Nintendo's Paid Online: a yearly checkup/opinion piece

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Today, the 18th of September, marks the one year anniversary of Nintendo's "Online Service" for the Switch. While it was a year ago today that Switch owners gained access to the program, it wasn't until a week later that users started to be charged $20/year for access to this service. In February of 2017, then-president of Nintendo Tatsumi Kimishima said
"We really think that regardless of what others are doing or what services are being offered, it comes down to a battle of content. We feel it’s a matter of getting our content to the consumer at a price point that will make them happy, and then we’re willing to look at what else we can do going forward. This is just the starting point for us, so again, it’s a battle of content. We think we have what we need to win the battle on that front, and we hope to provide more details about the service going forward."
It was clear from even before the Switch's launch that this was to be a developing program, gaining features and proper functionality as time went on, but how well has the service fared up to this point?

2017

The story doesn't exactly begin in September of 2018, at least when discussing the Nintendo Switch's online performance. Games such as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2 have had free online matchmaking functionality since their launches in April and July of 2017 respectively, just a little bit after the Switch's release in March of the same year. The online infrastructure and netcode for these titles had already been set in place and made functional, even more than a year behind the service's official launch in late 2018. But how?

Well, for those of us who don't happen to recall, the existence of the Switch's paid service was actually announced pre-launch of the console, and was originally planned to be rolled out in 2017, however, around Splatoon 2's release in July 2017, it was announced that the planned paywall would be delayed until late 2018. When Polygon asked Reggie Fils-Aime, the then-president of Nintendo of America, for reasons for the delay at 2017's E3, he responded:

As Nintendo looks at the overall online digital experience there’s a recognition that there’s a lot of work to be world class. And we pride ourselves … We believe our IP is world class. We believe that when we create a piece of hardware it’s world class. We need to get our digital environment world class. And that’s what we’re working hard to do.
We wanted to make sure that it is a robust, well-executed online environment, and for the $20 annual subscription fee, the consumer says, ‘This is a no-brainer. I want to participate. I’m all in.’

But as it would turn out, the service wasn't exactly a "no-brainer". At least, not in the way they intended.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2 are just two examples of Nintendo's first-party offerings in 2017 which had online functionality, and they were generally well-received as games. Mario Kart was criticized by some for being not much more than a port + DLC, but Splatoon 2 was apparently well liked, holding an 83 from critics and an 8.5 from users on metacritic at the time of writing, and further developing the strong fanbase that Splatoon 1 had established. Despite their relatively positive receptions, many factors of their online functionality were bemoaned by a large number of consumers playing them.

Random and frequent disconnections predominantly plagued all of these titles, as well as lag in all forms. Users could get upwards of 4-5 disconnect per stream on a bad day, and the lag in those games would make players being hit by invisible items, miss hitting players that appeared to be hit on the attacker's screen, and seeing red shells maneuver past their targets a constant occurrence, because the game couldn't properly keep track of which player was ahead of which. It was, in total honesty, a hilarious shit-show when we tried to steam it on temp's twitch channel, and while it made for entertaining content, it undeniably made for a very poor online gaming experience. These same issues were widespread enough among other users to prompt a number of online guides on how to reduce your Switch's online lag as early as April of 2017.

Splatoon 2 had a very contentious online mode at launch as well, specifically when it came to its lag issues. Many causes were blamed for this issue, but the most frequent goblin, so to speak, was the game's "tickrate." A user called Dessgeega on the Squidboards forum had this to say:
The tickrate, how often the game refreshes the connection between players, is only 16 per second. The first game was at 25. Overwatch is at 60 and even MINECRAFT does better at 20. The low tickrate combined with international matches means tons of lag, being killed by ghosts, teleportation, rubberbanding, and disconnects a-plenty.
These issues were not relegated to a few users, however, as the whole of the community seemed to have at least a healthy dose of contention when it came to the quality of Splatoon 2's online. Twitter was a common posting ground for irate players to display examples of lag killing them unfairly or erratic movement.


But of course this was a developing ecosystem, and free so far. People were very unhappy, and all but unanimously agreed that Nintendo needs to do better, but the service had yet to officially come.
Nintendo had time to improve things... right?

2018
2017 rolls over into 2018, and people are still sharing a plethora of sarcastic tweets criticizing the online of Nintendo's games. Mario Kart had seen not a single shred of improvement in its stability or its lag, and the new title that had come around this year, Mario Tennis Aces, was similarly being absolutely lambasted for its poor online performance.

Chris Hovermale of Destructoid wrote an article on July 21st of 2018, around a year after Splatoon 2's original release, describing the state of Splatoon 2's and Mario Tennis Aces' online functionalities as "unacceptable", and sometimes outright "unplayable".
...any time I search for opponents in online normal or tournament matches, I always have zero to two bars of connectivity, maybe three if I'm lucky. The very few times I successfully connect to an opponent, the unreliable lag spoils those exciting mechanics with frustration and boredom. The notion that I'll have to pay for this unplayable netcode in the near future feels insulting.
I’ve had plenty of online fun with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2, but I regularly get disconnected during longer sessions. When I recently fired up MK8D to play with a friend, we found ourselves unable to keep our room open after about a dozen attempts.

Threads across gaming forums of all kinds sprang up one after the other containing irate customers feeling betrayed by the quality of the online experience. Splatoon 2 continued to receive just as much heat as it did at launch, and for all the same reasons. Visiting tweets from 2017 to 2018 and comparing them, it's evident that absolutely nothing had changed, and that the attitude around Nintendo's handling of their online games had only soured significantly. There's genuinely a twitter account called Splatoon2Lag, which is dedicated to publicizing instances of what they believe to be shoddy online in the game, active since August of 2017. (Their last retweeted tweet at the time of writing was from 9/11/2019.)
Even youtube has compilations of lag in Splatoon 2.

For a full year and a half after launch, Nintendo continued to put out games with woefully inadequate online performances, and people's attitudes became more sour and confrontational. Justifiably so.

and then came...
September 13th, 2018
With their finger as far from the pulse of the gaming community as they could possibly get it, Nintendo published a trailer introducing the features and release date of their official, paid "Online Service", to begin on the 18th. In the trailer, 5 features were announced: online play for compatible games, a small library of 20 NES games (with online features), save data backup to the cloud, a smartphone app for voice chat during online play, and some nebulous "special offers" yet to be revealed.

In order, let's revisit what the state of these features were during the months coming after its implementation.

The first feature was not a new feature at all, simply the announcement that the experience users had previously been "enjoying" was now locked behind the subscription's paywall. Mario Kart, Splatoon 2, Mario Tennis Aces, etc. would have their online functionality locked unless one was a subscriber to the online service. What upset customers more was that, as before, Nintendo provided no dedicated game servers of any kind, instead programming their games with peer-to-peer connections. Without the overhead of maintaining servers, people wondered exactly what they were paying Nintendo for, with many describing the service as "paying Nintendo to use your own internet."

In what Nintendo assumed would be sweetening the deal, they included a batch of 20 NES games to be played through a standalone app on the Switch. While they did include some beloved titles, such as Super Mario Bros., SMB3, and The Legend of Zelda, it also had a lot of what people thought were mediocre filler titles, like Ice Climbers, Pro Wrestling, Baseball, and Soccer, with Nintendo promising to release more NES games on a monthly basis. In most consumers' eyes, the Virtual Console, or its hypothetical equivalent on Switch, had been missing from the console for a year and a half. To many, this was the kind of thing you might have at launch, not gated behind a $20 paywall as a pittance inclusion as part of a subscription fee. In addition, the games are never technically "yours", as as soon as the subscription isn't renewed, the games become inaccessible.

In further absurdity, ever since December 30th of 2017, over 9 months ago, the homebrew scene had already set up a vastly superior alternative to this system in the form of RetroArch for Switch. Not only would it play any NES game you'd like, for free, it sported a lot of basic features that the official NES player embarrassingly did not. While one could use up to 4 save states with the NES online games, the emulator provided limited options in terms of filters and aspect ratios, no ability whatsoever to remap controls (making rolling your finger across the A and B buttons awkward due to the joycon button layout), and 4-5 frames of input lag compared to next-frame response time with RetroArch's runahead.

There was, however, one feature that RetroArch didn't have, and that was the ability to play NES games online with friends, a genuinely novel offering. Unfortunately, playing a Nintendo game online between myself and a fellow American one timezone away gave between 11-16 frames of input lag, and playing with someone in another country produced a maximum of 33 frames of input lag. Needless to say, while the idea was interesting, the quality of Nintendo's online ruined the joy of any game played through it.

What's more, save data backup being tied to a subscription fee felt like a scam to many people. Every other console on the market, and every other before it, allowed direct access to users' save data through a memory card or via transfer to an external data storage device, like a USB stick. This allowed people to backup their own data in case of corruption or theft, in order to make sure their progress could be saved. This was something that consumers felt was fundamental to have access to, and here it was being sold back to them. Worse yet, they would never have full control over their own data, with it being handled exclusively through Nintendo. Just to put the cherry on the cake, Nintendo not only announced that user cloud saves would be deleted if the subscription was not renewed within a 6 month period, they also announced that:
...in certain games this feature would make it possible to, for example, regain items that had been traded to other players, or revert to a higher online multiplayer ranking that had been lost. To ensure fair play, Save Data Cloud backup may not be enabled for such games.

To ensure that Save Data Cloud backups cannot be used to unfairly affect online multiplayer rankings, the feature will not be enabled in Splatoon 2.

This, understandably, created a large amount of backlash from consumers who argued against this stance, but Nintendo didn't back down, all the while the Splatoon 2 leaderboards continued to be defiled by hackers for months going forward.

The hassle of needing to download an app and fiddle with a phone any time one wanted to communicate with another online was so tonedeaf and archaic that it stirred nothing but ridicule, and these "special offers" at the time only included the ability to pre-purchase of NES-style controllers. These were not available for purchase to anyone without an active subscription to Nintendo Online.

The reception to the Nintendo Online announcement...
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...was not very favorable.

But even though consumers were paying for not a single dedicated server, they did still need to pay up if they wanted to keep playing with their friends. It was highway robbery, and evidently neither Nintendo nor the law had any qualms about them engaging in it.​

December, 2018
With what was for many their most anticipated game of this generation to date, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, releasing December 7th, pressure to subscribe to the online service was at an all-time high. Like Smash 4, this new entry promised robust online features, all of which would be gated behind Nintendo's subscription. The netcode for Smash 4 had actually been, by Nintendo's standards, not terrible (at least as I played it on 3DS), but consumers were given a subtle warning during Sakurai's Nov. 1st Smash presentation when he heavily recommended that players use a LAN adapter for their Switch when playing online.

The game released and, while hype for the game and its dearth of content/polish was still at a peak, players quickly discovered that the online was greatly lacking. YouTube channel GigaBoots was quick to put out a video, on the very next day following release no less, stating that Smash Ultimate has around 6 frames of input lag when played locally using their most optimal controller setup. This much lag is already unpleasant for a fighting game, however through my own testing and experience, this number gets multiplied drastically whenever matchmaking online.

Matchmaking randomly, letting the game's online choose the optimal opponent for my Switch's region, multiplies the input lag by, on average, around 2.5 time. This means that one might expect 15 frames of input lag on average when matchmaking blindly online, as a conservative estimate. When pairing with specific people from a friends list through an arena, even this number can end up doubled, depending on their region. Playing with someone on the literal other side of the globe produced over 30 frames of input lag. This is the most extreme example I've been able to test, but one should also note that, when playing with this same person through the indie game Rivals of Aether's netcode beta branch on Steam, the input lag become less than half of that of Smash Ultimate.

Street Fighter V notoriously released with what people considered to be unacceptably high input lag, at around 5.3 frames, even less than Smash's most stable mode, but fan outcry prompted Capcom to issue a patch on October 23rd of 2018 which significantly reduced both the input lag and the lag stability to 4.41 frames. Even then, the data-miner performing the tests, WydD, called the reduction "better, obviously but not great" illustrating just how out of step with the industry Smash's online experience is.

Connection stability also takes a major hit on occasions, when the game will seemingly experience slowdown so severe that the game will literally pause itself and show a loading icon. Even more common is the phenomenon of dropped inputs due to lag, which considering their frequency, has a high impact on the overall enjoyability of the game. Overall, in terms of input lag and online performance, the game is a massive and jarring step back from even their previous outing, Smash 4, much less any other fighting game on the market. While many other fighters, SFV inclusive, get dedicated servers and no additional online fees, somehow Smash Ultimate goes without both of these modern conveniences.

Meanwhile, up to this point in time, Nintendo had released the following NES games in 3 installments, one per month:
  • October: Solomon's Key, NES Open Tournament Golf, Super Dodge Ball
  • November: Metroid, Mighty Bomb Jack, TwinBee
  • December: Wario's Woods, Ninja Gaiden, Adventures of Lolo
With such comparatively lackluster titles being released through the service for three months in a row, even optimists were beginning to have their opinions soured.

2019
During a February investor meeting, Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa noted that
A growing percentage is now opting for shorter plans like the one-month membership.
It is critical that these members want to continue using the service for a long time rather than letting it expire, and for that we need to build relationships with consumers and enrich the content.
With this in mind, we are currently planning ways to boost the appeal of the service on a yearly basis... It is very important to our future business and we are giving it our all.

On February 13th, Tetris 99 was released as a free game, but which required the online service in order to be played. It was effectively a battle royale competitive Tetris, and while people did mock it for the easy comparison, it was generally received as being a harmless, functional game.

On May 15th, Nintendo also rolled out a system by which you can buy two digital vouchers for $99.99 and redeem them for two digital games, so long as they're eligible. Since the online service itself is $20 USD, and buying two digital games worth $60/piece saves $20, then technically, if one buys two new digital games per year, the subscription pays for itself.

Finally, after 2.5 years, Nintendo finally introduced SNES games for the Switch by putting out 20 SNES titles on September 5th of this year. Included in this pack are many big-name games, such as Link to the Past, Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island, Kirby's Dream Course, Kirby's Dream Land 3, F-Zero, and Breath of Fire. It's undeniably a better showing than the NES pack on its release, though the amount of time taken to get to this point is arguably much too long. In addition, Nintendo has genuinely improved the online play when it comes to these titles, and while they don't feel perfect, they're at least not ruined by input latency. Unfortunately this still feels like too little too late, as it was in late 2017 that we were already given the ability to emulate these games at a much higher quality on the Switch.

But these additions still didn't address the core problems of abysmally performing online ecosystems for all of Nintendo's first-party titles, and monetization introduced a full year ago had yielded no improvements the core quality of playing online. Smash's input lag still turned online into a facsimile of itself, tweets depicting Splatoon 2's poor performance were still being made to this day, and Mario Kart 8's instability and lag has still hadn't budged an inch.
Conclusion
It's become completely clear that Nintendo's management will do everything in its power to avoid addressing the core issues, and instead intend to dance around the problems sprinkling freebies. While the voucher deal may very well render this service "free*" for some users, that's only true for users who A) want their two games digitally, B) are buying two games at launch, and C) have their two desired games be on the list of compatible titles.
The problem is, what are we paying for? Cloud saves that were only necessitated by Nintendo locking us out of accessing our own save data? Cheap emulation of NES and SNES titles we've been playing at a higher quality for almost 2 years, now? The same discounts on game purchases that we'd have if the service never existed at all? The dedicated game servers that don't exist?
In this way, Nintendo's "Online Service" is less a service and more a shakedown with benefits. The consumer is forced into paying for a service that provides nothing in the way of online infrastructure, being charged in order to even go online at all. Nintendo is collecting taxes on a service they're putting almost no money into, with what feels like the fidelity of a 2005 online network, and trying to placate people with candy they distribute occasionally. Until Nintendo actually makes games that don't take on input latency whenever they go online like the Titanic takes on water, some actual servers that they could pay for with the money they're already collecting, and netcode better than monkey-scratch, then this whole "Online Service" is nothing but an inherently farcical joke. In short, it's been a fundamentally abysmal performance, one which has willfully refused to budge an inch in 2.5 years, regardless of how many freebies in which they dress it up. For Nintendo to have done no better for its consumers by this point in time is an absolute insult.
 
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godreborn

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Nintendo is about making you feel like a child again, not being kiddy (I mean isn't that what sony and microsoft strive for?). I'm sure people who grew up with playstation feel the same way about ratchet and clank, jak and daxter, etc. with Nintendo, you know what to expect from their games.
 

Enryx25

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I'm glad I never got a Nintendo Switch. No achievement system, shitty online service, tailored for children and was quickly exploited and piracy enabled when it was released. Sadly, if I were to get a Switch now, it would only be for the piracy and CFW with mods. Granted I don't support piracy, it'd be hard not to with the waste of money that the Switch is without joining the rest of the world.
Nintendo can still fix this whole thing. They can simply sellout! Become an entire accessory to Playstation and Xbox for more retro-style game provisioning and portability, leaving the 'adults' to do the real work.
Right now, Nintendo is just an animated corpse.
Nintendo might be just an animated corpse but Switch is one of the fastest selling consoles of all time.
 

chrisrlink

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just got a yearly nso so far been playing starfox and other free games from eshop (mind you this is on the lite) i really dont have $$$ for games quite yet may start up gamefly again
 

DuoForce

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I can almost guarantee that this isn't true, and that there is a huge team of highly paid engineers that work on the service, it just seems that this is how Nintendo wants it.

Are there lag issues on the jp servers?
There are no JP servers because it is all peer2peer. You know what P2P is, right?
 

Grmmish

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I have not paid for Switch Online and won't but...

Are you guys REALLY telling me.....
4 dollars for a month of:
Shitty online play;
A load of "Cheaply emulated" NES and SNES games;
Some half-bakes deals, if any at all;
Cloud saves (Even though we should be able to back them up ourselves but we can't.);

... For FOUR dollars? To be honest... It's a waste of money for me personally but by judging the fact that you idiots spend your 20 dollars on Fortnite V-Bucks and temporary online-only games and in real life snacks and shit just to be consumed... You're better off using your FOUR dollars on this service. Don't bash Nintendo for having "Abyssmal online" if the shit is 4 dollars. That's how much you are paying and that's how much what you're getting is worth. I'd rather spend my FOUR dollars on that garbage instead of the garbage you people waste your money on.


P.S.: For those of you saying how the NES/SNES games aren't a "Service" or is a "Freebie" or whatever.
No. It's an incentive to paying for Switch Online. Just like online plays itself is an incentive for paying for Switch Online. There're not differences here. As soon as you are no longer subscribed, you lose access to SNES/NES games. So no, those also are NOT Freebies, either. They are what you are paying for. just like online play. Same goes for PS+ free games. You lose access to them as soon as your PS+ Expires. XBOX Live GOLD Games for Gold, on the other hand, IS a freebie. The free games are literally changed to free as soon as you have the service and it will now be in your account as "Bought" regardless if you still have Gold or not. Please stop throwing random information out there... There's no point neither is there an argument with whether NES/SNES games are "Freebies" or "apart of service".
 
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MagnesG

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I have not paid for Switch Online and won't but...

Are you guys REALLY telling me.....
4 dollars for a month of:
Shitty online play;
A load of "Cheaply emulated" NES and SNES games;
Some half-bakes deals, if any at all;
Cloud saves (Even though we should be able to back them up ourselves but we can't.);

... For FOUR dollars? To be honest... It's a waste of money for me personally but by judging the fact that you idiots spend your 20 dollars on Fortnite V-Bucks and temporary online-only games and in real life snacks and shit just to be consumed... You're better off using your FOUR dollars on this service. Don't bash Nintendo for having "Abyssmal online" if the shit is 4 dollars. That's how much you are paying and that's how much what you're getting is worth. I'd rather spend my FOUR dollars on that garbage instead of the garbage you people waste your money on.


P.S.: For those of you saying how the NES/SNES games aren't a "Service" or is a "Freebie" or whatever.
No. It's an incentive to paying for Switch Online. Just like online plays itself is an incentive for paying for Switch Online. There're not differences here. As soon as you are no longer subscribed, you lose access to SNES/NES games. So no, those also are NOT Freebies, either. They are what you are paying for. just like online play. Same goes for PS+ free games. You lose access to them as soon as your PS+ Expires. XBOX Live GOLD Games for Gold, on the other hand, IS a freebie. The free games are literally changed to free as soon as you have the service and it will now be in your account as "Bought" regardless if you still have Gold or not. Please stop throwing random information out there... There's no point neither is there an argument with whether NES/SNES games are "Freebies" or "apart of service".
The deals are significant enough for those who go for digital. 2 games for $100, up to 4 vouchers max, with most Nintendo published titles included, and some.

They have the godly Tetris 99.

And you pay for about 1-2 dollars for a family plan, which you can change any time now.
 
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Grmmish

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They run superbly so you win stupid comment of the day

Nah. Notice my quotes.
I only played Switch online when it was free and I had 0 issues with lag, honestly.
And I played NES Online application using NSP. And I see 0 problem with them in any way.

My quotes were simply mocking the poster for calling the emulated games poorly implemented. Even though I personally don't think so, but I was saying EVEN IF THEY WERE POORLY EMULATED... Still a good deal.

--------------------- MERGED ---------------------------

he means emulation of snes and nes is very easy and cheap....

You're actually incorrect here. I do not think they were poorly implemented AT ALL on NES/SNES online Application.
I was only mocking the poster for calling them "Poorly implemented" meaning "Even if they were poorly implemented, my argument on it being worth it still stands."
 
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kisamesama

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ok for paying switch online for the snes and nes stuff... but online multiplayer should be free .. you are already buying the game and multiplayer is p2p and is not even working well... this should be free.
 

Gimzie

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Dunno if a whole lot of people realize this, but the whole "p2p vs dedicated servers" argument doesn't necessarily hold true for every game. Dedicated servers can definitely improve the online experience for certain games, but for more competitive games such as Smash Ultimate, you would get much better results via peer-to-peer connections, simply because a server would introduce too much latency.

I think the issue is largely in how peer-to-peer is executed in Nintendo's competitive games, and not necessarily the fact that these games do use p2p systems. And considering this, I think it's a little unreasonable to have to pay money for peer-to-peer connections, when (to my knowledge) they do not require any work on Nintendo's end.
 

Tiger21820

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Shuntaro Furukawa said:
A growing percentage is now opting for shorter plans like the one-month membership.
It is critical that these members want to continue using the service for a long time rather than letting it expire, and for that we need to build relationships with consumers and enrich the content.
With this in mind, we are currently planning ways to boost the appeal of the service on a yearly basis... It is very important to our future business and we are giving it our all.

Great! Why don't you start now? Seriously! When it comes to the big three, Nintendo's company & consumer relations are lower than you could EVER imagine!! How can Nintendo be ok with that?
 
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godreborn

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i thought cloud saves mirrored on-device saves? that the online bit was just a duplicate backup, not the sole place your save was stores?

but yeah. that input lag is annoying. it's hard to "git gud" when it's less skill and more luck. they need to have a proper infrastructure. i mean, it's not like sony or microsoft use their servers for most games, it's the same paywall for most things, but whatcha gonna do.

I'm not sure what you mean. the saves are only stored on cloud or both cloud and system? I tested cloud saving with dkc tropical freeze by deleting my save, then redownloading it by default. it worked. what I think may be a problem is if your system breaks, you buy a new one, then want the system to download the saves for all games. I mean by default it downloads the save from cloud if it's not the same as what's on the system, so if you enter a game for the first time again, it might make a cloud backup of the empty save before downloading your actual save from cloud. that's what I'm confused by. how do you stop that from happening? does the game have to be inserted or on the micro sd card to allow you to download saves? imo, it seems like too much can go wrong with the way cloud saving works.
 
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