Xbox Series X backwards compatibility explained by Microsoft: what you need know

Xbox Series X share button
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft has revealed details on how Xbox Series X backwards compatibility will work, calling the new Xbox "the most compatible next-generation console".

In an Xbox Wire post, Jason Ronald, director of program management for Xbox Series X, revealed that the Xbox Series X will launch with thousands of games, across four generations of Xbox. Not only that, but these games will "play better than ever before" thanks to Microsoft's new HDR reconstruction technique and the Xbox Series X's Quick Resume feature.

In addition, the Xbox Series X's powerful specs will enable select backwards-compatible titles to run at higher resolutions or double the frame rate.

 "As gamers, we also know how important it is to preserve and respect our gaming legacies," Ronald wrote in the post. "Your favorite games and franchises, your progression and achievements, and the friendships and communities you create through gaming should all move with you across generations. Not only that, your favorite gaming accessories and peripherals should also move forward with you as well."

Custom processor is key

(Image credit: Microsoft)

According to Ronald, the same team that brought backwards-compatibility to the Xbox One are doing the same for Xbox Series X. 

Technical aspects have made this job for the Xbox Series X somewhat more challenging, but the next-gen console's custom processor has been specially designed to combat this issue and allow us to enjoy titles from all Xbox generations seamlessly.

"Maintaining compatibility presents a massive technical challenge as fundamental system and chip architectures advance across generations," Ronald explains. "Developers highly optimize their games to the unique capabilities and performance of a console to provide the best experience for their players. To make the Xbox Series X our most compatible console ever required both significant innovation in the design of the custom processor as well as the unique design of the Xbox operating system and hypervisor at the heart of our next-generation platform." 

Ronald also revealed that the Xbox team has logged more than 100,000 hours of Xbox Series X play testing, with members of the team now using the Xbox Series X as their primary console. 

"By the time we launch this holiday, the team will have spent well over 200,000 hours ensuring your game library is ready for you to jump in immediately," Ronald states.

Backwards-compatibility boost

(Image credit: Lionhead Games)

Not only will we be able to enjoy thousands of backwards-compatible games on the Xbox Series X from launch, but these games will apparently play better than ever before. 

The Xbox Series X will be able to run backwards-compatible games natively, with each game fully harnessing the power of the new Xbox's CPU, GPU and SSD. 

"This means that all titles run at the peak performance that they were originally designed for, many times even higher performance than the games saw on their original launch platform, resulting in higher and more steady framerates and rendering at their maximum resolution and visual quality," Ronald explains. "Backwards-compatible titles also see significant reductions in in-game load times from the massive leap in performance from our custom NVME SSD which powers the Xbox Velocity Architecture."

Not only will backwards-compatible games perform better, but they'll look better too. The Xbox Series X will deliver a HDR reconstruction technique which will automatically add HDR support to games - without impacting performance. 

In addition, the Xbox Series X's Quick Resume feature will also be compatible with backwards-compatible games, allowing players to essentially jump into games instantly, picking up where they left off, or to jump between games seamlessly.

According to Ronald, these advances don't require any additional work from developers and instead will happen at platform level. The team is also working on new techniques that will allow select backwards-compatible titles to run at higher resolutions and even double the frame rate.

A history of Xbox at your fingertips

Xbox Series X controller

(Image credit: Microsoft)

It does currently look like the Xbox Series X could be the most compatible next-gen console. Not only will the new Xbox be backwards-compatible with generations of Xbox games, but we also know this extends to Xbox One accessories.

However, we're largely in the dark about Sony's plans for backwards compatibility with the PS5. We know the PS5 will be able to play "almost all" of the best PS4 games at launch, but the company hasn't revealed if backwards-compatibility will extend beyond that. 

Sony hasn't had a great history of backwards compatible to date. While early versions of the PlayStation 3 were able to play PS2 titles, the console was eventually able to play original PlayStation One titles purchased on the store. With the PlayStation 4 generation, Sony placed a big bet on PS Now to pick up some of the slack in terms of backwards-compatibility.

PlayStation Now allows for players to stream selected games from PS2, PS3 and PS4. Originally a streaming-only feature, PlayStation Now does offer some PS4 games as downloads, but those with poor internet speeds need not apply and even those with great connections will find that input lag can cause issues in more reaction-based games.

Meanwhile, the Xbox One currently supports 575 Xbox 360 titles and 41 original Xbox titles. It doesn't cover the thousands of games in the Xbox back catalog but it looks like Microsoft is looking to fix that with the Xbox Series X.

We're expecting to hear more about Xbox Series X backwards compatibility in the coming months, with the new Xbox's release date drawing ever closer. Hopefully we'll get a taste of which older Xbox games we'll be able to dive into during one of Microsoft's monthly Xbox 20/20 streams.

Vic Hood
Associate Editor, TechRadar Gaming

Vic is TechRadar Gaming's Associate Editor. An award-winning games journalist, Vic brings experience from IGN, Eurogamer and more to the TechRadar table. You may have even heard her on the radio or speaking on a panel. Not only is Vic passionate about games, but she's also an avid mental health advocate who has appeared on both panels and podcasts to discuss mental health awareness. Make sure to follow her on Twitter for more.