Sometimes the easiest way to lose countless hours of your life to video games is to find a good distraction within them. When you play a good mini-game, you can effectively “take a break” from playing a game while also playing it. It’s a devilish way for game developers to keep a game on your mind, but hey, when you sink your teeth into a good one, what’s the harm?
Some of the games on this list arguably trump the games they’re in, while others are actually part of the “main game” in some ways. Others still weren’t technically “included” at all, but that didn’t stop me from playing a ton of them.
10. ‘PIPE DREAM’
You could argue that the hacking mini-game in BioShock—which is essentially just the age-old PC game Pipe Dream or Pipe Mania—isn’t really “separate” enough from the main game to be a mini-game at all. You kind of needed to do it to hack robots in some parts of the game, and there wasn’t a dedicated area where you could spend hours on end practicing the mini-game over and over.
Still, the average BioShock player can spend a lot of time not shooting people, using plasmids, or exploring Rapture (the game’s underway dystopian city). And for something that you ended up doing so often, it’s lucky that the hacking mini-game is as fun as it is; it was just challenging enough, with enough kinds of pipes and obstacles to make the game interesting for the amount of time you played it. And it gave you the benefit of turning enemy drones into allies, which was a nice bonus.
9. TIN PIN SLAMMER
‘The World Ends With You’
The World Ends With You is itself an obscure game (it was a forward-thinking and frantic 2008 Nintendo DS game from Japan), making it even less likely anyone played its best mini-game, Tin Pin Slammers, a super-powered version of Pogs mixed with bumper cars.
Tin Pin Slammers tied in perfectly with the rest of The World Ends With You, since you played the mini-game using the pins you collected throughout the rest of the game (which acted as your weapons in combat), and you could then collect additional pins by beating people at Tin Pin Slammers. When this came out, my brother and I talked shop about which pins were overpowered and which opponents gave us the hardest time, a sure sign we’d spent far too much time pushing pins around a board.
‘Advance Wars:Dual Strike’
Advance Wars: Dual Strike was a turn-based strategy game chock full of things to do. After you finished the 28-mission campaign, you could take a crack at all of the bonus War Room missions, try to survive multiple missions on a limited budget, or build your own maps to play on.
Or you could try its Combat mode, which did away with turns entirely, making the game play out in real time. It was far from a perfect fit—it was probably made on a small portion of a much larger project’s budget, and the animations and sound effects are pretty barebones. But the mode had a ton of potential, and seeing the way your soldiers, tanks, and artillery moved around in real-time was a novelty good enough to distract you from all the intense strategizing you did in the game’s other modes.
7. DEFENSE OF THE ANCIENTS (DOTA)
Okay, so DotA is technically not a mini-game in WarCraft 3—it’s a modified game mode made by players rather than the game’s actual development team. But you can’t deny two things: firstly, that in its early days it served as one of the biggest distractions for WarCraft 3 fans looking for something else to do. DotA gave players dozens of character and item combinations to toy around with, imbuing the game with a depth you hadn’t seen in many other modified modes at the time.
The second thing is you can’t deny is how influential DotA was. Not only is it its own game at this point (Valve’s Dota 2 is essentially an official remake of the original player-made mod), but it’s spawned one of the biggest genres in competitive gaming, inspiring games like League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm. If that’s not a sign of a great mini-game, I don’t know what is.
6. LIAR’S DICE
‘Red Dead Redemption’
I still maintain that Red Dead Redemption is the best game Rockstar—makers of Grand Theft Auto—ever made, not the least because of its fantastic mini-games. They were better than they were in most of their other games, and Liar’s Dice might be the best among them. In essence, it was poker mixed with dice: you throw dice in a cup, peek at your own, and try to guess how many of a particular number there were among all the dice at play. You could bluff and call people on their bluffs, and if you guessed wrong on either, you’d lose your dice.
Rockstar of course adapted the game (it’s been around forever) instead of creating it, but the the game’s interface in Red Dead Redemption was seamless, making it one of the best in-game versions of a casino game that wasn’t poker or slots. You could even play the game with other players in Redemption, which is good, because Liar’s Dice definitely benefits from playing against opponents you don’t suspect are cheating (although I guess humans can do that too).
5. BREAK THE TARGETS!
‘Super Smash Bros.’
The Super Smash Bros. series has always been known for how much you’re able to do in them besides fight, how many little figures and accomplishments you can collect. Even the original game could keep you busy for hours after you tired of making sure all your friends knew much better you were than them as Star Fox. The original Break the Targets! In Super Smash Bros. gave you a legitimate challenge that you felt compelled to face, as completing the test with every initial character unlocked Luigi.
Most of these tests were fairly simple; you had to use each character’s special abilities to get all the targets in one go without dying. But then there was Yoshi’s stage, which I no longer wish to remember; if you didn’t know the headbutt trick to break through target encased by three walls, you spent the entire night trying to get both of the bottom targets in one jump, and then you got angry because it was 1999 and why couldn’t they just not make you do this. Like I said, I don’t want to remember it. Maybe this mode wasn’t fun after all.
‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’*
Two things make The Witcher 3’s Gwent mode stand out among mini-games. First, the surprising depth around the game itself; it played like a simpler rendition Magic the Gathering, but had enough interacting elements that you wanted to experiment with the different decks and combinations. Many of the special abilities were double-edged; weather cards reduced the power of one type of solider for both players, and some cards were immune to all card effects, including ones which could boost their power.
The other great thing about Gwent is how it was implemented into the rest of The Witcher 3. You started the game with a standard deck, but had to beat other characters around the game’s world and find the right merchants to get every last card. There was also a side quest dedicated to Gwent, where you faced decks so strong you had to have been collecting cards up until that point to pass muster against them. The Witcher 3 was about giving every action you performed, no matter how small, some meaning, and Gwent was no exception. Given that Gwent wasn’t even supposed to be in the game to begin with, that’s no small feat.
3. THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN TOAD
‘Super Mario 3D World’
Super Mario 3D World burst with creativity at every turn, so it’s no surprise it also had one of the most creative mini-games in recent memory. Captain Toad, who players had caught glimpses of since the first Super Mario Galaxy, couldn’t jump like Mario can, but he still wanted to collect stars, and he had to use his wits to get them. Each of the levels devoted to this little guy were like dioramas you had to work through, and they had the right balance of breezy and engaging to keep playing—exactly what you’d want from something that gave you a break from 3D World’s tougher levels.
The idea was such a hit Nintendo went on to create an entire game around it—Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, which played with the diorama concept a little more thoroughly, and even made some good use of the Wii U’s gamepad. The idea stood on its own, making Treasure Tracker one of the many great games that are unfortunately in danger of getting lost in the wake of Wii U’s relatively poor sales.
2. THE MERCENARIES
‘Resident Evil 4/5’
The Mercenaries did exactly what I wanted it to gave me more reasons to play around with the controls of Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5, which are still some of the most unique and rewarding around. The Mercenaries was really nothing more than a score attack mode with some pre-made levels built around it. But it proved that Resident Evil’s new control scheme wasn’t just a way to make people feel afraid of what might be behind them, but also active enough to actually fight it. You could get good at these games, and a perfect headshot felt good every time.
Like The Adventures of Captain Toad, The Mercenaries got its own fully-priced 3DS game, but the less said about that game the better. If you want to know what made this mode so special, just watch the video above, or find a copy of Resident Evil 5, which made some good improvements on the mode and added online co-op. Hopefully someone’s still playing it online.
1. THE CHAOS GARDEN
’Sonic Adventure 2’
Look, this is not the place for my long-winded spiel about how Sonic Adventure 2 was actually a great game in its day but doesn’t hold up now. What I can tell you, though, is that collecting hundreds of little crystal bits around that game’s levels in order to level up the several Chao I was raising in my garden gave me a lesson in responsibility, something I needed when I was a teengaer. For starters, I learned that I probably won’t want kids anytime soon.
Chaos were as needy as actual toddlers, and would even cry when you weren’t taking care of them (or when you pressed the wrong button and threw them at the wall). But they could also make you immensely proud, as you raised these infant alien-things to karate chop or race each other. You grew attached to these little tykes, and long after I’d finished everything else in Sonic Adventure 2, I kept going back just to see how my Chaos were doing. I bet they’re a bunch of bratty teenagers now (although it has been a while since I fed them).
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who did a lot of growing up writing this article, realizing the Yoshi target stage was much easier than he thought and that Sonic Adventure 2 probably wasn’t that great to begin with. You can follow him on Twitter @SurielVazquez.
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