Progress Report: Xbox 360 Backward Compatibility

The Xbox 360 offers backward compatibility for Xbox games, but how well does the feature actually work?

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By Sarju Shah - posted June 13, 2006

No Caption Providedhen Sony included backward compatibility for PlayStation games on the PlayStation 2, it took the easy path and simply included an original PlayStation chip inside the PlayStation 2. With more than five years between the two consoles, Sony had a lot of time to make the original PlayStation chip smaller and cheaper to manufacture, thereby making backward compatibility an almost trivial feature in terms of effort.

If Sony skated by with a triple lutz when it included backward compatibility, Microsoft tobogganed on gravel, uphill. Microsoft made a crucial error in not purchasing the intellectual-property rights to the hardware behind the original Xbox. Intel owns the rights to the Pentium III CPU variant that resides in the Xbox, and Nvidia owns the rights to the Xbox GPU and the audio chip that encodes Dolby Digital on the fly. Without ownership of these key components, Microsoft would have to provide backward compatibility the hard way--software emulation.

To make the situation even more difficult, the Xbox 360 hardware has practically nothing in common with the original Xbox. Microsoft replaced the original Intel CPU with a custom-made triple core IBM Xenon processor, and the Nvidia GPU was replaced with the 48 pipeline ATI Xenos GPU.

If you've tried playing an Xbox game on the Xbox 360, you've probably noticed that the game actually thinks its working on the Xbox. The Xbox Live menus are of the classic Xbox variety, not newfangled Xbox 360 dashboard menus. In this way, the emulation is completely transparent. The Xbox 360 is able to pull it off most of the time, but a minor hiccup occurs every now and then. During the course of our testing, we encountered a few issues such as frame-rate drops, video tearing, and even Xbox Live connectivity issues.

Microsoft maintains an Xbox 360 backward-compatibility list, which originally contained 207 Xbox games. Curiously, even though Microsoft added and removed games over time, the list remained at 207 games. Recently, as in June 13 2006, Microsoft added twenty-one games to the list.

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Our first experience with backward compatibility on the Xbox 360 was less than stellar. On launch day, many of the games we tried worked improperly or not at all. We decided to revisit Microsoft's list and picked a few of the more popular games to test, and we also chose a few to test at random. We then played each game on the Xbox 360 and the original Xbox to see if we could notice any major differences in performance. Also, we tried to play online, or download content from Xbox Live, whenever possible. Unfortunately, we did not have time to play through every single game on both consoles, but we did spend enough time to get a good feel for each game. This does mean, however, that we might have missed bugs found in later areas of the game. For example, Forza Motorsport worked fine in the maps we tested, but sports editor Brian Ekberg was none too enthused at the performance of Forza Motorsport on the Xbox 360 when he raced on a track that we hadn't unlocked yet. As much as we'd have liked to play through each game to ensure full compatibility, we were forced to factor in time constraints.

For the most part, the games we tested on the list performed well. Almost all of the games played close enough to the original Xbox that we were hard-pressed to tell the difference between the platforms. The 360 does provide the added benefit of improving image quality by enabling antialiasing; but some games look dramatically better, we've noted that where applicable. A few of the games we played had more serious issues, such as frame-rate drops and graphical anomalies, but the most common bug we encountered was inconsistent full-motion video playback. It seems the Xbox 360 has trouble handling Xbox video.

Read on to check out the full results of our testing and to see some image quality comparisons.


You tell us
What's your experience with backward compatibility been like on the Xbox 360? Did your experiences differ from ours with the games we tested? What games do you want Microsoft to add to the next compatibility update?

No Caption ProvidedCrimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
Plays great!
Xbox Live functionality works fine.
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No Caption ProvidedDead or Alive 3
Plays great!
The introductory video stuttered.
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No Caption ProvidedFable
The game suffers from frame-rate issues.
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No Caption ProvidedForza Motorsport
Plays great!
However, our sports editor Brian Ekberg complained of frame-rate issues on more graphically intensive tracks, such as New York. The introductory video also stuttered.
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No Caption ProvidedGrand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Plays great!
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No Caption ProvidedGrand Theft Auto: Vice City
Plays great!
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No Caption ProvidedHitman: Contracts
Plays great!
Antialiasing also does a fantastic job of cleaning up the look of the game.
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No Caption ProvidedJade Empire
Plays great!
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No Caption ProvidedNinja Gaiden Black
Plays great!
The introductory video stuttered. The graphics looked fantastic, and the antialiasing really helped to clean up this game. All the poles, as well as the harsh lines of walls and doors, smoothed out once we tossed the game into the 360.
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No Caption ProvidedMedal of Honor Frontline
Plays great!
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No Caption ProvidedOutlaw Volleyball
Despite the image-quality improvements, the game stutters frequently when you try to jump, spike, and even serve. We also encountered errors on the Xbox Live ranking page. Other portions of Live functionality seemed to work fine, though.
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Hitman: Contracts

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You tell us
What's your experience with backward compatibility been like on the Xbox 360? Did your experiences differ from ours with the games we tested? What games do you want Microsoft to add to the next compatibility update?

No Caption ProvidedSpy Hunter 2
Plays great!
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No Caption ProvidedSSX 3
Plays great!
The game played better on the 360 than it did on the original Xbox.
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No Caption ProvidedStar Wars: Battlefront II
Plays great!
Xbox Live functionality works fine.
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No Caption ProvidedStar Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
Plays great!
The antialiasing abilities of the Xbox 360 really help to clean up the game's look.
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No Caption ProvidedStubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse
Plays great!
The game runs smoother and looks considerably better on the Xbox 360.
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No Caption ProvidedTest Drive: Eve of Destruction
Plays great!
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No Caption ProvidedTom Clancy's Ghost Recon
Plays great!
Xbox Live downloadable content works like a charm.
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No Caption ProvidedTom Clancy's Splinter Cell
Plays great!
We could also use Xbox Live to download new maps.
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No Caption ProvidedTony Hawk's Pro Skater 4
Plays great!
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No Caption ProvidedWorld Soccer Winning Eleven 9
Plays great!
Xbox Live functionality works fine.
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No Caption ProvidedWWE Raw 2
Plays great!
The character videos that play before each match suffer from minor stuttering.
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Ninja Gaiden Black

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Overall, our tests show that Microsoft seems to be doing a decent job at providing backward compatibility with the games on the list. Unless we had an amazingly skewed sample, we'd say that 91 percent or more of the games on the list should work without a hitch. There are many games we'd like to see added to the compatibility list, such as Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. We're going to guess that some games might never make the list (such as Psychonauts or Panzer Dragoon Orta), but we can always hope. If Volvo: Drive for Life, Barbie Horse Adventure, and Egg Mania can make it, anything's possible.


You tell us
What's your experience with backward compatibility been like on the Xbox 360? Did your experiences differ from ours with the games we tested? What games do you want Microsoft to add to the next compatibility update?

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