Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick: Sony have an absolutely astounding back catalogue of games across all their PlayStation consoles.
From the likes of Spyro and Crash on the original PlayStation, to a vast sea of modern classics on the PlayStation 3, people are often baffled as to why Sony don’t offer backwards compatibility on the PS4.
Obviously, this is something that stings all the more when you consider the Xbox One offers new Xbox 360 games every month. Unless you own both rival consoles I guess, then you’re laughing.
I’m gonna be taking a look at a few of the reasons why the PlayStation 4 doesn’t ‘do’ backwards compatibility, and no, it isn’t because Sony hate you or because they want to make more money from the PlayStation Now streaming service.
Let’s start with processor architecture – two words that are guaranteed to get anyone weak at the knees with joy. The Xbox 360 and PS3 were very different machines, with different approaches.
The PlayStation 3, for example, was a more powerful beast than the Xbox 360 (sorry Xbox fans, but that’s a fact). However, the cell processor was more complex, making it harder to program games for as a result, especially if you want those games to be cross platform.
What we ended up with then, was a situation where multiplatform games were made with the 360 in mind and then ported over to the PS3. If you’ve ever wondered why PS3 ports were often a little shoddy with longer loading times and technical issues, while exclusives like Uncharted were technical powerhouses – that’s why.
Still with me? Let’s jump on over to the current generation of consoles…
The Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 opted to take a more ‘traditional’ route, going for x86 architecture that’s virtually identical to that which has been used in PC gaming for nearly two decades, which naturally makes it well known and easier to program for.
Unfortunately, it was Sony’s decision to drop their specialised cell processor CPU that put them at such a disadvantage when it comes to backwards compatibility.
Since the 360 already employed a relatively simple architecture, it wasn’t much of a leap to the Xbox One and x86. There are differences and patches needed to emulate 360 games on the One, but it’s not too tricky overall.
So, as I’m sure you’ve already realised, running PS3 games on a PS4 is a much harder task because the cell processor processes information in a very different way than both x86 and Xbox 360.
In essence, getting a PS3 game on the PS4 requires a much more complex emulation because you need to trick a PS3 game into think it’s on an actual PlayStation 3 – a near impossible task, given that the CPU it relies on just doesn’t exist on a PS4.
It should also be pointed out that certain PS3 models could play PlayStation 2 games because the launch PS3 model included a PS2 CPU in it, hence that hefty and controversial cost that we all raged at Sony for back in the day.
As a result of this, earlier PlayStation 3 models didn’t need to emulate, because PS2 games could be played in their native state. Later PS3 models of course, dropped the PS2 CPU, and while these older games could be emulated on a PS3, a keen eye will notice a sharp drop in quality of a PS2 game running on a launch PS3 when compared to a newer PS3.
To sum up then, the PlayStation 4 has a hard time emulating your older games because its predecessor was such a difficult little shit.
Yes, the PS4 is more powerful than the Xbox One (sorry again) but emulation requires such a massive amount of processing power, and the Xbox One simply has much less work to do than the PS4 when it comes to emulating games from the console that came before it.
Of course, if you’re desperate to play a PlayStation 3 game on your PS4, most of the genuinely great exclusives have either been remastered for the new machine, or can be streamed through PS Now, so everybody wins. Kind of.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.