Digital vs. physical Switch games: Which is better?

Nintendo Switch next to Switch boxes
(Image credit: Rebecca Spear / iMore)

Digital vs. physical Switch games: Which is better?

They both have advantages and disadvantages. You won't lose digital games like you could cartridges, but physical games tend to get better deals and can be shared with friends and family or sold for other games when you're done with them. 

Anyone who doesn't want to deal with cartridges should go digital and needs to invest in a large-capacity microSD card, while those looking to start a tangible collection or anticipate trading games down the line will want a smaller microSD card and a carrying case for their games.

The digital advantage

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The most obvious benefit of downloading a digital copy of a game onto your Nintendo Switch console is that it doesn't take up any physical space. You won't have a shelf full of old Switch games that you never play anymore. You also don't have to worry about losing those tiny thimble-sized cartridges, having your little brother steal them from you, or having your dog chew them up (even if they're designed to taste bad).

Another great reason to go digital is that you'll always have all of your games with you, no matter where you go. That way, you never have to tote all of those cartridges around in a case. Since digital game purchases are tied to your Nintendo Account, you could still access them if you had to replace your Switch or if you upgrade to a new Switch model.

With digital games, you can sometimes start playing right after midnight on the day of a game's official release.

One of the biggest perks of choosing the digital downloads of Nintendo Switch games is that they get pre-loaded onto your device at the time of your order. This means you can then start playing them right after they release. For instance, if a game has a midnight release, you won't have to wait in line at a store, nor do you have to wait for a delivery to start playing. If you stay up late enough, you could have most of the game completed before your friends even get up the next day.

If you're ecologically minded, you will be happy to note that digital downloads also cut down on the amount of waste produced for a game. Instead of dealing with the plastic of the cartridges, case, and sealed packaging, you are dealing with ones and zeroes. It's a much more environmentally friendly way to play Nintendo Switch.

Now, if you're going digital, a microSD card for Nintendo Switch should be high on your list of priorities. The Nintendo Switch and Switch Lite only have a measly 32GB of internal storage (about three large games) while the Switch OLED is only slightly better at 64GB (about six large games), and some of that is eaten up by the system. You'll quickly run out of space if you plan on playing more than a few games regardless of which Switch you have.

We recommend a high-capacity microSD card like the Samsung EVO Plus 256GB, or if you plan on playing several games, the Samsung EVO Plus 512GB to ensure you have enough room to hold all the games you want. We also recommend these specific cards because they can transfer data quickly.

The physical advantage

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The most apparent positive about buying a physical copy of a game is sharing it with others. If your sister wants to play a game after you're done with it, she can take the cartridge and put it in her own Switch. If you want to temporarily swap Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for your friend's copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, no problem.

You can also opt for a smaller microSD card, as physical games cartridges hold the bulk of the game data leaving the Switch to only hold save data. Another cool benefit — Physical collector's editions or definitive editions often come with limited-run memorabilia like statues, stickers, art books, and soundtracks. You often can't get this stuff when buying digitally.

Going physical allows you to share games with siblings or temporarily swap with buddies.

You can also buy, sell, or trade in physical games to help support your entertainment hobby; something digital buyers are still dreaming of. Sometimes, used games are more than half-off their full price, so you can get them at a deep bargain. This typically happens when a game has sold really well or isn't particularly popular (strange how that works). Retail stores will frequently put games on sale, so you could potentially buy a brand new game at a discounted price (especially if you're a savvy shopper).

Plus, Limited Run physical copies of Switch games tend to greatly increase in price after a few years making many of them valuable collector's items. For instance, the physical copy of Celeste complete with the box sells for upward of $150 while the boxed version of Fox N Forests can sell for over $200. You could sell these physical games down the line when you're done with them to make a decent profit or simply collect them and show them off.

Celeste (Image credit: Matt Makes Games)

Digital games do go on sale from time to time in Nintendo's eShop, but they are at the whim of Nintendo instead of your discount-finding prowess. To be honest, the eShop deals usually aren't as good as they would be in physical format unless there's some kind of event going on.

If you determine physical is your style, consider investing in a carrying case for your Nintendo Switch game cartridges. We like the Fintie Nintendo Switch Carrying Case as it offers the best combination of protection, convenience, and portability. Up to 10 games slide into their own little slots in the case to make sure they aren't moving around. Since there are 24 designs to choose from, you can get the look you like best. The only downside is that if you lose the carrying case, all the games go with it, so don't lose the case!

Additionally, if you end up buying a bunch of Switch game cases, you're going to want a way to display them and keep them tidy. That's where you should consider some kind of game case display. Some of these also have the space to show off any other Nintendo collectibles or amiibo you might have.

Both have their perks

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Both physical and digital versions of Nintendo Switch games have their perks as well as their shortcomings. To determine which route is right for you, you'll need to weigh the pros and cons of both physical and digital games against each other while considering how you plan on playing your games.

Rebecca Spear
Gaming Editor

Gaming aficionado Rebecca Spear is iMore's dedicated gaming editor with a focus on Nintendo Switch and iOS gaming. You’ll never catch her without her Switch or her iPad Air handy. If you’ve got a question about Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, or just about any other Nintendo series check out her guides to help you out. Rebecca has written thousands of articles in the last six years including hundreds of extensive gaming guides, previews, and reviews for both Switch and Apple Arcade. She also loves checking out new gaming accessories like iPhone controllers and has her ear to the ground when it comes to covering the next big trend. 

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