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Nintendo Switch save games can’t be copied off the console (update)

How do you back up Switch save files?

The Nintendo Switch launches tomorrow with support for expandable storage via a microSD card slot, but that support is pretty limited, as we discovered after applying the console’s day-one update today. Switch save data is stored in the console’s system memory, and currently cannot be copied to any external storage medium for backup purposes (or any other reason).

In fact, you can’t transfer any Switch game files to a microSD card — whether that’s downloaded games or save data. While playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we tried to save the game directly to the microSD card we had in the system, but that option wasn’t available. Many cartridge-based platforms put save data on the game cartridge itself, not the console’s internal storage. Not so with the Switch — all saves live only in the system’s built-in flash memory.

Under the Data Management section of the Switch’s system settings, there’s a “manage save data/screenshots” option. But when you click on it, the only thing you can do with save games is delete them — there’s no option to move them to the microSD card or other external storage. The Switch does let you choose individual games, and then asks whether you want to erase data for just one user or for every profile on the console.

The Switch’s microSD card slot is hidden behind the Switch’s kickstand. The console is compatible with microSDHC cards and microSDXC cards, with sizes up to a theoretical maximum of 2 TB. That’s a good thing, since the Switch’s internal storage offers just 32 GB of space — less than 26 GB of which is available to users.

Nintendo Switch settings - Data Management
“Manage” is a bit misleading.
Nintendo Switch settings - manage save data/screenshots
I don’t want to do that!

Having said that, this is a problem for a number of reasons. For one thing, it means you can’t use the same save files between multiple Switch consoles, or bring your save games over to a friend’s house. And if your Switch dies, or is lost or stolen, poof — all of your progress is gone forever. This isn’t the case on the Nintendo 3DS, Wii or Wii U, all of which allow you to copy save games to an SD card or USB storage.

Of course, Nintendo could alleviate most of these concerns by introducing cloud storage for Switch save games, which Sony and Microsoft have each provided for years with their two most recent consoles. (The Xbox One backs up all save data to the cloud; the PlayStation 4 offers cloud saves only to PlayStation Plus subscribers, but allows users to copy save games to USB storage.) Nintendo has yet to announce such a feature for the Switch’s upcoming paid online service.

When you click on Manage Screenshots in the Switch settings, you have a lot more options. You can set whether the Switch saves screenshots to internal storage or directly to the microSD card. In addition, you can copy images from one area to the other. It’s all the functionality you would want with save games, in fact.

Nintendo Switch manage screenshots

As for games themselves, eShop purchases seem to download to the microSD card, if one is available, by default. But here’s the thing: The Switch does not explicitly tell you where it is sending a game, and users cannot choose whether the internal storage or the microSD card is the primary download location. It was only when perusing the system settings that we realized that Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, which we purchased from the Switch eShop, had automatically been downloaded to the SD card rather than the built-in storage.

The first screenshot below shows the Switch’s Manage Software menu, and four games within it. The internal system memory (totaled at the top right and denoted on each game with a tablet-like icon) is essentially unused. The microSD card (totaled at right beneath system memory) contains data for Breath of the Wild and Shovel Knight.

The 147 MB allocation for Shovel Knight represents the entire game, downloaded from the eShop and installed automatically on the microSD card. In effect, the microSD card became a Shovel Knight cartridge.

The Switch didn’t prompt us to choose a location in which to install Shovel Knight, and the console’s data management menu doesn’t provide an option to move the installed game from the microSD card to internal storage (or vice versa). We have a physical copy of Breath of the Wild; the 216 MB of space that the game uses on the microSD card consists of screenshots we captured while playing.

Nintendo Switch manage software
Nintendo Switch dashboard - Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove cloud icon
Nintendo Switch manage software - Shovel Knight
Nintendo Switch - archive or delete Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove

To archive or delete. That is the question.

When we removed the microSD card and restarted the Switch, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove’s icon still appeared on the home screen. However, there was now a cloud icon next to its name, indicating that it wasn’t installed. A couple of button presses later, the game was downloaded to the Switch’s internal storage.

When we popped the microSD card back into the Switch, we could see the 147 MB for Shovel Knight in both locations. Then we navigated through the menus and chose to delete the software. That action erased it from the microSD card, the Switch’s internal storage and the home screen — we had no say in the matter.

As you can see in the image above, the Switch has another management option, “archive software,” which deletes the game from the storage medium in question but keeps its tile on the Switch’s dashboard. Using either the archive or delete options leaves user data like save files and screenshots unaffected. If we wanted to nuke either of those, we would have needed to navigate to a separate menu.

This all feels like Nintendo trying to have its cake and eat it too. The company has a history of designing its operating systems with kid gloves, a philosophy employed in an effort to ensure that casual players can use Nintendo platforms without having to think too much. And indeed, people shouldn’t have to get into the nitty-gritty of managing save files and free space if they don’t want to.

However, this attempt at offering the best of both worlds seems half-baked. Nintendo allows players to do whatever they want with screenshots, while keeping all the important stuff — save files and installed games — locked away. It’s strange: The Switch offers some pretty granular management tools, but stops short of giving users the keys to the console. And when the limitations lead to situations like being unable to copy save data to, say, a microSD card or USB flash drive, it’s frustrating.

There’s also no word on whether you can take a microSD card with games on it, pop it into another Switch console, and start playing as long as you log in with your Nintendo Account. We don’t currently have access to more than one Switch, so we’ve been unable to test that, but we’ll update this article once we do.

In the meantime, you can read our Nintendo Switch review for our full thoughts on the console as it stands at launch.

Update: A Nintendo representative simply confirmed the Switch situation to Polygon, saying, “At this time, it is not possible to transfer save data from one Nintendo Switch system to another.” The spokesperson provided no further information.