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PS5 vs Xbox Series X: Backward Compatibility War

A photo of the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5
Microsoft, Sony

As we stumble into the 9th generation of console gaming, it’s clear that backward compatibility is more important than ever before. Gamers want access to the 20-year back catalog of Xbox and PlayStation games, especially as services like Game Pass make older games more accessible. But there can only be one winner in the backward compatibility wars, and it’s easily the Xbox Series X.

One Console Masters Backward Compatibility, the Other Is a PlayStation

Microsoft’s Xbox Series X is fully backward compatible and runs all four generations of Xbox games natively. Want to play 2004’s Scaler: The Shapeshifting Chameleon? Order a copy on eBay and pop the disc in your Xbox Series X. It’s that easy. You can also buy old Xbox One games through the digital Game Catalog, or get them for free with an Xbox Game Pass subscription.

It’s hard to make a console backward compatible, as each console generation relies on a new mix of hardware and software. But Microsoft is in the perfect position to take on such a challenge, as the company is familiar with virtual machines in Windows environments. Also, each iteration of Xbox utilizes the DirectX API and Intel, PowerPC, or AMD architecture, which most developers are familiar with.

Sony faces a much larger challenge with backward compatibility on PS5. Each iteration of the PlayStation console uses a wild mix of hardware and software, including the impossibly funky Cell Processor that pushed PS3 game developers to the edge of sanity. Implementing full backward compatibility for the PS5 is a monumental task, and Sony has bigger fish to fry.

Still, the average gamer doesn’t have much to complain about. The PS5 works with most PS4 games, and Sony is giving around 20 popular PS4 games to PS Plus subscribers who buy a PS5. You can also download a ton of OG PlayStation games through the digital store or stream select PS2 and PS3 titles to your console with a PlayStation Now subscription.

The Xbox Series X’s full backward compatibility probably won’t sway any hardcore Sony fans. And to be honest, the average gamer (and especially kids or teenagers) won’t really notice the feature. That’s why Sony is emphasizing game enhancements, which make PS4 games look better and load faster on the PS5. Unfortunately for Sony, its game enhancements are still overshadowed by enhancements on the Xbox Series X.

Xbox Offers More Enhancements for Old Titles

Ghost of Tsushiman image.
A screenshot from ‘Ghost of Tsushima,’ a PS4 game with PS5 enhancements. Sucker Punch

Game enhancements are one of the most exciting next-gen console features. Not only can your day-one Xbox or PlayStation play last-gen games, but it can also provide graphical improvements and reduced load times.

Sony calls this feature “Game Boost.” Titles with unlocked frame rates and dynamic resolution can hit up to 4K 60 FPS on the console, and all games will experience faster load times thanks to the PS5’s SSD. Sony hasn’t announced which games are affected by Game Boost (save for Ghost of Tsushima), and the company seems more interested in providing free upgrades from PS4 titles to their PS5 port. (Microsoft also offers free game upgrades through its Smart Delivery program.)

Developers can update their PS4 games for Game Boost at any time, meaning that hundreds of PS4 games could eventually benefit from enhanced graphics on PS5. But if you want day-one enhancements to old games, then you gotta go with the Series X.

The Xbox Series X and Series S use a feature called Auto HDR to enhance old games. Auto HDR works incredibly well, even on OG Xbox and Xbox 360 titles, and it doesn’t require any work from developers. Microsoft is also pushing an “Optimized for Xbox Series X/S” program, which encourages developers to update last-gen games for improved graphics, 120 FPS frame rates, and faster load times on the Series X and S. (Microsoft also maintains a list of last-gen games with next-gen enhancements, which feels a lot more substantial than Sony’s radio silence.)

If you skipped the last generation of gaming and need a backward-compatible monster, you should take a serious look at the Xbox Series X. It doesn’t have some PlayStation exclusives like God of War, but its four-generation backward compatibility, Auto HDR functionality, and coherent timeline for last-gen game optimizations are pretty attractive. And we haven’t even talked about Game Pass!

Oh Yeah, and Xbox Has Game Pass!

Xbox Game Pass.

Let’s be real, the average Sony fan isn’t going to betray their brand and buy and Xbox Series X just for backward compatibility. And that’s fine. You aren’t buying a new Xbox or PlayStation just to buy a bunch of old games; you’re buying it to play the latest and greatest. After all, if you wanted to spend $60 on 15-year-old games, you’d buy a Nintendo Switch.

But that’s where Xbox Game Pass comes in. For just $10 to $15 a month, you get access to hundreds of brand-new games and last-gen classics. It’s a ridiculously good deal, especially if you shell out the $15 for Game Pass Ultimate, which includes an Xbox Gold membership, hundreds of free PC games, and even game streaming to mobile devices.

Game Pass is the cherry on top of the Xbox Series X’s backward compatibility and Auto HDR enhancements. If you’re a Sony fan moving to Xbox for the backward compatibility, then you can subscribe to Game Pass and avoid rebuying old titles. And if you missed the last generation of consoles, you can use Game Pass and never worry about building a collection of games.

Sony gives you free games every month with the PlayStation Plus program, and PS Now subscribers can play hundreds of (mostly old) games on-demand. Also, PS5 owners who sign into their PS Plus account get around 20 hit PS4 games for free, which is a great deal in its own right. But Game Pass has a much wider on-demand selection than Sony’s services, including day-one Xbox Studio titles and the full EA Play library.

It sucks to admit it, but Microsoft’s triple-attack of full backward compatibility, Auto HDR, and Game Pass makes Sony look bad. But PlayStation fans may still be happier with the PS5 than the Xbox Series X. Also, things could change a few years from now. PlayStation exclusives could blow the Xbox out of the water, and Microsoft could hike the price of Game Pass once it reaches peak popularity.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »