I started playing games in the late 80s and early 90s. There was a time, in my early days of gaming, when there was no save data. Each time you played a game you would start from the same point — the beginning. Games were smaller back then.
Of course, there were ways to “save” back then, which included leaving your NES turned on until your next time playing. This also sometimes meant hiding your NES from your family, making sure they wouldn’t turn it off and kill your “save.” I remember countless times where I was trying to get through a game and my mom said it was time to leave, so I just left my NES running. This was before sleep/rest mode.
Today, there are games that allow you to pause and save at any point. Other games are continuously saving data as you play. Some games require checkpoints and some don’t save at all, but even when there’s no saving in a game you can now easily set your console to rest mode while the game stays open until you come back to it (unless you’re on the PS5 and having problems with rest mode — mine usually takes some troubleshooting to show up on screen after rest mode).
As games started to evolve and grow in both scope and scale, gamers needed a way to save their progression. No one was going to get through all the levels and lands of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island in one single play through. There needed to be a way for the game to remember where you were and how many lives you had.
During the NES/SNES (and Sega Genesis) generation of gaming we were introduced to cartridge saves. Developers started adding a tiny battery into game cartridges. That allowed game data to be saved by tricking the game into thinking it was always on (at least as long as the battery remained living).
We finally had a way to save progress without leaving our consoles turned on for days at a time. It was also now possible to cycle through multiple games without having to worry about losing progression in each one.
When most games moved onto discs and CD-ROM it wasn’t possible to include a battery on a disc. Instead they came up with a new, external way to save game data — memory cards. Memory cards were sort of like the USB sticks of today, but for gaming consoles.
The Playstation, PS2, Dreamcast and some other consoles used small memory cards that could contain saves from multiple games. Memory cards would plug straight into your console or controller. They didn’t have that much space on them, so by the end of a console generation with a large library of games you’d have multiple memory cards to keep track of.
Even though the N64 was a cartridge-based system it still used memory cards for some reason. With memory cards being produced by multiple third-party companies, they came in all colors, shapes and sizes. I remember keeping my Nintendo 64 memory cards (about 6 or more) in a mesh pouch, all with different code names written on them with a Sharpie. This is how I could decipher which games were saved to each card.
Consoles like the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 introduced large hard drives where games, themes, profiles, music and more could be saved directly to our consoles. There was no more need to carry around a sack of memory cards, but space became limited and hard drive management became a new problem.
This generation also introduced the digital storefronts and digital copies of games, which could be downloaded directly to your console. Now there was no need for smaller game developers to find a publisher to print and release their games. They could just go digital and release their game on the digital storefront.
Many of us experienced a bricked console during this generation. I received the red ring of death on two X-Box 360s and my main hope was to get my game save data back. My game saves were fine both times. This also led us to the next generation of game saves — cloud saves.
Most consoles today use a mix of console and cloud saves. PS4 & 5, XBox One & Series X|S, and the Nintendo Switch all use both console and cloud saves. Cloud saves are great as a backup for when you lose data. They also work great for when you have to buy or upgrade to a newer version of your console. When I upgraded from a base PS4 to a PS4 Pro my data was all easily transferred by logging in to my profile.
Cloud saves are also quite magical. Today, I’m able to go to a friend’s house and sign into their PlayStation with my profile to gain access to my files and games. If I own a game that my friend doesn’t own on his console I can easily login and be playing that games after a quick (or slow) download (depending on the internet speed). That’s magic!
Also, with the jump from last gen to this gen we are able to take our digital games and saves along with us. This has made cloud saves into a bigger deal. When I got my PS5 I was able to send my PS4 saves to the cloud and move them over to my PS5. Although I’m still waiting for some big time PlayStation 5 games to be released, I still have my PS4 backlog to conquer (on my PS5).
What was the best way to save games?
Ever since game save data was created we’ve seen multiple creative ways to do so. Still with all of these different ways to save your game data there has always been a chance of losing everything:
- With cartridge saves that battery could stop working or run out of life.
- Memory cards can be lost or easily stop working.
- A console can brick losing all of your data saved to that console.
- And there are many ways your cloud saves can be lost or disappear.
Even with these different problems game saves have become way more reliable throughout the years. There is still that one problem that I’ve only tested once before (accidentally). Have you ever seen this message in a game? Of course you have!
There was one time and one time only that I could remember that I accidentally exited a game as the game save icon was on screen. I even remember thinking it was a stupid idea as I did it. It was one of those moments where your brain isn’t paying attention completely and your muscle memory takes over and does something not so smart.
I don’t remember which game it was but as it was auto-saving I quit the game. Once I realized what I had done I tried to go back into the game and my save file was corrupted. I’m pretty sure I was mad at myself for a few minutes before I started the game over. I also remember it as being early on in the game, so it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened.
Disclaimer: These are just my memories of save game data. I didn’t do the research that I should have done for this post, but I wanted to write it as how I remembered it. If you notice any errors in my memories or have anything to add, please do so in the comments.