When Nintendo’s Switch first launched, it wasn’t immediately clear if the console would post strong initial sales and then fade away, like the Wii U did, or if this would be the system to put Nintendo back on the gaming map. It’s now obvious that the Switch’s early surge was no outlier; the console has already moved over 5 million units and has outsold the PS4 and Xbox One in North America four times in the past six months, according to NPD Group. Clearly, Nintendo’s early issues with its JoyCon controllers or reports that the Switch could warp in certain circumstances have had no impact on the console’s popularity.
One issue that Nintendo still hasn’t sorted, however, is the question of external game backups. Currently, the Switch simply can’t perform this basic function that’s been baked into game consoles since the original Playstation. Nor is this some kind of unreasonable request for a gaming handheld that’s meant to be carried in pockets and backpacks, taken to other people’s houses, and shared between family members. Handheld and portable devices tend to suffer more breakdowns than other types of equipment for this reason, and at least some Switches, statistically, will suffer premature hardware failures. However good Nintendo’s manufacturing process may be, there’s no such thing as a product with a zero-percent defect rate, and that means some Switch buyers are going to get bitten through no fault of their own.
Nintendo’s overriding concern is to prevent piracy of Switch titles. But this may be a futile, losing battle, as Ars Technica details. Not only are the company’s customers anxious for a solution, at least some hacking teams appear to be explicitly motivated by a desire to create a feature Nintendo won’t provide officially, and at least some customers are willing to hack their Switches to get it.
“Hurrah! I didn’t need that 200-hour playthrough anyway,” said no one, ever.
This makes sense, given how long certain games are, and particularly if you’re a completionist who nails down every last achievement or gear drop. I’ve got a collection of save games I’ve archived from titles I haven’t touched in years, but that I want to have access to in case I return to them at some point in the future. Back when the original Nintendo launched, losing a Super Mario Bros. game session could be enraging, but once you’d mastered the game, Super Mario Bros. could be beaten in a reasonable amount of time. Battery backups were reserved for titles like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Legend of Zelda, all of which took more than 2-3 hours to beat. HLTB–How Long To Beat–claims that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a median beat-time of 44 hrs, 39 minutes for the main story, with a whopping 170 hours, 57 minutes median beat-time for completionists. I wouldn’t be happy if I lost access to a saved game that represented that kind of time investment, and I doubt most people would be.
Furthermore, it’s not as if keeping saved games locked to each individual Switch has prevented a nascent homebrew scene from kicking off anyway. Last month, hackers found a copy of NES Golf with motion controller support that appears to unlock only once per year on July 11. That’s the day Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s former CEO and President, died. There’s a homebrew and hacking space emerging around the Switch whether Nintendo wants to acknowledge it or not, and the company’s refusal to contemplate a consumer-friendly solution is only going to make things worse for it in the long run. The copy protection of the PS3 was demolished, in the long-term, after Sony killed OtherOS support out of fear that hackers would use it to run unauthorized titles and code on the PS3. Instead of keeping the platform secure, all the company managed to do was piss the hacking community off.
There’s one final argument for why Nintendo should stop worrying and embrace a backup solution. Historically, Nintendo’s handheld devices go through multiple product iterations over time. The original 3DS debuted in 2011, followed by the 3DS XL (2012), Nintendo 2DS (2013), New Nintendo 3DS (2015), New Nintendo 3DS XL (2015), and finally, the New Nintendo 2DS XL (2017). At least some of these systems were undoubtedly purchased by gamers who already owned a previous member of the 3DS family and wanted to upgrade to a larger screen or faster system.
While it’s normal for console developers to migrate to lower process nodes and improved platforms over time, Nintendo has more reason than Sony or Microsoft to plan for this kind of shift in the long-term. The Tegra X1 chip inside the Switch is built on TSMC’s 20nm planar process node, not its newer FinFET 16nm node. Even if Nintendo skips TSMC’s 16nm altogether, we’ll see a refreshed 12nm node next year, followed by fairly rapid progressions to 10nm and 7nm. At some point, Nintendo’s going to want to tap the improved battery life it can tap for the Switch, even if it opts not to use any of that increased efficiency to improve the console’s performance in docked or handheld mode. If the company wants to sell existing customers on its newer hardware, it’ll be a heck of a lot easier if upgrading to a new Switch doesn’t mean leaving all previous saved games behind on a now-orphaned device.
Come on, Nintendo. Fix the problem now, and you won’t have to worry about coming up with some last-minute kludge in the future.