Nintendo loves to rerelease games, and each time the same game comes to a new Nintendo system you're expected to foot the bill for it all over again. However, with the company's new Nintendo Account service that works similarly to a PlayStation Network or Xbox Live account, gamers had reason to hope that maybe this time things would be different.
Unfortunately, they're not. Having a Nintendo Account may help transfer games forward to Nintendo's next system, but you won't be able to bring your Wii U and 3DS games forward to the Switch.
How is Nintendo different from Sony or Microsoft?
Game licensing is a funny thing. For physical games, proving you have the license to play the game is usually as simple as owning the media and maybe typing in a license code. However, digital media has made things significantly more complicated.
Digital sales became prevalent during the lifespan of the seventh generation consoles. Sony and Microsoft went one way, with purchases being tied to accounts. Nintendo, on the other hand, decided to handle digital licenses in a way that's caused nothing but trouble for players since its inception.
Instead of tying digital purchases to an account, Nintendo stores licenses locally on your console. If your Wii U has even needed repairs or you've upgraded to a new DS system, you're probably familiar with the system transfer process. To move Nintendo licenses from one system to another, the consoles need to be physically near each other and connected to the same Wi-Fi network. Furthermore, once you transfer the licenses to the new system, the old one no longer has access to them.
That means, if you sell your Wii U or 3DS, you better have another one close by if you want to save your digital purchases. Otherwise, you're screwed, and Nintendo can't do anything to help you. If you break a 3DS or Wii U, you can't simply buy a new one and log into your account. Nope, you have to send the broken system to Nintendo or buy a new one and hope they'll agree to perform the relatively rare process of remotely transferring your Nintendo Network ID to a new handheld.
Even if you manage to do everything right, there's a good chance that your save data may not carry over to the new system if you end up transferring your games this way.
Transferring Nintendo 3DS and Wii U games to Switch: So what's the problem?
There are two significant issues with carrying Wii U and Nintendo 3DS games to the Switch. Because of Nintendo's licensing policy, there's just no way to 100% verify you own the games your console says you do. Those digital licenses that your 3DS or Wii U store locally aren't authenticated on the server side. Instead, every game on the eShop has its own title encryption key. When you purchase and download the games, the common key on the system decrypts the game and allows you to play.
However, third-party custom firmware can be installed for the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U that allows for dumping and downloading of title keys. Think of a private key as the interior of a house, Nintendo's servers as a door, and a title key as a key to unlock the door. If you have the title key, Nintendo's servers assume you have the right to come into the house as many times as you want. Like putting a regular key in a door, there's no way of the door knowing if the person has a right to unlock it.
All Nintendo's servers know when you have a decrypted title key on your system is that it should let you download the particular game it's associated with. While your eShop purchases are tenuously associated with the older Nintendo Network ID, the Nintendo server doesn't check the title keys on your system against the purchases you've made on the eShop.
If Nintendo wanted to honor 3DS and Wii U digital licenses on the Switch, there would likely be major issues with telling the valid licenses from the pirated ones.
Transferring physical games is just as much a problem, though a much simpler one. The Nintendo Switch doesn't have a slot that will fit 3DS cartridges or Wii U discs, and transferring the licenses into digital form would just lead to the same problems as stated above.
Transferring Nintendo 3DS and Wii U games to Switch: Pony up
There's another underlying reason that Nintendo isn't going to honor your past system purchases on the Switch: it doesn't make them any money. Trying to figure out a solution to bring licenses forward to the Switch from the 3DS and Wii U would cost money, while making you buy the games over makes Nintendo money.
In the end, it all comes down to the bottom line. The hassle of transferring the license from previous systems isn't incentive enough for Nintendo to fix it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though. At least with the new Nintendo Account system, we can more than likely bring profiles, games and saves forward with us in the future — at least until Nintendo introduces some new system and makes us start from scratch all over again.
More Nintendo Switch news and coverage
Looking for more Nintendo Switch news? Check out how blind gamers are using the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo's left Joy-Con issue turns out to be a hardware problem — here's how to solve it. Find out how to buy a console amidst the recent restock. Learn why the Switch cartridges taste so bad. Check out our comparison photos sizing up the Switch to the Wii U GamePad (part one and part two), or find out how to make use of ethernet without the dock and the best way to get alerts when new stock arrives.