Tech Columnist Kate Gray published an article on the the best (and worst) mini-games in video game history
“Yo dawg,” the original joke went, “I heard you like cars, so I put a car in your car so you can drive while you drive”. It was, of course, a reference to the show’s habit of building each owner’s interests into their remodelled car – however laboured the connection happened to be. The meme was absurd and recursive, but it’s probably how mini-games – those little nuggets of alternative gameplay hidden within a larger experience – came about. “We heard you like games,” the developers of the first ever example may have said, “so we put games in your games so you can play while you play.”
MINI GAMES ARE AN ESTABLISHED CONVENTION NOW
Anyway, mini-games are an established convention now, cropping up in everything from role-playing adventures to retro shooters. Sometimes they’re just a “fun” new way to unlock a door, but other times they’re actually more deep, challenging and rewarding than the games they live in. Here are our favourite examples – and a few we wish we’d never played while we were playing.
The Legend of Zelda’s fishing
Fishing pops up in a few Zelda games, but Ocarina of Time is the angling zenith. Your goal, of course, is to catch the biggest fish possible, which will net you (pun intended) a piece of heart. If you keep coming back you can also catch a fish so big that it’s deemed “illegal” by the guy who runs the place – and, if you’re feeling particularly mean, you can steal his hat and throw it in the pond.
Splatoon’s Squid Jump
Hidden inside Nintendo’s glorious team-based paint shooter, Squid Jump is basically the mobile platforming game Doodle Jump, but with a squid instead of an alien. You jump upwards to land on platforms and keep moving as a terrifying flood creeps higher, threatening to drown you if you mistime a jump. Possibly the best loading screen game since Galaxian turned up in the PlayStation version of Ridge Racer.
Fallout’s computer terminal hacking
OK terminal hacking mini-games are generally horrible, and this word-based password picker can be frustrating if you aren’t a fan of logic puzzles. However, the trick is not necessarily to figure out the Mastermind-like letter puzzle, but to know the secrets. For example, selecting a pair of brackets on one line of the code will either give you more lives, or remove one of the options. The best type of hacking mini-game is the type that lets you hack the hacking mini-game.
The Witcher III’s Gwent
Gwent is now such a successful mini-game concept that it’s now been released as a separate title. It’s a deceptively simple card game – a little like Hearthstone, but much less complicated – and it can win you small amounts of money, as long as you’ve built a good deck. Its real role though is a nice a way to unwind after a hard day of griffin-slaying and lady-boinking – and like Liar’s Dice in Red Dead Redemption it gives you something to do in a virtual pub where getting drunk is technically impossible.
The Geometry Wars joke in Project Gotham Racing 2
While we’re on the subject of mini-games so good they got their own release, who could forget this superb twin-stick space shooter originally hidden as a “joke” in popular racer, Project Gotham Racing 2? The minimalist retro visuals and uncompromising difficulty made the easter egg so popular, developer Bizarre Creations produced a standalone version, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved.
There’s something really satisfying about a well-designed lock-picking task, especially with the added haptic feedback provided by the rumble controller, which lets you know when you’ve got it right. There are plenty of other examples out there, but Skyrim’s take on the old hair grip and screwdriver approach (also encountered in Wolfenstein: The New Order and Fallout 3) offers just the right level of dextrous challenge.
Sonic Adventure 2’s Chao Garden
Sonic is a very serious video game series about collecting rings and fighting evil doctors, but fortunately there are lighter moments. In Sonic Adventure 2, the hedgehog and his pals become parents to a whole host of weird blue creatures called Chao, teaching them how to run and swim so that Sonic can win prizes – which is obviously what parenting is all about. The Chao Garden also teaches you the valuable lesson that kicking your children will turn them evil, and they will grow horns and learn to fly. Miriam Stoppard never put that in her baby books.
Super Monkey Ball’s Monkey Target
Super Monkey Ball is a difficult game at the best of times, possibly because monkeys were never meant to be in giant transparent spheres. But Monkey Target is a totally different ballgame (pun intended again). Your monkeys roll down a huge ramp, and once they’ve built up enough momentum, the balls open to form wings, and you glide gently down through bananas and power-ups to land on targets in the middle of the sea. The only thing that would make it more beautiful is David Attenborough narrating the whole thing.
Timesplitters 2’s Anaconda
Free Radical Design’s comedy shooter contains three mini-games, which players can discover by picking up cartridges hidden around the maps in story mode. RetroRacer, AstroLander and, our favourite, Anaconda, which is effectively Snake – but also better than Snake. It’s got better music, better graphics (which, OK, isn’t hard) and the added bonus of being able to do a little speed boost, making the game much more dynamic.
Some of the best mini-games are the ones that explore familiar game types in a fun, interesting way. Bioshock’s hacking task does exactly this. It’s a pipe swapping game, like Konami’s old Loco Motion or The Assembly Line’s Amiga classic, Pipe Mania: you have to get the mystery liquid to the end goal, and try not to blow yourself up in the process. Easy! It’s not entirely clear how this activity actually hacks the machines, but whatever.
Fable II’s job mini-games
Whether you’re bartending, wood chopping, or blacksmithing, most of Fable II’s jobs tend to involve one crucial skill: a good sense of rhythm. They’re all a bit like Guitar Hero, in that you have to press the right buttons at the right time to make the thing happen – but in Fable II, you don’t just make a terrible noise, you make a horse shoe. Which is better.
Shenmue’s forklift truck racing
The legendary Dreamcast adventure was crammed with mini-games – mostly because lead character Ryo spent most of his time hanging around town looking for sailors. There are decent replications of several Sega coin-op classics in the arcade, but nothing beats when our hero gets a job in a warehouse and begins every day with a high speed forklift truck race. It’s an episode of Casualty just waiting to happen.
Mass Effect 2’s hacking
Look, we’re not actually hackers, but we’re prepared to go out on a limb here: hacking doesn’t look like this. Matching up lines of code that are too tiny and blurry to see properly isn’t authentic, and it certainly isn’t fun. It’s more like something you’d be paid £5 an hour to do in your dad’s office during the school holidays. In a world of really terrible hacking mini-games, this is our least favourite.
Final Fantasy X’s Blitzball
Blitzball is essentially underwater basketball. Maybe take a moment to digest the stupidity of that. Not only is it a stupid idea, it’s also only fun when you’re winning; when you’re losing, it’s a tedious 10 minutes of statistics and grinding. If you’re going to invent a sport, at least make sure it’s not worse than quidditch.
Viva Pinata’s sex mazes
Yes, in this classic Xbox pet game, your animals have to complete a maze before they’re allowed to procreate. OK, the mazes are quite well designed and challenging – but they completely fail as foreplay. It’s just not fun to finally convince two of your pinatas to get it on, only to have their romance interrupted because you’re lost in a flowery labyrinth. There’s probably a metaphor going on here, but we’re not getting it.
The ‘speechcraft’ game in Elder Scoll IV: Oblivion
In the fourth Elder Scrolls adventure, there’s a weird mini-game that turns around interpersonal skills into a toddler’s block-sorting toy. You have to rotate the on-screen wedges and check the facial expressions of the person you’re trying to persuade. Once they look receptive, you’ve won. Look, we didn’t understand it then, and we don’t understand it now. It’s really confusing and needlessly overcomplicated. Can’t we just tickle them until they say yes to whatever we’re asking?
Batman: Arkham Knight’s Riddler games
NO. These are silly. Why does the Riddler take the time and presumably money to set up tiny, irritating puzzles all over Gotham in order to improve his arch enemy’s skills? Why does he tailor them exactly to Batman’s gadgets? Why does the Riddler even care if Batman can hit a target with a bat boomerang? WHY?
Butt battles – Dead or Alive Xtreme 2
Don’t. Just … don’t.