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Nintendo's Switch reward point system is already broken

Commentary: "Buy 100 games, get one free" isn't just a bad deal, it's one you can't even cash in on.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Ever look a gift horse in the mouth? Well, get ready: We're about to do just that.

Nintendo just announced an update to its "My Nintendo" rewards program that lets Nintendo Switch owners get free games. The catch? You'll need to buy anywhere between 20 and 100 games at full price first. And that's sort of impossible.

Let me explain.

If you have a Nintendo Switch, 3DS or even a Wii U, you might know about "My Nintendo," a rewards program that gives players points for buying games. It's a nice idea, but it's always had problems. The system's points are spread across multiple types of digital "coins," which buy rewards limited mostly to discounts on games, digital Prima guides and 3DS themes. Worst of all, the points expire -- meaning your precious gold My Nintendo coins could vanish while you're waiting for a reward you'd actually want.

On Monday Nintendo updated the system to let you use points to actually get free games from the Nintendo Switch eShop. That sounds great, but the exchange rate is terrible -- a My Nintendo gold point is worth about $0.01 USD, which means you'll need 5,999 points to buy a single full-price Nintendo Switch game.

If you buy all of your Switch games through Nintendo's own eShop, that's not too bad of a deal -- every purchase made through the company's own digital store pays out 5 percent in gold points -- but for collectors of physical releases, it's a harder pill to swallow. For every physical Switch game you purchase, My Nintendo awards just 1 percent of the purchase price back in gold points.

In other words, you'll need to spend $6,000 (about 100 physical Switch games priced at $60) to redeem just one full priced digital game -- and if you only buy Switch games as physical releases, that's not even possible today.

Check it out -- we made a chart:

(Did we miss a game? You can check our work right here.) 

Even if you bought every single physical game released for the Nintendo Switch so far, you wouldn't get close to enough points to buy a new copy of Super Mario Odyssey. And you'd already own that game anyways.

When you consider that physical Nintendo Switch games can be significantly more expensive than their digital counterparts, the math gets even worse. If you buy WonderBoy: The Dragon's Trap at retail, you'd pay $40, but the 1 percent in gold points you earn on physical releases is based on the digital price of $20, meaning that the $40 you spend on the physical version of the game will earn you just 1 percent of half of what you paid for it. 

Yes, that's very confusing, but we aren't done yet. Some of Nintendo's most popular physically released Switch games aren't even eligible to earn points anymore. According to the fine print, "Gold points for physical Nintendo Switch software can only be claimed within one year of the game's original release date."

That means if you buy a physical copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild today (or waited to redeem its points because you were afraid they'd expire), you'd get zero points for it. Zip. Nada. So sad, too bad.

It's true that we're being a little ridiculous here. Most Nintendo Switch owners probably buy a mix of physical and digital games, meaning they'll sometimes enjoy the higher 5 percent rate awarded to 3DS, Wii U and Switch games purchased on the eShop. The return rates aren't really any worse than a credit card rewards system, either -- up to 5 percent cash back (so to speak) really isn't that bad.

Even so, the convoluted nature of the My Nintendo rewards program makes it feel, well, pretty unrewarding. Having to worry about when your rewards expire isn't fun, it's stressful. And finding out the copy of the new game you just opened up is too old to earn points isn't rewarding at all -- it's a disappointing punch to the gut.

So much for loyalty.

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