Mini-games are a common element in many RPGs, offering players a break from the main game and its often all-too-serious tone and allowing for the occasional bonus of prizes in currency, items or rare materials for your party. Some titles like to focus on one quality mini-game, whilst others throw a plethora of them at you that offer short, sweet experiences of varying quality. Mini-games are of course, quite different to Sub-Quests, which often serve to flesh out character development or the world setting in interesting ways and maintain the existing game mechanics. ‘Grandia’s’ huge optional dungeon for example, doesn’t count as a mini-game, whilst ‘Tales of Grace Fs’ Shot Cube certainly does due to the way it forces the player to take on new game mechanics and think in a different way. Arena-style battles are also discounted from the mini-game collective due for similar reasons, as they simply employ the existing battle framework and offer a series of challenges. Collected below are ten examples of the best mini-games to date.
1. Final Fantasy VII ‘G Bike’
This title has a wealth of mini-games spread throughout its running time that help to break up the more traditional JRPG gameplay and some of the best of them are featured in key plot sequences with genuine stakes before becoming repayable for fun at the Golden Saucer. This location features diversions of its own too, including a brilliant example of arena fighting and a wealth of smaller games. The standout mini-game from Final Fantasy VII has to be the motorbike sequence however, coming at the climax of the games’ first segment and playing like a retooled version of Road Rash from the Mega Drive. The stylised image of Cloud Strife, buster sword in hand astride a steam-punk motorcycle is one that has come to symbolise the game and even qualified it for a mobile port that sought to capitalise on just the G Bike segment of the game as an endless runner.
2. The Witcher 3 ‘Gwent’
When it comes to mini-games that have dominated player minds, and soaked up hours of their time, Gwent has to be the king of the hill. A collectable card game as deep and rich as Magic: The Gathering, hidden inside a triple A title released onto current generation hardware. As mini-games go, it’s one of the longer games to play on this list. There are those who stopped playing the award-winning Witcher 3 and simply dedicated themselves to logging into the game and playing Gwent alone. At E3 2016 it was announced that Gwent would be getting its own stand-alone title for a variety of systems to allow for competitive play between real players and upon release is expected to give industry leading mobile card game ‘Harthstone’ a serious run for its money.
3. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep ‘Command Board’
The Kingdom Hearts series has always had a rather shaky time of producing lack-lustre mini-games that lean toward fast reaction times and don’t produce that feeling of fun that the regular game manages so well. An example of this are the horrible Atlantica musical sequences in ‘Kingdom Hearts 2’, though each game has made good use of the Gummiship travel sequences to introduce some shooter-based fun. Birth by Sleep, whilst giving a few similarly annoying mini-games, largely fared much better by giving players online racing, a multiplayer arena and Command Board, which plays like a fusion of ‘Monopoly’ and ‘Mario Party’. Winning in the game levels players magical spells, and with Birth by Sleep using a fusion and levelling system to get the most out of your magic, and making the player play through the game three times from different perspectives, cuts much of the grind of levelling them through battle down to an acceptable, and fun experience. It’s also accessible at any time, making the hassle of travelling to a location to play it a non-issue.
4. Final Fantasy IX ‘Tetra Master’
There’s a lot of love to be found for ‘Final Fantasy VIII’s’ Triple Triad, which was a neat but simple little game that made use of a grid and selection of cards used to dominate it. It’s successor, Triple Triad appeared in the next instalment in the hit franchise and was either loved or loathed by gamers at the time. This is in part because the game developers at Squaresoft at the time chose to hold back from explaining all the rules, such as the cards scoring system, leaving players to work things out for themselves through trial and error. It’s aged gracefully however, and whilst Triple Triad has enjoyed its own stand-alone app (through the Final Fantasy Portal) and a rip-off re-skin as a Star Trek game, Tetra Master can still only be found inside its original game (though there was a shortly lived version in the online ‘Final Fantasy XI’, but it differed significantly from the original). There are hundreds of cards to find, win and receive from battles, with variants of the same card having different stats to encourage you to swap out lesser cards as you progress, obstacles on the grid to hinder pre-arranged strategies (and prevent one deck from always winning) and a whole tournament in-game themed around the title. Sadly this last plot-driven and must-win barrier to the main game is probably why the mini-game is divisive, being considerably harder for those who hadn’t been playing up to that point, a mistake that would be repeated in ‘Final Fantasy X’ with Blitzball.
5. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel ‘Blade’
Unlike the complexity of Gwent or the collectathon that is Tetra Master, Blade is at heart a very simple card game that’s fast and fun, whilst also serving to add depth to the relationships between characters in Trails of Cold Steel. Playing from two small decks, both players are essentially looking to empty their hands whilst ending with the highest score, a feat made more complicated by cards that flip, unflip, zap and swap cards around. Initially available only at key times in the game, when setting out on a long journey, Blade becomes more frequent towards the games finale, even being included in a tournament in the festival sequence which ramps up the challenge. There’s an element of luck involved in the draw you get of course, but there are few games that you can lose and still want to immediately replay as much as Blade.
6. Rogue Galaxy ‘Insectron Tournament’
Handed a cage and some bait, your given the option to catch bugs on the various worlds that you visit in Rogue Galaxy that you can care for as tiny pets. Travel to one of the central systems however and you quickly discover that the Insectron world has a tournament where you’ll take a party of them into a turn based tactical battle for experience, prestige and prizes. Soon you’ll be training a squad and searching for different baits and locations to catch the rarer Insects that evade your personal collection in a tiny version of what makes games like Pokémon so well loved.
7. Dark Chronicle ‘Spheda’
Take a randomly generated dungeon crawl and couple it with golf. This is essentially the concept behind Spheda on Dark Chronicle (known as Dark Cloud 2 in America), and it allows for a lot of fun as you try to get a small coloured ball through procedurally generated courses to a warp point doubling as a hole. The concept is simple and extremely effective, and manages to stand out in a title that also presents fishing, photography and mech building/inventing as time sinks away from the main game. Unlike other more complicated instances on this list, it’s a simple concept, executed well with a minimum of complexity and sometimes that’s all you need.
8. Final Fantasy X ‘Blitzball’
Falling firmly into the ‘you love it or you hate it’ category of gaming, Blitzball was the fictional underwater sport around which much of FFX took place. The protagonist and one of his party were professional players and come a certain point in the game you had to make your way through a tournament to continue the main game as part of a plucky small-town team. The game itself could be accessed from any save point and you’d recruit NPCs into the team after the tournament was completed, making the minigame something of a scavenger hunt as well as a sport. In of itself, blitzball was less of a reaction-heavy game of skill and instead a heavily stat driven turn-based affair that visually showed a fast-paced game but had a lot more going on under the hood than the likes of ‘World Cup Italia’ on the Sega Mega Drive. Repeated play would increase a team ranking and level players, leading to new moves for the game and even unlocking a powerful battle skill for Wakka.
9. Kingdom Hearts III ‘The Gummiship’
A staple of the Kingdom Hearts series since its inclusion in the first game, and present in all of the main entries in the series (but not used in the spin-off, mobile titles) the Gummiship is a player-built space ship that is used to travel between the various Disney themed worlds the game presents. Initially a path-based, on-rails shooter, the third entry makes the system fully open world and allows for free movement and exploration in addition to a robust building and customisation system for your ship. There are now bosses to overcome, secrets to uncover, multiple paths and routes to take and a ton of random encounters to run into alongside environmental hazards. Split across three huge maps, there’s a wealth of gameplay hidden inside a system that the player can more or less ignore after unlocking each world once. KH3 featured a lot of exceptional side content, from the search for Hidden Mickeys to a whole selection of unlockable game and watch style Classic Kingdoms games, but the Gummiship stands out as the biggest and best time sink of them all, rewarding repeated play with levels and missions to complete.
10. Final Fantasy XV ‘Justice Monster 5’
Just as FFXV presents a sprawling and immersive world, it also provides the player with plenty to do. Fishing and cooking are big parts of the game’s appeal but it’s the pinball machines found in service stations that offer the best distraction, blending the concept of pinball and an action-based combat system. Each game has 4 balls (called orbs) that each represent a monster in your team and have their own stats and health bar. Bouncing this around the table allows you to attack monsters on the board from the side or back, but deal damage to that orb is they collide from the front. Thrown in environmental hazards, potion drops and special attacks that you build up and unleash at the right time and it’s as if this fictional game series was the latest instalment in a popular franchise. Earning rewards from the points you win to use in the main game is a pleasurable side effect. A mobile version was released as part of the build up to FFXV’s launch that included the ability to recruit and level monsters for your team, but sadly shut down in 2017 after the successful launch of FFXV.