It’s a big day for Xbox fans, with the first year of Xbox One Backward Compatibility coming just ahead of the 15th anniversary of Xbox.
I’ll write about that more general milestone in the coming week, but I think it’s notable that each generation of Xbox console has in some way offered a link to the past despite the underlying platform differences. This provides a continuity for gamers who have invested in the Xbox platform over the years. And it lets great games from the past live on in a way that is elegant and seamless.
For Xbox One, backward compatibility with Xbox 360 games is achieved via emulation, in the same way that Xbox 360 consoles could play original Xbox games. But the Xbox One’s Hyper-V-based underpinnings help this console achieve better levels of performance and reliability.
Oddly, when Microsoft first announced this functionality at E3 2015, it said that Xbox 360 games would run “natively” on the Xbox One, which is of course impossible given the underlying architectural differences between the Xbox One (x86) and Xbox 360 (PowerPC). But it quickly came clean on how this would really work.
“Xbox One Backward Compatibility is an Xbox 360 emulator that runs on Xbox One and is used to play Xbox 360 games,” a Microsoft FAQ noted. “We call it backward compatibility because gamers can play select Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One. However, referring to this functionality as an emulator is more accurate from a technology perspective.”
Over time, we came to better understand how Xbox One Backward Compatibility would work. The feature is free, and doesn’t require Xbox Live Gold. Developers determine which games are available, and it supports both disc-based and digital games. Best of all, all Games with Gold games are compatible, so Xbox One users (with Xbox Live Gold subscriptions) now get four free games every month.
When Xbox One Backward Compatibility first launched in late 2015, there were just over 100 Xbox 360 games in the list, including some heavy hitters like Assassin’s Creed II, Borderlands, Fable II, all four Gears of War games, Perfect Dark Zero, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas and Rainbow Six Vegas 2, and Zuma.
Today, one year from the launch, there are now over 280 Xbox 360 games available via Backward Compatibility. And this week alone, Microsoft added Skate 3, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3. Looking over the full list, I see some amazing games that have been added in the past year, including several Call of Duty titles (Call of Duty 2, 3, World at War and Black Ops), Limbo, Portal 2, and Red Dead Redemption.
That said, I’m curious whether Microsoft will ever be able to achieve the level of success it saw with backward compatibility on the Xbox 360. At its height, the Xbox 360 was compatible with over 460 original Xbox titles, fully 50 percent of all available original Xbox games. But with the Xbox 360 heading off into the sunset earlier this year, backward compatibility with that popular console generation is even more important today. And there are almost 1200 Xbox 360 games, so there’s a lot of room for growth here.
Remastered games designed for the latest console, like we’ve seen with the Halo, Gears of War, and now Call of Duty series help, too, of course. But no matter how you look at it, there’s never been a better time to be an Xbox gamer.