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Nintendo Switch digital games can only be played on one console at a time

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Lose your Switch? You’ll have to call Nintendo to get your games back

Nintendo Switch handheld mode on account unlink screen
To sign into another Switch, you first have to unlink your Nintendo Account ... so try not to lose it.
Jeff Ramos/Polygon

Nintendo Switch users looking to play their downloaded games on multiple consoles can indeed do so, but the process isn’t as simple or useful as anybody would want.

The Switch uses a new account system: the unified Nintendo Account, which serves as a replacement for the Nintendo Network ID of the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS. You need a Nintendo Account to buy games in the Switch eShop, and any purchases you make are tied to that account. Anyone with a profile on your Switch can play the games you’ve bought, even if you’re not logged in; up to eight users can link their accounts to one Switch unit.

It’s approaching the system that everyone has always wanted from Nintendo; the company is finally catching up to the way its competitors manage access to digital purchases. (Downloadable games on Wii and Wii U were linked to the console on which they were purchased, and could only be moved to a new system with a one-way console transfer process.) But while it’s making progress, Nintendo’s solution still falls short of other digital purchasing platforms, from Xbox to Kindle, PlayStation to iOS.

When you sign in with your Nintendo Account to a Switch, that system automatically becomes the active console tied to your account. In order to play your eShop games on a different Switch, you must first deactivate your existing console before you can sign in with your Nintendo Account on the second Switch and activate it as the new primary console. Once you’ve deactivated a Switch, your games will no longer be playable on that console — digital purchases are only accessible from the active Switch, and you’re only allowed to have one of those linked to your Nintendo Account at a time.

Nintendo Switch unlink Nintendo Account Nintendo via Polygon

To deactivate a Switch, you open up the eShop and head to the Account Information for your Nintendo Account. You can only deactivate a Switch from this settings page on the console, so if you don’t have access to your active console — say you sold your Switch to a friend but forgot to deactivate it first — you’ll have to contact Nintendo for help.

This is a major step forward for Nintendo, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Sony uses a similar setup on the PlayStation 4, except customers can use their account across one “primary” console and multiple other PS4s. The same is true on the Xbox One, although Microsoft limits the number of times per year that a user can change their “home” console. And Valve lets Steam users access their library simply by signing in on any computer.

In all three of those cases, all you need to do if you want to play your digital games on another system is sign in with your account. Your save games are stored in the cloud — for free on Xbox Live and Steam, but only for PlayStation Plus subscribers on PS4 — so you can pick right up where you left off.

The Nintendo Switch, however, doesn’t currently offer cloud storage for save games — or, in fact, any way to move them off the console they were created on. That immediately makes the Switch’s migration ability much less useful.

Say you bought The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from the eShop and played it for 30 hours, and then your Switch got stolen. You’d have to call Nintendo to have the company deactivate your dearly departed Switch. Then, if you signed in with your Nintendo Account on a new Switch, you’d be able to redownload the game from the eShop. But you’d have to start your playthrough from scratch.

When we asked Nintendo about Switch save data, the company didn’t say anything except confirming that “at this time, it is not possible to transfer save data from one Nintendo Switch system to another.” Here’s hoping that changes in the future. For now, you can read our Nintendo Switch review for more details on the console.


Watch: Nintendo Switch Hardware Review