Pondering Nintendo ‘NX’ and backwards compatibility

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Backwards compatibility.

PlayStation 4 doesn’t have it.

Xbox One barely has it. As in, only recently, a select few “Xbox Preview members” were granted access, and only about 20 titles are currently supported.

Wii U is the only current-gen system that’s fully backwards compatible with all games in its predecessor’s library. But as with all backward compatible platforms, Wii U doesn’t run last-gen titles natively. You have to boot into an “emulation mode” that functions exactly like the old console. So when a Wii U boots into Wii mode, it operates like a Wii in every way, meaning you have no Wii U functionality. This means you can’t check your friends list, view the eShop, see current downloads, etc. That could change with NX.

Before Iwata’s untimely passing, he stated, “We do not intend [NX] to become a simple ‘replacement’ for Nintendo 3DS or Wii U.” A month later, Reggie said, “We’ve said publicly that we are already hard at work on our next home console.”

For these reasons, and contrary to popular thought, I do not believe NX will be a handheld/home console hybrid. Reggie’s emphatic statement about a home console and Iwata’s comment regarding 3DS lead me to believe that NX is a home console, and only a home console. But Iwata also stated NX would not be Wii U replacement, either. And that’s where my thoughts on backwards compatibility come in.

In a 2014 investors meeting, Iwata stated, “It will become important for us to accurately take advantage of what we have done with the Wii U architecture. It of course does not mean that we are going to use exactly the same architecture as Wii U, but we are going to create a system that can absorb the Wii U architecture adequately. When this happens, home consoles and handheld devices will no longer be completely different, and they will become like brothers in a family of systems.”

Now, I don’t know squat about hardware or programming or any of that stuff, but to me, that sounds as though NX could natively play Wii U games. There wouldn’t be a “Wii U mode” where you play outside the NX’s regular environment. Wii U games would be treated as regular games, played right there in the same interface/environment as NX games. All your menus, screens and functionality would be accessible without having to jump in and out of a clunky emulator mode. This way, instead of abandoning the platform once the new console is out, Nintendo can continue to fully support Wii U titles.

Think of it this way. You can upgrade or build a new computer with better parts. You can even upgrade your Windows OS, but essentially, at its core, it’s running on the same foundation. In turn, that means all the stuff you were able to run and play before still functions the same, but you’re also able to do new, better things that weren’t previously possible with your old hardware/software.

Considering Iwata’s comments regarding Nintendo’s hardware being “brothers” in an ecosystem, and the discussion of a new, cross-platform account system, it seems quite feasible that if you purchased digital versions of Wii U games, you could potentially download and play them again, free of charge, on your NX, based upon the fact that your account purchased them already. If NX plays Wii U games natively right out of the box, then there’s already a solid library of great games to play, in addition to NX launch titles and the promise of more to come.

But if that’s the case, you’ll need a Wii U GamePad, right? It’s possible Nintendo might sell GamePads separately, something they don’t do now, for people who didn’t buy into Wii U. Or, going a step further, it might be possible to use a 3DS for GamePad functionality. This is something Nintendo already has experience with, as it’s possible to use a 3DS as a controller for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

With all of that said, I don’t believe the GamePad or any type of tablet-based controller will be what we see as the main, front-and-center controller for NX. I just believe the console will fully support that functionality for people who want to take advantage.

Beyond that, I wonder if Nintendo’s next handheld could potentially play Wii U titles. The 3DS is getting a little long in the tooth, and the New 3DS is nothing more than a stopgap (a stopgap I’m proud to own, thank you very much). While Nintendo won’t want to conflate talk of a new handheld with talk of NX, I have to imagine we’ll be hearing about new handheld hardware sooner rather than later.

Considering Wii U’s relative lack of power compared to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that a new handheld device could be just as powerful as Wii U. And with that new, cross-platform architecture and account system, and the fact I can’t see Nintendo abandoning the two-screen functionality in its handhelds, it really doesn’t seem that far-fetched to think you could play Wii U games on the go.

Last year I postulated what Nintendo’s next handheld might be like. Some of what I talked about doesn’t seem likely or relevant anymore, but some of it still seems just as pertinent. I could be talking out of my butt, although we won’t know for a while, but it all seems worth considering.

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