How important should backward compatibility be for Nintendo?

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Backward compatibility has often been a sore spot for Nintendo fans. Many players lament not being able to carry their libraries forward to a new console, while others are ready to move on to the new games Nintendo has to offer. Nintendo itself has been inconsistent with its approach to backward compatibility. Nintendo’s handhelds have reaped the benefits of the feature for years, but Nintendo’s home systems haven’t always been able to implement native backward compatibility due to radically different console designs between generations. Nintendo Switch is the latest console to lack true backward compatibility, but while this is frustrating for fans, is this really an issue for Nintendo?

Nintendo’s history with backward compatibility

In terms of Nintendo home consoles, the Switch is an outlier in recent history when it comes to backward compatibility. GameCube games were playable on the Wii, and the Wii U was backward-compatible with Wii games and accessories. It’s hard to quantify how much the feature was used on these consoles, but it must have been an appreciated benefit for players that wanted to bring their libraries forward or experience titles they may have missed out on.

The lack of backward compatibility on Switch isn’t surprising. Nintendo often tries to reinvent the wheel with each console generation, and sometimes the unfortunate byproduct of that is the physical incapability space-wise to implement backward compatibility features, to say nothing of the more serious architectural differences.

Nintendo’s handhelds have fared better by comparison, with most handheld devices offering direct backward compatibility with the previous system. By making most handhelds backward-compatible, Nintendo effectively kept its popular games relevant for longer, and perhaps that could explain a little of the tremendous success of games like the Pokémon series.

Nintendo backward compatibility backward compatible Nintendo Switch video games

Despite the inconsistent support for backward compatibility, I’d wager that Nintendo isn’t unaware of the benefits to it. Virtual Console on Wii, Wii U, and Nintendo 3DS was a nice alternative for players that wanted to play legacy titles. However, it was still annoying to have to pay for games that players already owned on past systems, even if it was just to bring them to the new console for a fee.

Nintendo has a habit of finding ways to re-release the same legacy titles, and it’s almost always at a new cost to consumers. In recent years, numerous remasters and remakes of classic Nintendo games have been (somewhat) easier to justify paying full price for. However, Nintendo’s interest in bringing back native backward compatibility is unclear, especially when there are better profits to be made from selling classic games back to their fans in various forms.

Game preservation is more relevant than ever

Gaming has become more and more of a digital medium. The percentage of players that purchase digital games over physical games has only been increasing in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly accelerated the trend. Digital gaming is certainly convenient for many gamers, but it comes with drawbacks too. The availability of digital games is, unfortunately, at the mercy of their developer or publisher.

If a publisher decides to remove a digital game from stores or a developer loses the original code, then it becomes much harder and/or more expensive to get a hold of. Both of these scenarios were demonstrated recently: Sony has decided to shut down its digital storefront for PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable (PSP), and PlayStation Vita, and Team Ninja claims to have lost the original source code for 2004’s Ninja Gaiden and 2008’s Ninja Gaiden II, preventing the original versions from appearing in the upcoming collection. Nintendo itself has now removed Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Super Mario Bros. 35, and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light from physical and digital stores.

While players can still obtain most of these games through other means, it’s a lot less consumer-friendly to force consumers to go through these more inconvenient channels. Native backward compatibility would alleviate a lot of the concerns about access to legacy games as we move forward into an increasingly digital-centric medium.

Nintendo backward compatibility backward compatible Nintendo Switch video games

Beyond the importance of accessibility to classic titles, backward compatibility would also serve a role in boosting the brand image that Nintendo takes so seriously. Letting players bring forward their purchased games with minimal inconvenience adds value to those purchases and gives off a consumer-friendly vibe that would promote positive feelings towards the Japanese giant. Microsoft’s backward compatibility initiative has demonstrated this in action. Maintaining access to older games, therefore, has its share of benefits, such as appeasing both new and loyal fans, in addition to enriching brand image. However, does Nintendo have enough incentive to invest in it?

Nintendo doesn’t need to care about it

Nintendo hasn’t done much in the realm of backward compatibility for Switch, especially when looking at the competition. But there is also the question of whether players actually use backward-compatibility features. Data in recent years suggests that the majority of players with access to backward-compatible features are not making use of them. If that’s true, then Nintendo may not consider backward compatibility features worth devoting development time and money towards.

Nintendo backward compatibility backward compatible Nintendo Switch video games
Image credit: arstechnica

Developing a console with backward compatibility in mind also means that Nintendo needs to ensure some similarity between the architecture of both console generations. Could that be restrictive for a company that refuses to compromise on its own creativity? There are plenty of backward-compatible Nintendo consoles that would imply otherwise, but could we have gotten the Switch if Nintendo had to design it with Wii U backward compatibility in mind?

Aside from technical hurdles, there are also financial considerations. The record-breaking sales success of Nintendo Switch is stronger than ever, with the console likely to surpass the Wii in sales before too long. Nintendo is also covered on the software sales front thanks to recent hits like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It would make no business sense for Nintendo to invest resources into backward compatibility features right now, like adapters, that couldn’t meaningfully contribute to the financial success Nintendo is currently enjoying.

The existence of the NES and SNES Nintendo Switch Online services, as well as remakes like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, lend credence to the idea that Nintendo thinks it’s more profitable to provide access to its past library by alternative means. That said, the lack of access to most retro games from the Nintendo 64 and onward is a strange omission to this approach. Regardless of the method, it isn’t like Nintendo to leave legacy game-related profits off the table, so I’d speculate that there could more to come on this front eventually. In the meantime, the unfortunate truth is that Nintendo has little incentive to support backward compatibility, and that’s unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

How would you like to see Nintendo approach backward compatibility?

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and enjoys all things Japanese.