I got my Switch exactly a year ago today, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours (and dollars) on games for Nintendo’s newest console. But unlike every other console I’ve owned, I’ve bought exactly one physical game for the Switch — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — which I preordered alongside my Switch so I’d have something to play when it first came out. I know I’m probably late to this party, but the Switch feels like the first console to truly make the case to, uh, switch away from physical games for good.
A lot of that has to do with how I use the Switch and its portable nature. I take my Switch with me basically everywhere — on the train to work in the morning, plane rides, weekends at my parents’ house — and having all my games with me to play whenever I want is a great addition. The ability to play Zelda anywhere is good, but the ability to play Zelda and Mario Odyssey and Sonic Mania and Splatoon 2 and Rocket League and Stardew Valley and Celeste and Overcooked and Mario Kart and Tumbleseed anywhere is even better.
Part of my decision is practical. Even die-hard cartridge fans will probably need to invest in some extra memory since bigger games like Doom can’t fit on the Switch’s 32GB cartridges. You’ll be stuck dealing with downloads anyway. (Nintendo is apparently working on larger 64GB cartridges, but they’ve been delayed until 2019.) Downloadable games also make it possible to play games that are only available in other countries; as my colleague Sam Byford pointed out, the fact that the Switch isn’t region-locked makes this a more viable option.
The Switch’s lineup is filled with excellent indies like Celeste, which don’t typically see a physical release, so downloads are the only choice for many of the best games on the console. It helps that Nintendo is doing its part to encourage digital purchases through regular sales on the eShop — and not just for indie titles, but bigger releases like Splatoon 2, Arms, and Mario + Rabbids, too.
I’ll be the first to admit that Nintendo could do more to make going all-digital more viable. The company absolutely needs to improve its account system to let users transfer accounts and games between devices. The current system is complex and frustrating at best, and there’s potential to lose all your games if you lose your console. (Users have to deactivate the old device before they can transfer their account to a new one on that device, so if you lose your console, there’s no way to do that process, short of contacting Nintendo for direct assistance.) It’s especially frustrating because this is a solved problem: Sony and Microsoft figured this out years ago for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, both of which simply allow users to log into a new console and download all their purchases without any fuss.
Additionally, Nintendo needs to figure out some sort of cloud storage system or a way to transfer save files between consoles. Right now, Switch cartridges don’t even offer one of the best benefits of cartridges, which is that they can store data for transferring between devices. With the Switch, whether downloaded game or physical copy, all save data is stored on the console. Again, this is something other companies figured out a long time ago. Microsoft has cloud saves for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and Sony includes it as part of its PlayStation Plus subscription service (along with the option to move save files using a flash drive).
There are other benefits to sticking with old-fashioned cartridges. Unlike digital titles, it’s easier to return or resell games that you’re finished with or didn’t like. And the fact that you can just pop out your copy of Zelda and lend it to a friend for a few weeks is something that will likely never be possible with a digital copy. There’s also the issue that physical copies of games — particularly older titles — tend to get cheaper as time goes on, unlike the relatively stagnant digital marketplace.
But for me, the advantages of digital games perfectly meshes with the play anywhere mentality of the Switch. At this point, it’s impossible for me to go back to cartridges. That said, I ordered one more game card for my Switch this weekend: a new microSD card so I can store more digital games.