Physical vs. Digital Games

The quandary of modern game purchases is not what to buy, but what form to buy.

This post comes as a result of me struggling to decide whether to buy the physical card or the digital download for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Nintendo Switch. I don't know why I never struggled with this dichotomy when thinking about games for my Nintendo 3DS, but the Switch has awakened this paralyzing fear of buying the "right" version. Why? What's so good about physical or digital that would make this more than "just do what's most convenient"?

Digital Downloads

The Good

Digital downloads are the ultimate in convenience—without leaving your home/WiFi hotspot, you just buy the game, download it, and then you can play it any time you have your console with you. I love this model for multi-player games, because if you have the console with you and a group of people come along, you can just turn it on and get right to it without fiddling with anything. Plus with multi-player games, you don't have the problem of having a completed game lying inert in your account because there's a chance you'll go back and play it with other people later!

The Problem

But over time, this model reveals the problem of hard drive space, and you need to make sure that you have enough to fit all the games you want to keep on your system. If you don't have enough space, you need to delete the game files for another game and re-download it later, meaning you need to plan ahead if you're leaving WiFi for any length of time.

Then there's the paranoia problem: what if Nintendo suddenly goes under and shuts down all their servers? What if there's no way to re-download your games. This one makes much less sense, especially given how well Steam and have been handling their download services over the years, but the reality is that it's a possibility—unlikely, but possible. If you're in the situation where you've deleted some games to make room for others and this happens, you're SOL; your game's save data is sitting worthlessly on your system, unable to be played.

Physical Permanence

The Good

Buying the physical copy of the game ensures that you have the thing. You can hold it in your hand and know "this little piece of plastic contains the game I purchased". When you put it in the console, it reads straight from the card, and all is well. With the exception of some games that initiate a console update, no download is required, and you can play right away.

The thing that appeals to me most about physical versions of games is that if your console is still in working condition years later, you can plug that old game into it and still play it, even if the company shuts down. My Nintendo 64 games and even my Super Nintendo games and other peoples' NES games still work and can be played years after the console stopped being supported. Theoretically, the same thing applies to the Switch. Even if the world ends, so long as you survived and have access to electricity to keep the thing charged, you can keep playing your games!

The last big thing is that you can actually sell physical copies of games. I don't care about this at all, but it's what I've seen everywhere online as the biggest "pro" for physical games.

The Problem

It's less convenient, I guess? You have to go out to the store or wait for the physical card to get shipped to you? The least convenient thing about the physical form of the game is that you have to actually get up and swap the cards if you're playing on a TV, but even then, that's a non-issue for most people who can walk (obviously people with various disabilities will see this whole issue differently; don't @ me). If you don't have a way to carry all your games with you or if you forget a card at home, you can't play that game, but if you get the right carry case for your switch, you can just bring everything with you with no problem!

The Outliers

This isn't really a problem when looking at the (over)abundance of digital-only games. Except when it is! If a game gets popular enough, services like Limited Run Games will sometimes work with developers and publishers to get small batches of physical copies made so people can have collectible physical releases! So if you prefer physical copies of games, the question becomes whether to buy the game when it comes out so you can play it or wait and see if it's popular enough to get a special physical release.


Note that this is only a discussion for modern Nintendo games; some physical releases for XBox One have a weird disk+download situation that just doesn't make any sense at all, but the Switch doesn't have that model (yet—hopefully never). This also doesn't cover the case of you being super rich and able to just buy every possible version so you have both the convenience and the permanence.

What are your thoughts on this dichotomy? Which do (or would) you prefer to buy? And which version of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate should I get?