Video games started out being very short and simple in concept, and yet this simplicity allowed them to become maddeningly addictive. Tetris is a timeless classic, and all you do in that is make lines out of blocks. As gaming developed and new hardware allowed for new possibilities, games became longer and more complex, giving players detailed objectives and epic stories. And yet, despite this progress, there remained a demand for the short and sharp games of old. Thus, the minigame was born.
A minigame is not the same as a gameplay feature, which uses the main game’s mechanics for slightly different purposes (for example Grand Theft Auto V’s hunting). As a game within a game, a minigame must use completely different mechanics, providing a diversion whenever you tire of your usual activities. I consider a great minigame to be one that has you coming back specifically to play it, rather than the larger game in which it resides. Following that definition, here are my top five minigames who refuse to know their place.
#5. Anaconda – Timesplitters 2
While it’s really just Snake on steroids, Anaconda makes the list because my friends and I played it so much that for an embarrassing amount of time, I didn’t even realise it was a minigame at all. I thought it was the game. 360 degree turning made it the best version of Snake I’ve ever played, and the music remains merrily bopping along in my head to this day.
#4. U-Drive-It – SimCity 4: Rush Hour
With U-Drive-It, Maxis gave players something we didn’t even know we wanted—the chance to actually drive around in the cities we had built. As SimCity 4 was largely 2D, we were restricted to the main game’s top-down isometric view of things rather than being down on street level. Suddenly creating a fluid transit system was not just the people’s concern; it was now yours as well.
Placing certain buildings would unlock new missions, which in turn gave you the opportunity to unlock more buildings. Following these threads, and being able to drive vehicles themed to the buildings you chose, breathed life into your city, making it truly feel like YOUR city. I delighted in crop dusting my farms, delivering shady packages to the city dump, and trying to beat the cops to my city’s border in a stolen tank.
Crucially, none of this was essential to the game. If you wanted, you could unlock each building by meeting its specific criteria (e.g., having enough high-wealth residents or a big farming population), and make your money purely through taxes. But it gave us the option, the freedom to pick and choose as we wished to make the city of our dreams.
I think the latest SimCity should revive U-Drive-It, as its current missions consist largely of exporting arbitrary quantities of resources. Given its full-3D design, the opportunity exists to do more with this than ever before.
#3. Gambling – Red Dead Redemption
In a game where money is largely unnecessary, you wouldn’t think gambling would hold much appeal. And yet, I must have spent hours up prowling the Thieves’ Landing Saloon for fat wallets to milk dry. I’d warm up with a little blackjack, getting a feel for the probabilities before diving into the competitive games. I found Liar’s Dice to be nail-biting stuff, especially when I’d whittled down an entire table of players to just me and one opponent with once dice left each. The main event was always poker, however. I have played more than a few different electronic versions of poker, and this is the only one I’ve found that uses cheating as an almost vital gameplay mechanic. It’s still not an easy win, however, and if caught you’d be dragged outside for a duel. Hearing the players chat about the state of the world while they play really brought me into the world, so much that I’d occasionally forget I was trying to bluff an AI, and not a real person.
You could also bet on games of skill, if the card gods weren’t on your side. Tossing horseshoes made me feel like a proper country bumpkin, even if I was swearing like a sailor the whole time. Arm wrestling was intense enough to tire me out in the real world, so any victory felt hard won. And if I was willing to put my virtual fingers on the line, a daring game of Five Finger Fillet could rake in some serious money. Making a profit on any one of these minigames was rarely easy, which made them much more satisfying for me than hunting bounties and shooting up gang hideouts.
#2. Blitzball – Final Fantasy X
The sport for people who don’t like sport, Square Enix’s stat-based underwater football absolutely consumed my attention, and not just because there was part of a legendary weapon at the end of it. To hell with saving Spira from Sin, I thought; I wanted to be a Blitzball champion! Surprisingly deep, much of the gameplay centred on the use of special abilities. You could even have your players watch the other team during play, in the hopes of learning how to do any of their abilities.
Whenever I dived into Blitzball, I wouldn’t surface for hours at a time. The only thing that would stop me playing was when another team’s best player didn’t renew his contract; I would speed through the story until I had the opportunity to sign him myself. I did feel like a bit of a soulless club manager when I replaced all the original players in the name of team success.
#1. Friend activities – Grand Theft Auto IV & V
Rockstar were asking a lot of gamers with this one. Games usually offer players the chance to experience the more fantastic and unattainable experiences imaginable, rather than the more mundane aspects of a character’s life. Considering that these came with very few rewards for the player, it’s hard to imagine how they survived being cut altogether. And yet, when I think back to my best moments in Grand Theft Auto, more often than not they include bowling with Brucie, tennis with Amanda and hitting the links with Castro.
My reward for this was not extra health or unlimited ammo, but character development. The interaction between them—including friendly conversations, sage wisdom, bitter complaints and drunken arguments—made me connect with them, giving me a much more personal stake in the story events than you’d get in Saints Row. Rockstar gave us more than games; they gave us entire lives in which to immerse ourselves.