A brief history of video game saves and data modification

A brief history of video game saves and data modification

Games consoles and handhelds have always been an interesting battleground for hacking activities. The homebrew scene for using hardware in interesting ways has a long and varied history, especially where porting games to run on different platforms is concerned.

Tampering with games while playing them to gain a distinct advantage has always been frowned upon by the majority of players and developers, however. Nobody wants to play a game where they can be killed from the other side of the map, but that’s how things roll in PC gaming land. Aimbots, wallhacks, miners, autoclickers, you name it – it’s been done, and has been for many years.

In theory, a console’s architecture and limited functionality available to the owner should make it near impossible to directly alter the inner workings of said device. This has tended to hold up for all but the most advanced hardware hackers. This is why console hackers often took the path of least resistance and targeted data on the device which would be most open to tampering. That would be your save data.

Saving the day?

While everything else in a console is forever doomed to follow the same processes and routines repeatedly, from essential functions to the code running the game you’re playing, save data is the weak spot. It’s forever changing. It requires the device to allow it to be altered as it dynamically responds to thousands of your choices over the course of a session. The console saves a state, and reinserts it back into the game the next time you load up.

Even better for the hacking/modding communities, this data is often saved to a potentially vulnerable external device. When it isn’t, coders can usually come up with a way to craft tools which can extract the data from the device to a PC, where it can then be edited to their heart’s content before being put back.

While the console hardware of today is different from what’s gone before, and the security architecture is theoretically more advanced than what we had 10+ years ago, ultimately our gaming devices are still tied to most of the same functionality by necessity.

Take the Nintendo Switch, the hottest handheld around and current victim to save altering shenanigans. Players are altering data, dropping it into live game worlds, and benefiting from cheating. Nintendo will almost certainly be taking action, and bans could follow. Sounds exciting, right?

Before we get to that, let’s look at how saving on devices—and editing those saves—has evolved down the years.

Saving games through the years

Saving in games goes back almost as far as the dawn of gaming in the household itself, and Nintendo play a big part in its evolution over time. The first big smash games most people remember back at the dawn of gaming are Atari 2600 titles which didn’t need game saves. They were basic, strapped for memory, short, and often had no end as such…just the same levels looped but made faster, or more difficult.

As the tech evolved, games struggled to keep up and you ended up with would-be complicated titles hampered by no saves, or players given dozens of extra lives as a workaround which frankly felt a bit insulting towards our incredible gaming skills.

Atari 2600: Passwords enter the fray

Some early games dabbled in would-be save states by introducing basic codes you could punch into the title screen and pick up where you left off. The games at this point were still linear, so you could get away with this approach.

It’s faintly bizarre to look back now and think your “save game” equivalent at the time wasn’t your game saved at all; just some code punched into the cartridge to tell it to essentially start an entirely new game, with your handful of items, at a later level rather than the beginning.

There are actually quite a few Atari 2600 games with password/pick-up-where-you-left-off systems, an early indicator of the direction things were about to take.

N.E.S. – Batteries included

Things stepped up once Nintendo decided to dramatically bump the scope of what games were capable of. Legend of Zelda is usually hailed as the first major title which included a “proper” ability to save, via battery powered memory. This is called non-volatile memory, because it doesn’t need a constant flow of power to retain the data. Ultimately, games could be significantly bigger and better than ever before.

PlayStation 1: Memory cards on the table

Many of you reading this will have their first memory of console gaming knowledge firmly tethered to the original Playstation’s iconic memory cards. Even now, people debate what exactly “15 blocks of memory” means (good news, it’s been cleared up). The save functionality jammed inside of those NES cartridges was basically pulled out and turned into its own standalone device (see also: the Dreamcast VMU).

At this point, gamers finally had a way to take their save data away from the console, do what they want with it, then pop it back in. Unlike now, the games weren’t online. Things were mostly single player or local split screen. If you wanted to cheat, be it to gain extra lives, see all the levels, turn everyone into pumpkins, or anything else, you just fired up a cheat cartridge or used it to create your own cheats.

PlayStation 1: Regional difficulty

I primarily remember the console modding scene all about being able to play region locked discs, with many a furtive moment spent in vaguely dubious gaming stores asking if they’d chip your machine, wink wink. Some of you may remember a legendary (for the gaming scene) incident where a coverdisc giveaway involving a cheat code system went horribly wrong. I’ve still got the disc somewhere. No, you can’t have it.

Xbox 360 comes under fire

On the 360, all those years of learning how to edit files on consoles finally combined with online gameplay environments in many ways risky to the players.

Hex editing the data on PC with specially designed tools, rehashing it so the console thinks the data is the real deal, and then resigning it so you could use files tied to someone else’s profile resulted in all sorts of interesting antics. Changing the look of their gaming avatar on the console dashboard, unlocking lots of paid items from the marketplace after just one purchase, even joining gaming sessions with temporary names imitating well known game developers were all part of this boom in console modding activity.

Even worse were cases of modders removing their visible gaming name entirely, leading to situations where gamers couldn’t figure out how to report them for cheating, or even who they were. As always, the player data was the soft underbelly of the otherwise solid system.

How Nintendo changed up the game

Older Nintendo handhelds allowed you to copy saves to removable storage devices. Not so with the Switch. At launch, people quickly discovered that saves were not transferable from the handheld to external storage. All gamesave data resided on the handheld’s internal flash memory only.

Considering the many years of game tampering resulting in real-time shenanigans while people played, it probably made some sense to stop opening up portions of data to tampering. With it locked firmly into the device, that would likely help prevent hacks and cheating…right?

Oh, my sweet summer child

The SD card in the Switch is there for additional space should you download a lot of games. Buying physical titles as your primary source of gaming kicks means you may not need to bother with SD cards at all. It’s common for people to assume game saves end up on the SD along with downloaded game data, but that isn’t the case.

The game saves are kept tucked away on the device, and Nintendo are insistent you don’t go wandering off depositing your save files all over the place.

Anyone familiar with handheld modifications down the years will have some idea where this is heading…

Hacking the handheld Gibson

That’s right, it’s homebrew time. As the name suggests, homebrew is the stuff you come up with when the original hardware/software combination isn’t quite what you’re looking for. It’s the act and the art of popping closed systems, and making them dance to the beat you want. You might merely expand upon original functions, or modify them heavily, or even replace them entirely.

Just as Nintendo arguably drove forward the scope of game design and general tinkering by introducing battery saves to a mainstream audience, so too did they inadvertently push the word “Homebrew” into the public eye after enterprising (non Nintendo affiliated inviduals) came up with the “Wii Homebrew”. This permitted Wii users to access homebrew apps direct from the Wii system menu. From there, the word really took hold.

Taking a firm stance on firmware

Custom firmware is a specific form of homebrew which is the magic key to a system’s innards. With it, real ultimate power is yours. Unless there’s a permanently fatal flaw in the setup of a device which can’t be corrected, custom firmware is usually addressed by the manufacturer and you end up with a sort of permanent digital great divide. A patch goes in and locks down the firmware workaround forever.

At that point, all devices made prior to the fix become the end goal and they probably start fetching a pretty penny on ebay and elsewhere. The newer, later models which no longer respond to tampering? Sorry gang, you’re just not that cool anymore. There’s usually multiple ways to seize control of any device, and this is no different. Being able to boot up the device in recovery mode allows for the execution of unsigned code.

There’s a lot more to it than this, and everything from selecting the specific exploit to preparing the SD card in the right way to make everything go without a hitch can be a painstaking process. People will often make backups in case anything goes wrong, something that can easily befall inexperienced homebrew enthusiasts. Nintendo modders are also very particular about disabling any features which could allow Nintendo to trace hacks to their device and ban it from Nintendo services.

Once all of that is done, the device owner is finally ready to start playing with their chosen custom firmware. There may well be additional steps at this point depending on the ultimate objective, but let’s just wind forward to the part where people are messing with their saves.

Animal Crossing takes a trip to Modding Island

As you’ve seen, data moving is not something Nintendo is keen on here. Merely transferring your saves from an old device to a new one legitimately is a little bit more complicated than “copy and move.” Here, we’re weirdly back in the same editing land we found ourselves in during the Xbox360 days.

Dragging and dropping specific files into the folders related to the custom firmware is how people were doing it back in March. These techniques tend to evolve quickly over time allowing for greater customisation, and indeed from all accounts this latest hack relies on specific save editing tools. But what are they doing?

It’s full of stars

Put simply, it’s all about star fragments. These are rare crafting components in the game and focusing on them seems to have replaced creating lots of bells as the number one Animal Crossing cheat of choice.

Using save editors, star fragment trees (which don’t exist in the game normally) are popping up on islands belonging to players. You don’t even need to have put them there yourself to begin with, as you can dig them up from other islands, trade them, or have them planted for you by friends. As with all things not originating from the source, there are some big clanging caveats to go with them. 

Nintendo almost certainly have an idea who is using them or introducing them into the gamespace. That could end up with action being taken against the players. It’s also been reported that the items are one use only, so after that they’re of no use whatsoever. Players have also claimed the items can break parts of the player’s island, resulting in so-called “dead tiles”—which can’t be used anymore—and corrupted saves.

It’s tricky enough making legitimate modded files work in games which support modding activity, especially as updates to the base game often result in the mod needing to be altered and updated, too.

Here, we have these bizarre items dumped into a game where QA support for modding doesn’t exist, so if updates for the base game at a later date make these things break your game completely, I doubt Nintendo will do anything about it. It’s a huge clanging Buyer Beware, is what it is.

Risky business

Even without the perils of Nintendo detecting your device due to a mistake on your part and banning your device at a later date, you could easily brick the handheld while setting things up, or corrupt your saves, or even fall foul to fake firmware downloads. Not everything in modding land is benign, and we’d advise people to consider carefully if the risks here outweigh the benefits.


Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.