Three years later, Microsoft’s bet on Xbox One backward-compatible games is still paying off

Microsoft’s bet on Xbox One backward-compatible games is still paying off

Three years later, Microsoft’s bet on Xbox One backward-compatible games is still paying off

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, announces the addition of original Xbox titles to the library of backward-compatible games for Xbox One at E3 2017. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision for Microsoft/AP Images)

It has been nearly three years since Microsoft announced plans to make older Xbox games playable on Xbox One, and if there’s one area in which the company has pulled ahead of its competition in the console wars, it’s in backward compatibility.

You can’t play your PSOne, PS2, or PS3 discs on a PlayStation 4, and the Nintendo Switch doesn’t even have a disc drive, but Microsoft has slowly been adding Xbox One support for older games in the Xbox library since 2015, when the feature was introduced as part of the “New Xbox Live Experience.” Since then, according to the company, backward compatibility has become one of the most popular features on the Xbox One, with around 500 games currently supported.

The capability enables scenarios such as this recent anecdote from Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox.

Older titles are supported via custom emulation software, which allows you to run discs from the Xbox or Xbox 360 on the Xbox One. This presented Microsoft with a series of programming challenges, since the Xbox One has the horsepower to run older games, but is running distinctly different hardware than the earlier systems.

This past week, Microsoft announced the addition of 19 new titles to their backward-compatible library. The games, all of which are titles for the original Xbox, are coming out in two batches over the course of the next couple of weeks.

Official Microsoft art for the next wave of backward-compatible Xbox titles.
  • On April 19, Blinx: The Time Sweeper, Breakdown, Conker: Live Reloaded, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Hunter: The Reckoning, Jade Empire, Panzer Dragoon Orta, and SSX 3 will all be made backward-compatible.
  • Those will be followed on April 26 by Destroy All Humans!, Full Spectrum Warrior, Mercenaries: Playground Of Destruction, MX Unleashed, Panzer Elite Action: Fields Of Glory, Star Wars: Battlefront, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Star Wars: Jedi Knight – Jedi Academy, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter, Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II, and Star Wars: Republic Commando.

You’ll be able to download each game digitally on the Xbox Live store for a price, but if you have or can find the physical discs, they’ll play in your Xbox One via emulation.

The Star Wars games were big hits for the system back in the day, as you can comfortably expect from the name, and since there are a lot of copies in circulation at retro stores, you can pick them up for a song. Knights of the Old Republic II is one of the great all-time classic Star Wars games, and is a must-play for fans of both the franchise and computer RPGs, but its Xbox version is also notoriously unfinished. At this point, you’d do better to pick KOTOR2 up for the PC, in order to run Team Gizka’s Restored Content Mod.

For my money, the gem in this pile is Namco’s obscure brawler Breakdown. It’s a first-person shooter made by a Japanese company for the original Xbox, which makes it statistically one of a kind; the Xbox was (and still is, somewhat) notorious for its lack of Japanese third-party support, and Japanese developers almost never work in first-person. You play as an amnesiac special-forces operative who wakes up in a secret lab — yes, it sounds cliche, but this game came out in 2003, so cut it some slack — to discover you’re at ground zero of an alien invasion.

Breakdown made a few headlines back in the day for its commitment to staying in first-person perspective no matter what, even if your character is fist-fighting, doing back flips, or vomiting; you also spend the first half of the game or so hallucinating wildly, so your environment can rarely be trusted. It’s an interesting predecessor to later games like Condemned that would play with immersion and narrative in a similar way, and it’s well worth checking out.

Sega’s Panzer Dragoon Orta has, as of this writing, never been ported to another system, and represents the last entry to date in what was once a famous series; after Orta‘s release, the internal team at Sega that made Panzer Dragoon games was disbanded. Orta is a shoot-’em-up where you play from the back of a dragon, shooting down enemies in a constant series of aerial battles. It threads the needle between an arcade game and a then-modern narrative experience, and never quite got the fame it deserved when it was new. As with all Panzer Dragoon games, finding an original disc of the game is like a gold strike; putting Orta on the Xbox Live store should make it available to a brand-new audience that would otherwise have no chance at all of finding it.

Blinx the Time Sweeper is in a similar boat. It’s another Xbox exclusive that never quite took off, and which has never appeared on any other platform in the 16 years since its release. (In the great hall of Cartoon Mascots That Didn’t Get Famous, Blinx has a seat at the head of the table with Kameo and that ska-band-looking doofus from Haven: Call of the King.) It’s a colorful, imaginative puzzle-platformer, where you solve problems and get around obstacles via clever use of short-duration time travel. For some reason, despite the fact that Blinx is weirdly memetically famous, the series didn’t go anywhere; a sequel sank like a stone in 2004 and Microsoft officially abandoned the Blinx trademark in 2015.

If you haven’t played them already, you should also be sure to check out Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, an open-world shoot-’em-up that’s been somewhat overshadowed by the sheer insanity of its sequel, World in Flames; and Full Spectrum Warrior, a game that depicts tactical infantry combat so realistically that a modded version has been used as a psychiatric tool to help soldiers cope with PTSD.

The Xbox One has a number of serious problems at the moment, not least of which is a strange lack of exclusive titles (and of the ones it has, almost all of them are also available on Windows 10). However, through backward compatibility, it’s at least maintained continuity with many of the titles that put the Xbox on the map in the first place. If you’re new to consoles, the original Xbox in particular had a lot of really interesting, experimental games that a lot of people slept on, and through digital downloads and backward compatibility, many of them have a shot at a second chance.

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