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 five 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.