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It sucks that Animal Crossing is tied to your Switch console

Learn from my mistakes!

A player stands in the butterfly portion of an Animal Crossing museum. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

For a stretch of about 12 hours, I lived an Animal Crossing: New Horizons nightmare. 95 hours of playtime seemed to be gone — my island vanished into thin air.

I’d been playing Animal Crossing nonstop, to the degree that it was starting to become a strain on my hands. A good excuse, I thought, to upgrade to a Switch Lite. One thing I had heard from friends over and over again was that the two-Switch experience was a headache of title permissions and other unforeseen annoyances, so I resolved to just make my new Switch Lite the primary console. The first thing I did upon opening my neon yellow portable was to move over my user info, which my original Switch warned me would be a one-way street. Once I ported things over, my docked Switch wouldn’t have my user profile anymore. That’s fine, I thought. Might as well bring over my save data too.

Once preparations were complete, I popped in my copy of New Horizons into my new console, only to find that the game was welcoming me to a new island adventure. I was confused — where was my old island? I went back to my other Switch and found nothing there. I wondered where, exactly, my island was stored — then I remembered that I had kept my SD card slotted in my original Switch. That must be it, I thought. So, I brought over my card to my Lite.

The Lite told me that SD cards were formatted for single-use, and that if I wanted to have it as my storage on the system, I needed to delete the previous console’s information. Thinking I had no reason to go back to the old console, I said yes. I started up New Horizons once more, only to once again be greeted by Timmy and Tommy Nook. What???

I tried redownloading my profile information to my old Switch, but the console told me that once I did this, the profile would be tied to the Switch. Given that I didn’t want to use my docked Switch as my primary, this didn’t seem like a solution.

In a fit of desperation, I turned to Twitter and asked folks if I had unknowingly just deleted my entire island from existence by overwriting my SD card. This was my first mistake, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was told by strangers that yes, my island was gone. As far as I could tell, they seemed to be right — my new Switch Lite had nothing, my old Switch had nothing. I started tearing up, until I thought about trying to explain this entire situation to my therapist without sounding unhinged about why I cared so deeply about some digital animals. Laughing, and a little bit hardened by the experience, I resolved to just start over.

This time, I thought, I’d just restart my game until I got a pair of good villagers. And so the night went on, with me flying to a new island over and over, trying to find the perfect combination of animals that I could grow to love. I settled on a deer and a peacock, which in my hundreds of hours of Animal Crossing time, I’d somehow never played with before. Then it was going through all the introductory motions again — setting up camp, learning to craft, and so on. It helped for me to think about it as a speedrun, not me trying to make the best out of a seemingly awful situation. How fast could I blitz through it all? How long would it take me to get back to where I was?

The next morning, it dawned on me that I hadn’t tried one more thing thanks to the miasma of terror that enveloped the whole experience. What would happen if I just put my game back in my old Switch? To my surprise, and despite the fact that the profile wasn’t actually viewable on the console under normal circumstances anymore, a familiar icon suddenly popped up. My account! Apparently, my profile was hiding inside my old Switch that entire time. I just couldn’t see it unless I also had my game back in the system. I started New Horizons up again, and the game told me that it couldn’t find the user that the save file was attached to — but did I want to keep playing as that character?

God, yes. When I walked through the grounds of Koga Island that morning, I was thrilled to see even the villagers that annoyed me during normal circumstances. I went up to each and every character and said hi. I cried again, happy to see familiar faces, but also angry to have gone through all of that for nothing.

As I learned, your Animal Crossing: New Horizons save file isn’t attached to your game cart or your SD card. It’s stored on the actual system. Once you start a save file somewhere, you have to stay there, even if your account is linked elsewhere, or even if you load the cart on a different system. While the Switch now has cloud saving, Animal Crossing: New Horizons doesn’t support it.

It’s astonishing that it works this way, given that Animal Crossing is by far Nintendo’s hottest game right now, yet the game doesn’t support basic functions like cloud saving — something that is useful even if you’re not a two-console edge case. I’m guessing at least some people are getting a second Switch, though, but if they’ve already started an Animal Crossing save file, they won’t be able to fully enjoy the upgrade. Supposedly, the ability to retrieve save data “in the event of console failure, loss or theft” will be available to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers later this year, according to Nintendo. It’s not enough, in my view, but it’s something, I guess — better than just losing your stuff altogether, as I feared I did.

In the end, my thing was just a false scare, but I hope my tale serves as a warning to everyone else considering buying a second Switch for Animal Crossing: New Horizons right now. You’ll be able to enjoy a two-console set-up, for the most part — but not if you want to enjoy an existing island getaway on a different portable.

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