Sometimes it feels like an open secret that the PlayStation 3 – in all its variations – was Sony's last truly backward compatible console. Sure, only the initial 60GB model could play PS1 and PS2 games straight from the discs themselves. But even in the late 2012 "super slim" model, after dusting off your copy of the original Tomb Raider, you could insert the CD inside that console's weird optical drive and explore a wonderful, low-poly slice of history.
That all changed with the release of the PS4 in November 2013. Although it's considered a massive commercial success by analysts and players alike, having already sold over 90 million units, the PS4 is lacking in many ways. Beyond some qualms with the interface and its largely homogenous collection of first-party games, the PS4 has little respect for what came before it. That's not to say Sony hasn't tried to preserve its history this gen, just that its efforts so far have been glaringly misguided. This has to change when Sony PS5 (opens in new tab) emerges, if the console is to compete with PC and the next Xbox (dubbed Xbox Project Scarlett (opens in new tab)) in the coming years.
In July 2012, Sony acquired game streaming service Gaikai (opens in new tab) for a lofty $380 million. Less than two years later, PlayStation Now was announced. Utilizing the cloud technology that once powered Gaikai, PS Now would provide access to select PS1, PS2, and PS3 games over a broadband internet connection. This would theoretically fill the backward compatibility gap Sony knowingly left open at the launch of the PS4.
Unfortunately, PS Now turned out to be more of a flawed experiment than a killer app. Even if your bandwidth exceeded the minimum requirement of 5Mbps, the service was riddled with technical hiccups preventing players from enjoying their games - certainly not to the same degree that they could have if the PS4's robust hardware included a native emulator.
When PS Now finally came out in May 2015, I signed up for the seven-day free trial before cancelling after just three days. Much as I wanted to play the unpopular-but-good game God of War: Ascension on a shiny new PS4, the PS3 could run it better and wouldn't slap me with a $20 subscription fee after the first week. You know when you're binging the latest season of whatever on Netflix and the playback is halted due to a network error? Well, that was routinely happening to me as I hacked and slashed my way through the entirety of Ascension's nine-hour single player campaign. Sure, you can now download games direct to your PS4 but it feels like the damage was done in those early days.
It's a worrying sign that, to this day, Sony has yet to reveal an official PS Now subscriber count. The service seems to be doing well, though, seeing as research firm SuperData reported (opens in new tab) a few months ago that its revenue accounted for 52% of the total amount earned by game subscription services in the third quarter of last year. Then again, maybe that's the result of its high price point compared to other streaming services like Xbox Game Pass and EA Access. Or perhaps, alternatively, PS Now has surged in popularity because of Sony's decision back in September (opens in new tab) to make PS4 games, and a small number of remastered PS2 titles, downloadable on the platform. However, given the rumors that PS5 will be a console that offers game streaming as standard, Sony has a PR mountain to climb before the world is ready for this.
On top of that, the majority of PS3 and PS1 games are basically nowhere to be found on PS4. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been feeding Xbox One players a generous helping of backward compatibility over the last three years. As of this writing, upwards of half the games released for the Xbox 360 can be played on an Xbox One, no subscription required. Simply insert the disc for Halo: Reach or one of 537 other games, and the Xbox One will boot it up within an emulator and act as though it is, itself, an Xbox 360. A handful of original Xbox games are playable on the One as well, all of which run at a higher resolution than they did on the OG Xbox. On top of that, you can subscribe to Xbox Game Pass (opens in new tab), which is cheaper than PS Now, and get digital versions of 100s of 360 and Xbox games for a set fee.
Here are the best PS4 games (opens in new tab) currently available.
As Microsoft carefully tends to the annals of its own past, Sony has taken a different approach. On the PlayStation Store, the PS4 bears a modest supply of 54 PS2 games. Some of them are fine and make sense – take Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the Jak and Daxter series, for example – but other choices are downright baffling. There's Dark Cloud, but no Dark Cloud 2; Star Ocean, but no Dragon Quest VIII; and no Tony Hawk whatsoever. And, like, where the hell are PS2-defining classics like ICO and God of War 2? Sony won huge acclaim back at E3 2015 by revealing classic game revivals like Shenmue 3 and Final Fantasy 7, showing that there's a huge appetite for classic games and franchises on new hardware. There's a vast demand for PlayStation heritage titles, and Sony should ignore that at their peril with PS5.
What worries this author most, however, is that Sony still doesn't realize the potential of what it had on its old hardware. Case in point: the PlayStation Classic (opens in new tab). When Sony's miniaturized reimagining of the original PlayStation was hoisted on us late in 2018, it arrived preloaded with an odd selection of titles. Cool Boarders 2 and Destruction Derby were picked, despite them showing their age, in favor of actual PlayStation classics like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Gran Turismo 2, not to mention fan-favorite mascot platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. As much of a licensing nightmare as it must be to get games like these on your nostalgia box, creating one without them seems pointless.
By the end of the PS3 generation, there were over 300 PS2 games available on Sony's digital storefront, and over 200 PS1 titles. It's likely no coincidence that, late in the generation, PS3 overcame a difficult start against the Xbox 360 to actually outsell Microsoft's console during the final years before PS4. Suffice it to say, the PS4 archive pales by comparison. Half a decade into its life, Sony has neglected a rich subsection of its own timeline, and it's ripe for reclaiming.
Ignoring the complicated realities of emulation, it'd be nice if our game consoles were as practical as our movie players. You can put a 15-year-old DVD in a 4K Blu-Ray player and it still works. Sadly, no matter how powerful its GPU and processor, we can't say the same for the latest PlayStation and our ageing copy of Monster Rancher 3. Given Sony's recent apathy toward backward compatibility, the future appears grim for the reinstatement of old games from old consoles on PS4. However, looking toward its next hardware unraveling, the PS5 is ripe for a retrospective reassessment. Sure, Sony is ahead now, but Microsoft is regaining much of its ground largely thanks to its efforts with making older Xbox games more readily available. PC also enjoys the ability to play older games, thanks to Steam and other digital stores, so Sony needs to step up. Or should that be step back? The key to PlayStation's future could well lie in its past.
Until we get anymore official details on PS5, why not celebrate the amazing games we have on PS4 with our pick of the best PS4 games (opens in new tab)?