The Nintendo Switch.
Nintendo

The Nintendo Switch is a neat bit of hardware, but what if it could do more? Some people mod and install custom firmware on their Switch consoles to install homebrew software. We don’t recommend it, but we’ll explain the process.

Before you rush off to hack your Switch, you should think long and hard about whether the risks are worth it.

Why We Recommend Against Modding

Again, we recommend against modding your Nintendo Switch console. Here are some problems that could occur if you do:

  • You could brick your Nintendo Switch, rendering it unusable.
  • Nintendo might ban your online account, removing access to all your legitimate purchases.
  • Nintendo could ban your Nintendo Switch console from ever connecting to online services.

If you’re still interested in learning about the process of modding a Nintendo Switch to run homebrew software, here’s how people do it.

Why Would You Hack Your Switch?

The process of installing custom firmware on a console, often referred to as hacking or modding, is a lot like performing a jailbreak on an iPhone. The ultimate goal is to install custom firmware on the device that removes the original manufacturer’s restrictions.

In Apple’s case, this allows you to modify and tweak the iOS operating system, install software from unknown sources, and dig around in parts of the system you were never meant to see. The same is true with Nintendo Switch. You’re running a custom version of Nintendo’s firmware. This means, in theory, it should maintain compatibility with first-party games and software while allowing you to use software from sources other than the eShop or a cartridge.

“Homebrew” is a term used to describe user-contributed software. This software allows you to do things Nintendo never sanctioned. The most obvious of these is installing software from unscrupulous sources, including pirated games.

You can install emulators on a modified Switch and play all manner of classic games from early home consoles, handhelds, and arcade cabinets. There are certainly issues with more modern, demanding platforms (like the Dreamcast). However, older platforms, like the SNES and Nintendo DS, work well. There’s even a reliable Switch port of PCSX, an original PlayStation emulator.

Switch modders have ported whole operating systems to the platform, including Ubuntu Linux, a version of Linux called “Lakka,” which focuses on emulation, and a version of Android.

Since modding a console that’s still under active development is very much a cat-and-mouse game, many homebrew apps focus on protecting the Switch from Nintendo’s long arm. This includes apps for backing up and restoring save data, blocking automatic updates, updating your console safely, and making it easier to perform the same jailbreak in the future.

The other reason you might think about modding your Switch is too have fun! If you get a kick out of taking things apart and seeing how they work, this might be for you. Maybe you enjoy the challenge or are interested in making your own homebrew applications.

A Word of Warning

Nintendo Switch modding isn’t for everyone. The majority of Switch owners who simply want to play a few games should avoid doing this entirely. Anyone who doesn’t understand what he or she is doing should also think twice. If you don’t have a good reason to jailbreak, don’t bother.

There’s a small risk that in doing so, you’ll brick your Switch. If you only have one console, it isn’t worth the risk. If you have a second one you won’t mind losing, then at least you’ll still have your “main” Switch if things go wrong.

Unsurprisingly, Nintendo isn’t fond of people installing homebrew on their consoles. Not only does it allow you to pirate games, but it also makes it possible to modify game files for an unfair advantage. For example, you can modify save files to “fix” high-score tables, or install software like emulators (which Nintendo’s been fighting for years). There’s also a chance you could install malicious software since homebrew isn’t vetted by Nintendo.

A Nintendo Switch Console
Nintendo

If Nintendo detects custom firmware on your modified Switch, you could be permanently banned from online services. This has harsh consequences. You won’t be able to access your library of (legitimately purchased) games on the eShop. You also won’t be able to use Nintendo Switch Online anymore. This means you’ll be locked out of matchmaking and online communities in games like Mario Maker 2.

Nintendo has proven it’s prepared to apply hardware bans (blacklisting of a console), as well as account-level bans for various infractions. An account-level ban means you can “start over” and open a new account on the same console, but you’ll lose all your purchases and any associated services. A hardware ban means you can never connect that Nintendo Switch console to online services again.

Even if you do have a second Switch you’re prepared to sacrifice, it’s a good idea to scrub it of any mention of your main Nintendo account before you dip your toes into the homebrew scene.

Is Your Switch Compatible?

Not all Switch consoles can be hacked. In April 2018, a vulnerability was discovered in the custom Tegra X2 chipset used by Nintendo. The issue was acknowledged by NVIDIA, who supplies the chips:

“A person with physical access to older Tegra-based processors could connect to the device’s USB port, bypass the secure boot and execute unverified code.”

The exploit is hardware-based, which means future versions of the Tegra X2 used in the Switch were patched. If you have a Nintendo Switch manufactured after April 2018, there’s a good possibility it can’t be modified.

To find out for sure, you can check the serial number on the bottom edge of the unit near the charging port. Then, cross-reference your serial number with this thread on GBATemp to see if it can be modded. There are three categories: unpatched (exploitable), patched (not exploitable), and possibly patched.

If yours falls under the “possibly patched” category, you’ll have to try the exploit and see if it works.

A serial number on a Nintendo Switch.

Nintendo Switch Lite and the slightly updated “Mariko” consoles (released in August 2019) have also been patched, and thus, can’t be used with this exploit. If you do have an original unpatched Switch, you’re in luck! Since this is a hardware exploit (tied to the specific chip used in the console), Nintendo can’t patch it.

Of course, you can also buy a Switch that can be hacked if you don’t already have one. Just use the GBATemp serial thread to cross-reference serial numbers with the patched and unpatched product lines. You can also test a console’s vulnerability without harming it.

If your Switch currently can’t be patched, there’s not much you can do. Keep an eye on the scene, though—hackers are constantly coming up with new exploits. These include hardware modifications, like SX Core and SX Lite, for consoles that can’t be hacked via other methods.

Hacking Your Switch

To hack your Switch, you’ll need the following items:

  • An unpatched Nintendo Switch that’s open to exploits
  • A microSD card of 64 GB or larger (4 GB will work, but 64 GB is safer)
  • An RCM jig or another way to ground pin 10 on the right JoyCon (more on this below)
  • A cable to connect your Switch (USB-C) with your computer (USB-A or USB-C) or Android device, if you’re using it.

The best exploit to use is known as “fusee-gelee,” which works with all versions of Switch firmware provided your Switch is exploitable. The other exploits, Nereba and Caffeine, are limited to particular firmware versions.

You can follow the full walkthrough of how to hack your Switch via the NH Switch Guide, with detailed instructions for most operating systems. However, we’ll give you a brief overview of the process below.

This exploit uses the exploitable recovery mode (RCM) included with the Tegra X2. To access this mode, hold down the Volume Up, Power, and Home buttons. This isn’t the Home button on the JoyCon, but rather, the “hidden” hardware Home button.

To do this, you’ll need to ground pin 10 on the right JoyCon rail with an RCM jig. There are several ways you can make an RCM jig, and some are more permanent than others. If you do this incorrectly, it could potentially damage or permanently brick your Switch.

After you enter RCM, you can download Hekate (a custom bootloader) to the root of your MicroSD card and put it in your Switch. Use your preferred device to inject the payload, partition the MicroSD card, and then download and copy your custom firmware.

Next, you’ll want to make a NAND backup and grab your console’s unique keys. These might come in handy if something goes wrong and you have to restore your Switch.

Finally, you can boot into RCM with your RCM jig, inject your payload, and then use Hekate to launch the custom firmware of your choice.

If you follow the NH Switch Guide, you end up with the custom firmware Atmosphere. You’ll see a Homebrew menu and several custom applications, including the following:

  • hbappstore: This is a homebrew app store, like Cydia for jailbroken iPhones.
  • Checkpoint: A save game manager.
  • NX-Shell: A file explorer.
  • NXThemeInstaller: This app allows you to install custom themes.
  • atmosphere-updater: This app keeps your custom firmware up to date.

Use the “switch” folder on your microSD card to transfer the .NRO homebrew applications you want to use on your Switch.

Remember, this is an untethered jailbreak, which means restarting your Switch as you normally would will return it to its previously unhacked state. You’ll then have to boot into RCM, inject the payload, and then launch your custom firmware to get back into homebrew mode.

Approach with Caution

The Nintendo Switch is entering a golden era. We’re now in the middle of what’s currently expected to be the console’s life cycle, and the Switch is still in hot demand.

While Nintendo has had an explosive first three years, there are still some big first-party exclusives on the horizon, including the sequel to Breath of the Wild, a new Metroid Prime, and the recently-announced Paper Mario: The Origami King.

Once again, risking your Switch at such a prime time in the console’s life cycle doesn’t seem worth it unless you’ve got a spare unit to sacrifice. Even then, you might be better off using a cheap Switch-clone instead. If you’re desperate to mod something, how about the Switch dock, instead?

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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