The PS5's biggest weakness is exposed by the PS2

PS5 vs Xbox Series X: Which console wins?
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Last year we saw the long-awaited launch of the PS5, the latest in a long line of Sony consoles. 2020 was also notable in that it was the 20th anniversary of the PS2, which remains the best-selling games console of all time. Over 155 million units sold is no small feat.

Success aside, you’d think that the PS2 would be obsolete by now. The system is just over a month away from being old enough to drink, was discontinued worldwide in 2013 and has been succeeded by three different consoles. Four if you count the PS4 Pro as its own thing. Not to mention the fact that the PS2’s biggest draw, the DVD player, has long since been replaced by Blu-rays, streaming and digital downloads. 

In other words, the PS2 is effectively obsolete. And yet, I recently found myself dusting off my PS2 and hooking it up to my TV so I could play one of my old games. As I tried to figure out which adapter I needed to plug it into my 4K TV, I got thinking about the absurdity of the whole thing 

Throughout the history of gaming, backwards compatibility has been the exception rather than the rule. Though it’s not been completely unheard of, even before it was popularized by the PlayStation 2.

It’s been around since at least 1985 with the release of the Sega Master System. It was able to play games from its predecessor, the SG-1000, and similarly Master System games could later be played on the Sega Genesis. Sadly, that trend did not continue with the launch of the CD-based Sega Saturn.

The PS2 is ancient by technological standards, and yet I still plan on actively playing it when I’m in the mood. That really shouldn’t be the case. In an age where you can (in theory) buy a PS5 that feels infinitely more powerful than its ancestor. You shouldn’t still need a PS2.

The issue is one that Sony has faced several times over the past 14 years: backwards compatibility. I wanted to play some classic PlayStation titles, and the more modern PlayStation consoles might as well be bricks. 

PS5: We need better backwards compatibility

The PS5 is backwards compatible to a point, in that you are able to play all PS4 games, whether it’s on disc or downloaded from the PlayStation store. Select games from older systems are available to purchase digitally, but discs from those consoles will not work with the PS5. 

Meanwhile, the Xbox Series X can play games dating all the way back to the 2001 launch of the original Xbox. Not all of them, but enough that it’s a major selling point for the console. You can just pop in your disc and sit back to enjoy the game.

Things weren’t always that way. While the Xbox 360 could play almost the entire Xbox catalogue, the Xbox One couldn’t say the same at launch. Xbox 360 game support didn’t arrive until two years later in 2015. And gamers had to wait another two years before they could play original Xbox titles on the latest machine. Fortunately Microsoft didn’t repeat those mistakes with the Series X.

While I still have an Xbox 360 (three in fact, don’t ask), I haven’t actually played any games on it for several years. It’s just a fancy ornament that occasionally lives on my shelf. So when I wanted to play Gears of War 1 through 3, in anticipation of a still-unfinished Gears 4 playthrough, I could. Likewise, playing Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order had me nostalgic for the days I spent playing The Force Unleashed, which is now sitting in my living room waiting for me to find the time to pop in the disc.

Sony doesn’t let you do that. If you want to play the original Shadow of the Colossus, or the still-great Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in, the PS5 (and PS4) are completely useless. You either have to dust off a PS2, or do as my colleague Imad Khan suggested and go hunting for a backwards compatible PS3. You just better hope that you don’t accidentally buy the wrong one.

Sony isn't the only offender

Of course, backwards compatibility issues are not restricted to Sony consoles. In fact, Nintendo is probably the worst offender, on account of it constantly changing its physical media formats, and the digital game stores.

If you want to play a Wii game you better well have a Wii or Wii U, because the Nintendo Switch uses cartridges. GameCube games will play on the Wii, but only the original model that has ports for the right controllers and memory cards. Newer models, including the Wii U, will not play older titles without software modification.

What about the digital titles you purchased on Wii or Wii U? Those are only available on the older consoles, and since Nintendo is in the process of shutting down that particular flavor of the eShop, you better make sure you have copies saved to your console. Some games have been ported to the Switch, like Bayonetta 2 or Pokkén Tournament, but you’ll have to pay for them again.

Whether you keep older consoles around or not, it’s still not too much to ask for console-makers to take backwards compatibility into consideration when designing its machines. We’ve all heard about how powerful and fast the PS5 is, which is great, but if you have a hankering for anything made before November 2013, you’re out of luck. 

Considering the size and cost of the PS5, I’d have hoped for more. I shouldn’t have to work out what adapters I need to hook up my dusty old PS2, because the PS5 should be the only PlayStation I’ll ever need. But it’s not.

Tom Pritchard
UK Phones Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's UK Phones Editor, tackling the latest smartphone news and vocally expressing his opinions about upcoming features or changes. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining about how terrible his Smart TV is.