Small games, big fun
Sometimes it's the simple things in life that make the greatest difference. Consider the minigame: a bite-sized experience nestled within a larger video game. We all know some terrible examples - ones that force you to complete arbitrary nonsense so mind-bogglingly boring, you'd rather watch your theoretical future son be left at the theoretical future altar by his theoretical future spouse then finish one more hacking puzzle.
But every now and again, a minigame comes along that cuts through this bleak miasma of mediocrity with the shining rays of clever game design. Like a fine wine or exquisite, European cheese, this minigame is the perfect blend of complexity and accessibility. It's ingenious systems keep you coming back time and again, sometimes siphoning hours from the main storyline; or in extreme cases, eclipsing it completely. What follows are the creme de la creme; peerless minigames that will deliver your son from his theoretical, future heartache.
Gwent (The Witcher 3)
Video games have a rich history of card game sidequests (some of which are included later in this list). The Witcher 3's Gwent is certainly among the best, even without the friendly atomosphere. It's a trading card game built around speed and efficiency. You can tailor your deck to fit a certain playstyle. You can fake out your opponent with different tricks and strategies during a match. But the most refreshing thing about Gwent is that it will end - no matter what - in three rounds or less.
The limited play time adds gravitas to each card placed on the table. Strategies must be decided upon quickly, and their results are felt almost instantly. A bad call in the first round could easily lead to an early defeat in the second. Unless that first round was a feint; a ploy to lure your opponent into wasting their best cards. Gwent, like all great TCGs, is a game of calculated risks. What's nice is that it doesn't take another 45 minutes to see if your bet paid off.
Voltorb Flip (Pokemon Heart Gold / Soul Silver)
This unassuming casino game hides an interesting mix of Minesweeper and Sudoku. Just like in Minesweeper, you want to reveal all the panels on the grid that do not contain mines (or, in this case, Voltorbs). Revealing one of those is an instant Game Over. Avoiding the Voltorbs is where the Sudoku aspect comes into play. With a bit of mathematical reasoning - and luck - you can deduce which tiles are most likely to contain Voltorbs based on the clues provided and which tiles you've already flipped over.
For example, look at the screenshot above. You see the red box in the bottom left-hand corner? The '02' means the numbers in the column add up to two, while the '3' next to angry-face Voltorb means three of the tiles are Voltorbs. Each row and column is labeled like this, and by comparing them all against each other, you can puzzle out where the Voltorbs are hiding. It's basically one big logic puzzle, and clearing a really challenging board feels like you've achieved Holmesian-levels of deductive reasoning.
Command Board (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep)
Winning at Command Board feels just like winning at Monopoly. While you're swimming in an ocean of cash, your opponents are stuck paddling around the board bleeding money at every turn. It's a good feeling. But the Monopoly comparisons don't stop there. You earn your fortunes by buying up colored spaces on the board and - stop me if you've heard this before - improving those spaces so that their rent increases. And you better believe that owning all the spaces of an identical color nets you a hefty rent multiplier. The only thing missing is a diminutive old chap with a cane and tophat.
A well-executed game of Command Board is really a thing of beauty. When you exploit the board to its fullest, snag the high-traffic sections you want, and exploit those territories for all they're worth, it makes victory taste that much sweeter. To help speed the game along, each player can also spend cards for special abilities - such as rolling three dice instead of one - to tilt the odds in their favor. The only real drawback is the braindead AI, which can only stumble blindly into victory when the stars align and Lady Luck has completely abandoned you.
Hacking (Deus Ex: Human Revolution)
Hacking in video games used to invoke images of Fallout 3's word search or BioShock's rip-off of Pipe Dreams. But Deus Ex: Human Revolution puts them all to shame. Its hacking challenges require you to think fast, act faster, and juggle about a half-dozen tasks all at once. Your objective is clear: bypass a series a nodes until you reach the one controlling whatever it is you're hacking. Along the way, there are various bonus nodes you can hack for extra credits or items, but doing so will almost always trigger the security AI. And once that's done, your hack becomes a mad dash for the virtual finish line.
The security AI is basically doing the opposite of what you're doing, only with the efficiency of a machine. It wants to reach you, you want to reach the final node. You can slow down the AI by reinforcing nodes you've already captured, or by using special programs you've collected to disable it temporarily. This is where the juggling act starts, as you jump between reinforcing some nodes, capturing others, using programs to maintain control, and more. It's a fun minigame that throws just enough techno-jargon at you to make you feel like a hacker.
Kung Foot (Rayman Legends)
Rayman Legends - sweet, beautiful Rayman Legends - is a goddess of a game. We stand by our statement that it's a better Sonic and Mario game than Sonic and Mario thanks to its wonderfully challenging platforming, quirky personality, and a little soccer distraction called Kung Foot.
At first, you won't even notice this totally optional minigame because it's unassumingly tucked away in the main menu. But once you hop into it for the first time with a friend or two in tow, it's nigh impossible to escape its addictive grasp. It's so simple: You just run around trying to kick a soccer ball into the opponent's goal by using the platforming and physics established by Legends' campaign. Hours turn into days, days into months, and before you know it you'll have missed the birth of your child - a heinous crime that has only one remedy: more Kung Foot (and maybe a nice bottle of Gulden Draak).
You're familiar with Rapunzel, right? That gleefully light-hearted story about the little girl who's kidnapped and confined against her will in a tall tower in the middle of a wooded glen, whose captor climbs her hair like a rope because ladders make way too much sense? In Catherine, you can enjoy that delightful children's tale as a puzzle minigame found in Vincent's favorite watering hole, the Stray Sheep bar.
The gameplay here mimics the block-based puzzle stages of Catherine's (somehow more bizarre) main story. As the fabled prince smitten by Rapunzel's beautiful voice and physical appearance, you have a limited number of moves to manipulate a series of blocks and scale them to your objective. Every few stages, a new bit of the minigame's narrative is unveiled via a series of rhymes (full transcript here), eventually uncovering a tale that's almost as tragic as Vincent's own life.
Tetra Master (Final Fantasy IX)
When it comes to Final Fantasy minigames, two of the most loved are both grid-based trading card games: Final Fantasy VIII's Triple Triad, and FFIX's Tetra Master. In both games, the goal is to control as many of the cards on the playing field as possible (think Tic-Tac-Toe, but far more complex) by the time its grid has been filled out. Here's the kicker: you can gain control of the opponent's cards. In Triple Triad, this was super basic: If the card you played had a higher value assigned to it than the opponent's adjacent card, you'd win.
But in Tetra Master, each card had its own HP, damage, and defensive stats, and could potentially attack any adjacent cards or diagonal ones. This added a shiz-ton more strategy to the game, even allowing for combo attacks that could sweep the entire board at once (thus explaining those seemingly random situations in which an your opponent would suddenly flip every card you had and win the game). Compared to Triple Triad, Tetra Master offered a far deeper layer of strategy, even though its systems were woefully ill-explained.
Geometry Wars (Project Gotham Racing 2)
In hindsight, it's pretty wild to think that one of the Xbox 360's first successful downloadables started life as a minigame in Project Gotham Racing 2. Geometry Wars, a twin-stick arcade shooter, can be found within the in-game garage between races. What began as a neat side attraction eventually became the primary reason for booting the game back up long after we'd scratched our racing itch.
Its ruleset is brilliantly simple: controlling a claw-shaped ship, you have to blow up as many enemies as you can before getting destroyed yourself. It wasn't long before bragging about record PGR lap times gave way to bragging about high scores in Geometry Wars. And because of its popularity, it eventually led to the creation of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2--one of the best games ever made.
Tin Pin Slammer (The World Ends With You)
The World Ends With You is one of the most memorable JRPGs in the Nintendo DS catalog thanks to its story, neat battle system, carpal tunnel-inducing control scheme, and, of course, Tin Pin Slammer. The goal of this minigame? To slide your pins around the board in an attempt to knock your opponent's pins out of bounds. Basically, it's 1971's Milton Bradley board game Crossfire, except the DS stylus replaces the plastic guns and little metal pellets. Crossfiiiiiuuur!
Trying to outmaneuver your opponent made the game addictive enough on its own, but the addition of "whammies," or special moves, made things a bit more interesting. You could, for instance, summon a giant mallet from out of nowhere, which would spin in a circle and send every pin it made contact with flying. You'll get caught up in the Crossfiiiiiuuur! Of course, that's not to mention the stage variations, which add handicaps to change the rules on-the-fly, or the fact that you can collect hundreds of pins, each with unique stats and properties. And when you finally overcome a particularly grueling match-up, victory will have never tasted so sweet. Crossfiiiiiuuur!
Arcomage (Magic VII: For Blood and Honor)
In the world of Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, peasants and adventurers alike gambled in taverns by way of Arcomage - a tabletop game not unlike Magic: The Gathering (freakin' nerds). Each player has a deck of cards, a tower (which acts as an HP counter), and a defensive wall (think MTG's creatures) that protect said tower. Each turn, you generate resources that can be spent to play cards that either fortify your wall, replenish your tower's hit points, or attack your opponent's tower, creating a delicate balancing act of knowing when to strike and when to play it safe.
In its earliest forms, Arcomage was a mere minigame in a single-player RPG, meaning you'd only ever get to play against AI opponents. It became popular enough, though, that The 3DO Company eventually released a standalone version that could be played with others via LAN or an Internet connection. These days, enhanced variations of it, such as the Android game Archmage, are readily available and surprisingly popular.
Inventory Tetris (Diablo II)
Few things in life are as exciting as recounting tales of the good ol' days, back when Windows ME was the hot new OS (that everyone quickly grew to hate) and people had to sit through this before they could connect to the World Wide Web. It was during this now-ancient time period that we lost many a night to Mephisto farms, Diablo grinds, and, eventually, Taco Baal Runs in Blizzard's beloved hack-and-slash RPG, Diablo II. But there's another aspect to the game that dungeon crawler veterans will recall with ease: playing inventory Tetris.
Now, it may not have been immediately apparent at the time, but everyone soon picked up on the joke: trying to rearrange your inventory just so you could pick up that rare hunting knife meant moving items around just so, dropping them on the ground to swap others in, then out, then back again. And just when you started to think that the Horadric Cube was a space-saving godsend, you discovered that it only complicated the sadistic game of inventory Tetris by increasing the number of windows you had to manage in order to maximize your rearrangement efficiency. Ah yes, the good ol' days, indeed.
Gummi Ship shooting (Kingdom Hearts II)
An action RPG is perhaps one of the last places you'd expect to find a highly customizable rail shooter, but Kingdom Hearts II's Gummi shooting segments were surprisingly enjoyable. On the surface, Gummi ships were just a neat way to open up the next world for Sora and his crew to explore. But if you were willing to spend a bit of time poking through everything Gummis had to offer, it was easy to get hooked.
We've spent hours unlocking new Gummi pieces just so we could build new ship designs from scratch. The sheer variety of vessels you could create was downright impressive, ranging from basic starships to freakishly inventive designs like this one. Best of all, the on-rails shooting was enjoyable all its own, complete with operators Chip & Dale, who sounded an awful lot like Slippy from Star Fox 64.
Chao Garden (Sonic Adventure 2)
In the mid- to late-'90s, digital pets were all the rage. Anyone who was anyone had a Tamagotchi or a Nano Baby; ownership of one of these was mandatory to get any kind of street cred on the middle school playground. But this craze also made its way into a staggering number of console games, including 1998's Sonic Adventure, in which you could hatch and raise living, breathing plant-people called Chao.
Though you couldn't really do much with the Chao in the first Sonic Adventure, its sequel allowed you to affect the baby Chao's alignment to good or evil. If you were playing as, say, Sonic, cooing to the baby and patting its delicate head would make it a good Chao. The process for making an evil Chao? Step one: Bash a Chao egg into into sharp rocks over and over, forcing it to hatch prematurely. Step 2: Kick / slap the baby Chao until it cries out in utter, heartbreaking despair. Step 3: Respond to those cries with complete indifference.
Blitzball (Final Fantasy X)
Seeing Blitzball appear in a list of awesome minigames will cause you to react in one of two ways: either you'll agree, or you'll tell the writer of this very article to please go cartwheel into highway traffic. Still, many came to fall in love with Blitzball. It's basically underwater rugby, where two opposing teams - such as Tidus and Wakka's own Besaid Aurochs and the damnable Al Bhed Psyches - try to drop kick a medicine ball through the other's goal.
Matches are frustrating early on, seeing as the RPG stats of your player roster matters just as much as (if not more than) your skill. But once you scout out some free agents, level up your team, and win a few games, it's easy to to play for hours on en - just kidding, we all know Blitzball is fu***** terrible.