Despite Nintendo’s consistent efforts, the Switch hacking community has been running at full tilt for quite some time now. The battle between the two sides began not too long after the Switch launched. Now, almost two years later, Nintendo’s software security engineers have yet to find a way to totally snuff out the exploits that the hackers keep uncovering.
Just recently, the company rolled out version 7.0.0 of the Switch firmware. As like past system updates, this new firmware deployed a fresh batch of scrambled code that temporarily stopped the progress of hackers. As soon as the update was launched, the hacking community raised the red alert for exploited console owners to avoid updating. But then the tone changed—rather quickly. In less than four hours, the new crack keys were uncovered by means of collaboration between two hackers. I hate to say I found this turnaround to be rather impressive at first, but that feeling soon turned into disappointment on Nintendo’s part. Seeing the company’s security bypassed that fast just makes this whole “battle” seem more like a pointless runaround. But is that really the case?
Holding down the fort
With the Switch being such a smash hit from a sales perspective, it’s no wonder why Nintendo has been so adamant about trying to fend off hackers—the company is trying to protect its investment. If it didn’t, that would look pretty terrible to Nintendo’s software partners and Switch owners who aren’t fond of hackers. Even if hackers have been able to blow past the new code in such a small amount of time, you better believe that Nintendo isn’t going to just throw its hands up and say “you win.” For as long as the Switch remains Nintendo’s front line console, you can expect those frequent “stability patches” to be continuously rolled out just as they’ve been doing so for nearly two years. Still, one has to wonder why Nintendo hasn’t found a real solution yet. Well, it all seems to have to do with timing.
The Switch is a special system for Nintendo. Not just because it’s a hybrid, but really because of how its R&D process went. Coming off the heels of the failed Wii U, Nintendo basically put the development of the Switch in “Amazon Prime two-day shipping mode.” What I mean by that is the Switch’s creation was expedited to ensure it could replace the Wii U as quickly as possible. Past Nintendo home systems have remained active for at least five or six years, but the Wii U only lived until it was four (barely). Nintendo must have scrambled to Nvidia to provide them with a chip that could be slapped into a hybrid design ASAP, and that chip turned out to be the Tegra X1.
Released in 2015, the TX1 was already well documented by the time the Switch came onto the scene in 2017. This is why hackers were able to break into the system so quickly in the first place. Nintendo clearly had its back against the wall in this situation, but I can’t help but feel like some extra time in the garage could’ve really helped to delay the current situation.
Hindsight being 20-20…
Earlier last year, Nintendo stealthily released new models of the Switch. You may not have known about it; that’s fair considering the company has yet to actually announce this themselves. This information was actually uncovered by none other than—hackers.
Recognizing their mistake, Nintendo and Nvidia actually did take the Switch’s Tegra back to the drawing board and were able to modify it in a way that blocked out hackers from a hardware level. This seal appears to have yet to be unlocked. Okay, great! Crisis averted then, right? Well, no.
These modified Switch chips, allegedly codenamed “Mariko,” may be out in the wild now—but what about the millions of original units? Seeing that these modifications didn’t come about until at least mid-2018, that pretty much means every Switch sold throughout 2017 and early 2018 is able to be hacked. So basically, almost everyone who’s an early adopter has a vulnerable Switch. There’s no telling how many of these units have officially “gone rogue,” but it’s clearly been enough for Nintendo to be releasing “stability patches” every few weeks.
The vulnerable units will likely remain that way forever, as it seems like no matter what Nintendo does from a software standpoint, the hackers are able to counteract it.
But I’m not a hacker!
All the time and resources that Nintendo has been pouring into fighting against the hackers does seem to be taking away from actually developing the Switch’s OS. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of the console’s launch, and there hasn’t been any truly significant system updates since launch, despite the fact that this is now the seventh edition of the firmware. Think about it; what new features has the Switch gained since 2017? I can tell you–cloud saves and digital game sharing. Other than that, the OS is fundamentally the same (at least from the perspective of a regular end-user).
The fact that hackers have already programmed in much-requested features like emulation, Internet browsing, and local save-data backups shows that it’s not impossible for the Switch to have these features. Nintendo just hasn’t implemented them yet. If the only thing holding the official engineers back has been trying to find a way to implement such features without creating easily accessible exploits (as was the case with past systems), I think that ship has long sailed. Basically, anyone who would want to hack their Switch can do so at this point, if they have the right system. But, that’s just the thing—not everyone does.
If this really is the case of the “innocent paying for the guilty,” then I think Nintendo should reconsider its priorities. By all means, keep up the fight against hackers, but don’t leave normal users hanging in the balance.
Riding High Anyway
These “useless updates,” as some have called them, may perhaps be slowing down the progress of Switch OS development, but they haven’t slowed down the console’s sales momentum. It’s been continuously topping sales charts worldwide since launch, despite the lack of features. So, this could actually be giving Nintendo more incentive to only focus on providing security measures. While normal users are going to feel disappointed by the stagnation (which is both natural and justified), Nintendo likely won’t budge until it truly sees the need to.
But this is still Nintendo we’re talking about. The aforementioned introduction of digital game sharing—a pretty significant feature—wasn’t formally announced or even revealed beforehand. Nintendo just slipped it into a system update. So, maybe later this year we will finally get a major update that adds a lot of requested features. In the meantime, though, normal users will just have to keep sitting with feet tapping and bated breath for Nintendo to finally stop focusing on just trying to beat up the neighborhood bullies.