PS5 backwards compatibility: has Sony made a mistake?

Players want more than just PS4 games on the PS5, but will Sony unleash the classics?

by Daryl Baxter

Last week Sony shared a presented that was meant to be displayed at the Game Developers Conference, but due to the COVID-19 situation, was live-streamed online instead.

People hoped for games to be announced, others wanted the final design of the PS5, forgetting that this presentation was originally meant to be for gaming industry professionals.

Personally, I loaded up the live-stream hoping for some clarity on one important feature: the level of backwards compatibility that the PS5 will have with previous generations of PlayStation games.

Sony’s Mark Cerny mentioned that the ‘top 100 PS4 games’ will be playable on PS5, and I was left puzzled. What about the rest of the PS4 games, and all the great titles from the PS3, PS2 and PS1? It was easy to conjure dramatic questions like this: is the history of PlayStation being erased?

Cerny promised developers a ‘PS4 Legacy Mode’ and a ‘PS4 Pro Legacy Mode’ in the backend of the PS5, but he said nothing about the older generations that came before Sony’s current console.

Sony then updated a blog post to clarify that ‘4000+ PS4 titles will be playable on PS5’. This didn’t make matters any less puzzling. In fact, that’s when I got concerned.

Concerned that Sony has no interest in making its past library playable on the PlayStation 5. I feel like they’re completely missing the point of what makes backwards-compatibility an instant-win for them. It’s like they’re forgetting what nostalgia-fuelled fans want. Let’s remind ourselves…

Why PS5 backwards compatibility is important

It’s been twenty-five years since the launch of the first PlayStation console.

Since 1995, there have been countless games that have defined people’s careers, and even people’s marriages. Children have been named after Lara Croft and Aerith, while close friendships were formed over renting certain games from a nearby Blockbuster. [Intense flashback to tackling Disk 2 of Final Fantasy VIII over a weekend.]

All of these memories have come from the PlayStation, and you would think, as it is 25 years since the original PlayStation launched, that the latest console would have backwards-compatibility as a key feature in this generation.

Make absolutely everything from the PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 available on the PlayStation 5 and the fans will be very happy.

The updated blog post has me thinking that it’s a near-certainty that this won’t happen.

People love nostalgia; it’s a powerful emotion, as it can bring you back to a happy time when you first played games such as Metal Gear Solid and Gex. To be able to play those again on the PlayStation 5 would have been a fantastic feature.

Microsoft has been supporting backwards-compatibility ever since the Xbox 360, where a dedicated team created an emulator that would run certain Xbox games on the console, and when it came to the Xbox One, almost the full library of 360 games were available two years into the launch of the console.

Nowadays you can simply place a game from the Xbox 360 into the disk-drive of an Xbox One, and there should be next to no issues in playing it as normal. It even has achievements still working in these games, and some even have enhancements to it, such as Halo 3.

Following that form, Microsoft has touted backwards-compatibility as a tentpole feature in the deep-dive of the Xbox Series X.

There was a time where, every month, Major Nelson would announce what games would be available to play over at Xbox. I remember when Tekken Tag 2 was announced to be playable on the Xbox One, and all I had to do was insert my disk into the console. It was a great feeling, and one of ‘coming home’. It felt great to play it in the front room again, and on a newer console.

But with Sony, backwards-compatibility is being conveyed to us like an afterthought; as a footnote on the whole console. The conference at GDC was nothing special, even if the silhouette of a crowd gave the impression Mark Cerny was presenting to Kermit the Frog and the gang, but specs were laid out.

After last week with this and the blog post, my impressions were this: saying that ‘100 games from PS4 would be playable’ is a mistake, and updating a blog post saying ‘4000 PS4 Games’ is also a mistake.

It’s a massive opportunity being missed out on here, and everything points to them just conveying an image of wanting to sweep backwards-compatibility under a rug.

Sony has twenty-five years of a back-catalogue that could come over to the PlayStation 5. Imagine just slotting in your Tekken 2 disk and it appears on the home screen, ready to be played, and in a better frame rate and resolution, thanks to some wizardry at Sony.

Or even having online-multiplayer in Ridge Racer Type 4, it would be fantastic being able to do that on the PlayStation 5.

It would be the ‘wow’ factor of the console; it would transport the player back to when they were a kid, unwrapping Tekken 2 at Christmas in 1996, freshly discovering how to unlock Roger the Kangaroo for example. The fun of playing it on a newer console would be fantastic.

How to play PS1, PS2 and PS3 games in 2020

As it stands we have two methods to play older games via current PlayStation hardware.

We have the cloud service of PS Now, which has twenty PlayStation 2 games, most of which aren’t fondly-remembered classics, so don’t expect Metal Gear Solid 2 or Onimusha 2 to be on here. There’s also no games from the first PlayStation, which is baffling in itself. PS Now has been available for five years now, but the marketing of the service as whole has just left consumers feeling confused as to what it actually can do, and what it’s available on. It used to be available on certain TV’s, but that was taken away, a move I’ve always thought was a mistake. It does work on PS4 and PC, though.

Alternatively, you can boot up your old PS3 or PS Vita and enjoy their libraries of older games. The PS3 can also accept discs from the PlayStation 1 and allow you to play them that way.

If you’re lucky to own one of the first PlayStation 3 consoles, they contain the PlayStation 2 ‘Emotion Engine’ chip, which enabled the PS3 to accept PS2 discs. Later editions of the PS3 tragically dropped this feature.

But that’s it. There’s no easy way to play most classic games from previous generations on PS4, and it’s starting to sound like the PS5 will lack this feature too.

What does the future hold for PS5 backwards compatibility?

We’ve been promised 4000 PS4 games on PS5, then, but there’s still no word on whether the PS1, PS2 and PS3 libraries will be dusted off for the next generation of gamers to discover on PlayStation 5.

I’m sure people would be willing to pay to play through an entire catalogue of games from the last 25 years of PlayStation. From the unnoticed to the acclaimed, people would surely hand over their cast to play a game from their childhood on this new console.

But it seems as though Sony want to bury it. Granted, there’s a chance I could be very wrong here. I’d love to be proven wrong, in fact: if Sony announces a better backwards compatibility offering, all would be forgiven. (Well, most things would be forgiven…)

Perhaps, come E3 week in June, we will see what the console and the controller will look like, and then we will see a surprise reveal of classic games running on the PS5.

But the messaging and the marketing, so far, has shown me otherwise, and it’s a great shame.

For now, my PS3 still has a place in my office, and my PS Vita will always have a place in my bag, ready to play Tomb Raider 2 at a moment’s notice.

I just want to play the Venice stage on my PS5, with Lara in the boat, the iconic music playing, ready to share it to the world.

What’s stopping you, Sony?

Daryl Baxter