapitalist mindset that executives see a choice between supporting low-cost emulation across a variety of platforms or letting the history of a medium die.

So we’re left to rely on volunteers to keep the history alive. Those volunteers are doing good work. They’ve been doing good work since the 1990s. But they’re going to miss things, and that’s even once you discount mods, downloadable content and online-only games like Chromehounds and Steel Battalion: Line of Contact. Take Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II. KOTOR II was shipped in a rush, meaning that a lot of its content (like its true endings) was half-finished and left on the disc, incomplete and inaccessible. KOTOR II’s biggest fans swear up and down that the only way to play it now is with the Restored Content mod that restored that content, refurbishing the game and fixing a lot of bugs in the process. But it, and mods like it, probably don’t figure in any corporation’s plans for archiving their back catalogues. They may well be missed by people doing this for the love of the game.

If we’re drip-fed access to video game history, there’s a very real risk that we’re going to lose significant parts of it. Whether they were good, bad or totally unremarkable, there are going to be games that we lose in their original form: games that set the ground rules, games that were interesting or weird or just waiting for someone to discover them, games that meant something to someone. More needs to be done to save the past, and the industry can start by getting past the idea that all of this is just intellectual property management.

Anyway, get Blinx. It’s better than people remember.


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This post, like all our gaming content, comes to your peepers only with the support of Bigpipe Broadband

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