What do Pokémon Legends Arceus, Metroid Dread, and Shin Megami Tensei V all have in common? All three are Major Nintendo Switch exclusive titles, and all three were available to play, start to finish, with basically zero technical hiccups, more than a week ahead of their offical release date.
Well, so long as you were willing to pirate them.
It has been a bit of an open secret for a while now that Nintendo has a MAJOR piracy problem on its hands, and one it literally cannot fix until the company starts releasing video games which will not run on launch day Switch hardware.
So, why is Nintendo in particular struggling to squash piracy, and how bad has the problem become for them?
To make a long story short and simple, launch day units of the Nintendo Switch have a pretty major hardware vunerability. By simply using a paperclip or similar object to connect two points inside one of the system’s Joy-Con rails, a user can entierly bypass the system’s security features, access developer system-maintainance functions, access the keys designed to prevent pirated games from running, and even boot the console into custom firmware.
Once this vunerability was discovered, Nintendo did try their best to limit the damage.
Because the vunerability is hardware based, and can be so easily accessed by the average user, the company started manufacturing new revisions of the console which corrected the issue. However, by that point, the damage was done. Millions of Nintendo Switch systems were out in the wild upon which piracy was incredibly easy to enable and participate in.
You can’t push a software update out to those early consoles that changes the fact that a simple paperclip can bypass their security settings.
Users with the initial run of Switch hardware could simply pop in a cartridge copy of a game, and use a piece of homebrew software to dump that game cartridge onto their SD Card, in a format others could play. Anyone with a hacked Switch could simply download said file, and install it from their SD Card onto their system memory, ready to play as though it were officially purchased software.
This issue is very much compounded by the fact that the Nintendo Switch is not trying to push the envelope graphically the same way that the PS5 and Xbox Series X are. The system’s graphical limits are low enough that many modern PCs are strong enough to emulate the system’s games at full speed. This, paired with the ease of access of anti piracy keys for the console, means that the Switch is at this point easy to emulate even for those without a hacked console.
As much as Nintendo is trying to scrub the internet free of evidence, it was quickly discovered that the Steam Deck for example is powerful enough to run most Nintendo Switch games at full speed, without technical issues.
So, how are copies of Nintendo Switch games ending up online more than a week before their official release dates? Well, beyond the ease of dumping and playing roms, it largely comes down to physical distribution supply chains.
To simplify some complex logistics, physical copies of video games are sent out to retail stores with a fairly long lead time ahead of the date they are meant to go on sale, in order to make sure every store has stock in time for release.
In large countires such as the United States of America, distribution warehouses have to, in some cases, start delivering copies to stores starting a couple of weeks before release, in order to have time to get copies to every store. This means that, if you are hypothetically a retail store located pretty close to a distribution centre, you might recieve your physical copies of a game a few weeks before the stores furthest away from the distribution centre.
Now, this is the case for basically every video game that gets a physical release for any console, and you will sometimes see physical copies of highly anticipated games show up on Ebay ahead of release at highly inflated prices from retailers willing to break street date, but the problem is much bigger for Nintendo, because of the ease of piracy we mentioned before.
If a single PS5 copy of God of War: Ragnarok gets put up on ebay a week ahead of its official release later this year, one person could purchase it, play it, and try to post spoilers online, but they would not be able to distribute the game to others due to the fact that the PS5 has not been hacked to easily play pirated software, and emulation of the system on PC is not currently possible.
But for a Nintendo Switch game, one single copy showing up on Ebay a week before release can snowball. Within an hour of recieving an early copy, a player with a hacked Switch could dump the rom, and distribute it online. Incredibly quickly, that game is completely playable, a week ahead of release, for anyone willing to pirate it, with or without Switch hardware to play it on.
So, why am I talking about this today? Well, we’re about to see this play out once again, this time with Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Copies of the game appeared on Ebay yesterday, and while the game is not up on piracy sites at the time of writing, I am willing to bet good money that, within the next 24 hours, the game will be playable by those willing to pirate it, a week ahead of paying players. Many message board users claim they are already in the process of securing a pre-release copy ready to post the rom file online for others to play.
Right now, it’s a very strange time to be a paying, non pirating, Nintendo Switch owner, because without fail you’re getting a worse experience than those willing to pirate software. You’re paying for the game, you’re getting it a week later than the pirates, and in many cases you’re playing an inferior version of the game at release, with pirates often unlocking improved visual settings or higher framerates for play within days.
Nintendo themselves are in an awkward situation here too, as there isn’t much, if anything, they can actually do to stop this. Short of completely rewriting supply chain protocol, or shipping game cartridges to stores that are literally unplayable until release date software updates, Nintendo literally cannot plug the hole that is the millions of impossible to patch, hardware vunerable launch day Switch consoles.
Until Nintendo one day begins to produce games that cannot be played on launch day Switch hardware, such as a hypothetical Switch 2 with differently shaped game cartridges, Nintendo cannot change the fact that any time they have a highly anticipated first party release coming to the system, it’s probably going to leak online to pirates over a week ahead of release.
Games sometimes end up in the wild before release, but Nintendo is entering an unprecedented era right now in terms of the scope of the problem for them. It is very much becoming a standard that Nintendo Switch games will leak online ahead of release, and be easy to pirate, for basically every major release. The longer this goes on, the harder it’s going to be for the average paying user to feel like they’re not being cheated.
When every major video game leaks a week ahead of release, and you’re sat dodging spoilers waiting to start playing the copy that you’ve paid for, seeing people playing for free, playing early, is going to become harder and harder for many players to ignore, and if Nintendo themselves don’t eventually address this, I think you’re going to see more and more Switch players going “Why am I paying for these games when I could be getting a better experience for free?”.