In an update after the launch of our first Nintendo Switch review, we noted that there is no way to externally back up game save data stored on the system. A recent horror story from a fellow writer who lost dozens of hours of game progress due to a broken system shows just how inconvenient this missing feature can be.
Over at GameMe, Anthony John Agnello talks about his experience with Nintendo support after his Switch turned to a useless brick for no apparent reason last week (full disclosure: I know Agnello personally and have served on some congressional panels with him). After sending his (under warranty) system to Nintendo for repair, Agnello received a repaired system two days later and the following disturbing message from the company:
We inspected the Nintendo Switch system that was sent to us for repair and determined that the issue has caused some of the information on this system to become unreadable. As a result, the saved data, settings and links to Nintendo Accounts on your system could not be saved.
Agnello says he lost 55 hours of progress on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as well as more progress on a few other downloadable games. While he was able to re-download the deleted games, each game required him to start from scratch (if only all that progress was easy, somehow instantly unlockable…)
The Switch stands on its own
The Nintendo Switch is pretty much the only game console out there where this kind of data loss due to hardware failure is inevitable. Early cartridge systems usually saved game progress with a password or battery-backed low-power RAM on the cartridge itself. That could become a problem when the batteries in those cartridges run out in about 70 years, but for now I can still use a USB device like the Retrode to extract my saved time trial records from a two-decade-old copy of Super punch out!.
Early disc-based systems, from the original PlayStation to the Xbox 360, used proprietary external memory cards to store saved data, and these solutions allowed that data to be easily copied or moved from system to system for backup purposes. More recently, systems such as the Xbox 360, PS3, PS4 and Xbox One have allowed players to back up data stored to external hard drives/SD cards or via a cloud-based online system.
Other Nintendo systems have also embraced saved data backups in the recent past. With the Wii and Wii U, saved data could be transferred to an external SD card (or a hard drive on the Wii U), and the 3DS even goes so far as to provide a backup data saving utility for this purpose. However, these backup systems are not foolproof, as I personally discovered when I lost uncopyable Smash Bros. brawl and Mario Kart Wii store data in the faulty system memory.
Given all this, it’s a bit baffling that Switch save data is stuck on the console it was created on, waiting for any hardware failure (or loss, theft, damage, etc.) that will lose everything. It’s even more baffling when you consider that Nintendo is doing allows Switch users to copy captured screenshots via a built-in microSD card slot for external backup and distribution.
A Nintendo representative was not immediately available to respond to a request for comment. Still, there’s one reason we can see that could explain Nintendo’s reluctance to copy save files to and from a Switch console: security.
Longtime Nintendo hackwatchers may remember that first the Wii and then the 3DS were hacked to run unsigned code, thanks in part to modified save game data loaded via SD card. If users can’t even load external save data onto the Switch, the hacker’s job will be much more difficult with Nintendo’s latest hardware. Players who only want to backup their legitimate saved data would only be doing collateral damage here.
The vast majority of Switch owners will hopefully never have a problem with their hardware and never be bothered by the lack of secure backup options on the Switch. For anyone who does want protection against the small chance of hardware failure, playing on the Switch currently carries a certain risk.