16

The first five generations of game consoles typically had no backward compatibility. New console, new hardware design, new games. (An exception was the Atari 7800, which as far as I know was the first console to have backward compatibility. Conjecture: this was because it was released in the aftermath of Atari's dramatic fall from leading position, creating a very strong incentive to try to recapture what they had.)

The PlayStation 2 famously had backward compatibility, essentially by incorporating a PS1 onto a chip (and of course taking advantage of the ability of a DVD drive to read CDs).

But subsequent consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii began a strange pattern: initial backward compatibility subsequently dropped in a cost-reduced model. I can understand the desire to reduce cost by cutting features, and that backward compatibility is less important as a console builds up its own catalog, but I would also have expected the cost of continuing to provide it to keep dropping. (If it's just one cheap chip, might as well keep it.)

Conjecture: By the seventh generation, silicon process technology was not improving as rapidly as it had, so the cost of continuing to provide backward compatibility stayed nontrivial.

Alternative conjecture: Moore's law was still running fine, and the real reason for dropping compatibility was to encourage people to buy new games, which is where the profit in the console business comes from.

The first conjecture would predict temporary backward compatibility began with the seventh generation. The second would predict it could happen in any generation (except where there was something like a medium change from cartridge to disk).

So:

What was the first console to have temporary backward compatibility? Did it happen before the seventh generation?

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    @Raffzahn why have you removed "temporary" from the title? Your new title is a different question than the one OP asked. – Chris H Apr 17 at 10:36
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    @Raffzahn In any case, Random Capi Tal Letters Make It Harder To Read – Wilson Apr 17 at 11:18
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    @Raffzahn Consoles initially released with backwards compatibility, where that backwards compatibiilty was lost in a later model of the same console. The third paragraph of the question already explains this quite clearly. – Chris H Apr 17 at 11:24
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    @Wilson Interesting, that's the style I did learn was right for titles. Like irst and last word always capitalized, propositions, articles and conjunctions never and short words (up to 2 leters) as well not. And so ar I do belive above is a title, or isn't it? – Raffzahn Apr 17 at 11:26
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    I think your "alternative conjecture" is most certainly a major factor. It's similar to the music industry selling you the same album on vinyl, then 8-track, then cassette, then CD, then MP3, then streaming subscription. – Brian H Apr 17 at 15:07
17

The Mega Drive/Genesis is the obvious answer, but I can also make a case for the earlier Master System. Initial models were fully compatible with Sega's prior console, the somewhat obscure SG-1000. However, with the removal of the card slot and expansion port in later revisions this was severely eroded. Some games on cartridges may still work, but anything on a card or that requires a peripheral will definitely leave you out of luck. It has to be said that there weren't a lot of SG-1000 games seen in the West in the first place though.

What I'd suspect it comes down to is that backwards compatibility is of high utility on new consoles. Their games library is small and there's a lot of extra utility in enabling the machines to access the software for their immediate predecessors. However, as time goes by this utility is eroded, and any extra hardware required to support them becomes dead weight. If removing it offers any potential for a price drop, that's inevitably going to happen at some point.

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    "Their games library is small and there's a lot of extra utility in enabling the machines to access the software for their immediate predecessors." Just watch out so you don't fall into the OS/2 trap: OS/2 was so good at running DOS (and to some extent Windows) software that there was little incentive for developers to target it, as opposed to targetting DOS/Windows and letting OS/2 do the heavy lifting of providing OS/2 compatibility. – a CVn Apr 17 at 14:00
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    @aCVn The difference was that game consoles were about hardware while OS/2 was about software. In order to make best use of new hardware (sound chips, video modes, etc.) you needed to target the new hardware directly. Whereas OS/2 as a vehicle for a better multi-tasking, reliable, etc. operating system could provide benefits without software being written to target the specific hardware (which was largely the same as DOS & Windows machines of the same era). – manassehkatz Apr 17 at 14:28
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    Being into retro-gaming, I question the statement "this utility is eroded" as the new console gains native titles. If I had my druthers about it, my library of games would remain well-supported on the updated console. For example, I really like that my early PS3 can play my entire PS1/PS2 library. To some people, the old games don't just belong in a trash heap, nor do I want to keep re-purchasing them as "remastered" editions. – Brian H Apr 17 at 15:04
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    @BrianH: "Utility" is a term which here means "profitability." If you are playing your old games, you are not buying new games, which means less money to fund the development of new games, and ultimately less reason for gamers to buy new consoles. Not to mention the licensing fees they get out of developers. – Kevin Apr 18 at 7:00
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    @mana back in the day, we sometimes called OS/2 "half an OS". – Robert Columbia Apr 18 at 18:57
10

The Mega Drive 1 and 2 can run Master System software via the Powerbase Converter. Neither the Nomad (the portable Mega Drive) nor the Mega Drive 3 are capable of doing so without further internal modification.

I therefore posit the Mega Drive.

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    At first blush this seems like it'd be invalid because of the extra hardware, but I recalled something about the Converter being extremely simple, and from some quick research it does seem to be for the most part a mechanical adapter. It does enable the SMS mode on the Megadrive, but it's the console itself that has the support. – Matt Lacey Apr 17 at 4:07
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    Yes, it's basically just a pass-through. The reason why it doesn't work in some models is because the pins in the cartridge port aren't wired up. – Matthew Barber Apr 17 at 4:31
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    In some parts of the world, the Powerbase Converter was marketed as the Master System Converter instead. Much clearer marketing! – Kaz Apr 17 at 6:40
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    For the record, if the extra passive adaptor is a problem then the Game Boy is a later option; the Game Boy Micro does not support original Game Boy or Game Boy Color titles, only Game Boy Advance titles, but it retains the original branding. – Tommy Apr 17 at 12:13
1

Both the Amstrad CPC series of machines and the Sinclair Spectrum exhibited backwards compatibility. The Amstrad CPC 464, 664 and 6128 were each compatible with their predecessors, as were the subsequent plus models, despite adding extra capabilities. Similarly the Spectrum 48k model was compatible with the 16k model, and the 128, +2 and +3 models all offered new and better hardware while maintaining backwards compatibility.

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    This doesn't quite answer the question, which asks what consoles (not personal computers) had backwards compatibility at initial release but then later dropped it. – Ross Ridge Apr 17 at 18:23
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    For what it's worth, later models of the Spectrum lost a lot of backwards compatibility with the early 48K machines because of hardware changes made to cut costs. They were still home computers rather than console though, even if heavily marketed as games machines during their latter years. – Matthew Barber Apr 17 at 22:28
1

The Nintendo consoles were generally not backward compatible between different models NES->SNES->N64->GameCube. The exception being the Wii, which could play GameCube games, and the Wii U, which could play Wii games.

However the handheld consoles generally maintained backward compatibility for one generation (2 in the case of the 3DS). So GameBoy->GameBoy Colour->GameBoy Advance->DS/DS Lite->DSi->3DS/2DS were each compatible with the preceding generation of device.

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