Not to dredge up the memory of an ancient meme from before the dawn of time, but we all like games, right? Sometimes we like games so much that we play games in our games. Gaming while we’re gaming.
It’s kind of a strange phenomenon, but minigames are everywhere, so we’re talking about them!
What function do minigames serve?
Melissa Brinks: Similar to sports in games, which we talked about in a previous roundtable, minigames can add a nice bit of worldbuilding that the player can interact with. It’s interesting to know what play looks like within the worlds we’re playing in—for example, the five-finger fillet and gambling games of Red Dead Redemption tell us this is a violent, greedy world, where the hacking minigames of BioShock tell us the world rewards ingenuity, even if that ingenuity may be unethical.
In some cases, minigames may just be additional timesinks, as the gaming community has decided that a game’s value is based on total time investment rather than any other metric. I think this is especially true with the increasing popularity of games as a service—games are now often designed to keep you playing as long as possible in whatever way they can. This doesn’t have to be inherently bad (even if I prefer a shorter game experience) but I think there’s potential for minigames to become intentionally addictive (such as rewarding loot boxes) or as locks for necessary content in MMOs or similar games, and that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If they’re fun and fitting, sure, but I don’t know how true that’ll be in the near future with more games being online-only.
Emily Durham: Sometimes, I think the best minigames are optional breaks from the rest of the gameplay. To me, one of the greatest functions a minigame can serve is to be a breath of fresh air in the middle of a game if you’re getting, perhaps, a bit fatigued by repetition. Also, if you’re traveling on a boat (as in Spiritfarer), it can be really nice to set your boat to autopilot a long way, run to your fishin’ seat, and cast out your line. It’s a great way to pass the time if you’re otherwise doing something monotonous in-game.
Zainabb Hull: So I haven’t been able to play much of The Witcher 3 yet, but Gwent relates to both Melissa and Emily’s points. At the start of the game, you’re able to play the card-based minigame in a gloomy pub, where it contributes to building the grim, somewhat sleazy world. It also acts as a diversion from the main game, something you can return to between quests—or, in my case, immediately spend twenty minutes on despite knowing I’m absolutely rubbish at card games.
I think minigames can also act as Easter eggs, rewarding you for spending more time in the world or for taking a diversion from the main game. There are plenty of titles where you can play an entire video game within a video game, like the arcade games in the Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza series. I’m also thinking about the minigames for the Dreamcast’s VMU. The VMU acted as both a memory card and a tiny handheld console, with its own screen and basic controls. Players could load minigames onto the VMU from Dreamcast titles like Shenmue and Sonic Adventure. Even though the VMU minigames, uh, varied greatly in quality, playing one still felt like I’d stumbled onto something special.
Cress: Minigames definitely feel like a diversion for me. The world may need saving, but I also gotta get the largest catch in Zelda or the highest score at the Gold Saucer. I don’t think I gave them much thought before this question. It’s funny, we’re playing games in real life as a diversion at times, then playing a game within the game to break from the main story.
Maddi Butler: I agree with both Melissa and Emily in that I think a good minigame can be both worldbuilding and a distraction from whatever is happening inside the game. I like that they can give us more insight into a character’s personality and interests, too. There wasn’t much I enjoyed about The Last of Us: Part II, but the places where Ellie sat down at the end of the day and played her guitar were such a sharp contrast to the tone of the rest of the game that it truly felt like this was something she did to relax. When she becomes seriously injured at the end of the game and isn’t able to play the guitar as easily, it really pulls through the narrative thread that binds the game together, which is that Ellie was willing to—and did—give up everything for revenge.
What’s the best minigame you’ve ever played? Was it just fun, or did it do something unique in the game’s context?
Emily: I don’t know if it’s the best I ever played, but I definitely enjoyed the “Demontower” minigame in Night in the Woods. In addition to how funny and satisfying it was to dip into a roguelike hack and slash game in the middle of this visual novel, I loved how they incorporated it as part of the narrative, with Angus installing it onto Mae’s laptop after she accidentally bricks it with porn. Also, I have very fond memories of the Spy Fox minigames “Happy Fun Sub” and winning “Go Fish” against Artimice Bigpig.
And speaking of “Go Fish,” some of the best and worst minigames I’ve ever played have been fishing minigames. I am particularly fond of the fishing mechanics in Sea of Thieves, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (this might be my favorite actual minigame, now that I’m thinking about it), and Spiritfarer.
Zainabb: Like Emily, I’m fond of the Night in the Woods minigames, especially playing Mae’s bass. You can practise in Mae’s room, and there are a few scenes where the whole band practises together. It’s a straightforward rhythm game, which I often enjoy, but I also appreciate that the game reflects how well (or poorly) you play. Your bandmates will comment if your timing is particularly bad, but nobody will blame you if you miss a few notes because Mae’s been out of town for a while. It helped to take the pressure off completing the minigame perfectly, and contributed to Mae’s relatability.
Although I wasn’t particularly good at them, I also really enjoyed Undertale’s in-battle minigames. They broke up the standard turn-based RPG fight mechanics, keeping me on my toes, and they provided both an additional challenge and a greater sense of danger. The fighting felt more real because you have to physically dodge attacks. Taken with the game’s pacifist themes, they also serve to foster empathy for the characters you’re fighting—after all, if the player feels stressed about their “enemy’s” attacks, then the battle must be scary for the creature you’re up against, too.
Melissa: I really disliked playing “Demontower” but I love that it’s there. I’m supremely bad at roguelikes and at this one in particular, so I played it for maybe ten minutes before giving up entirely. But the fact that there’s just a fully realized hack and slash game hanging out on Mae’s laptop, installed by another character, is one of the many things that makes me love Night in the Woods. Mae would need Angus to fix her computer, and Angus would install a game he likes on it. It’s such wonderful character development!
Cress: The Night in the Woods minigames were definitely a highlight to me as well!
A couple of arcade games you can play at the Gold Saucer in Final Fantasy VII happen during the main story. Specifically: motorcycle racing and snowboarding. The motorcycle chase out of the Shinra Building is punched up with a FMV of Cloud breaking through a glass window onto the incomplete highway out of Midgar. The fact that I was able to play it again later and relive that thrilling moment was like a little gift from the developers. Also, there’s Mog House, which features a mini-story of a little moogle trying to fly and get a girlfriend. All of it really made me feel like I was in a proper arcade. And just as I would in an arcade, I was passing the time, avoiding the end of FFVII. The Gold Saucer took on a meta narrative for me; Meteor was hanging low in the sky and I couldn’t bring myself to finish the story for a while. I can’t help feeling that was intended.
A pure, silly minigame I loved was “Sushi-Go-Round” in Pokemon Stadium (which I misremembered as “Lickitung Lash”). You and three of your friends are Lickitung, and each one of you is competing to eat the most expensive sushi gliding around on a conveyor belt. You have to keep track of which dish brings the highest score and watch out for ones that are too spicy (your Pokemon will turn red and dance around uncontrollably for a few seconds). It was my favourite from both Pokemon Stadium games.
Maddi: My favorite-ever minigame is the claw machine in the Sega arcade in Yakuza 0. My favorite part of most games is wandering around the environment, and I was utterly delighted when Yakuza 0 let me loose in Kamurocho because there are so many streets, alleyways, and shops to explore. I didn’t know anything about the game before I started streaming it, and realizing that not only was Sega High-Tech Land in the game, but that I could actually play the games in it brought me such pure joy. Trying to win all of the toys in the claw machine was some of the most fun I’ve ever had while streaming.
I do also appreciate some fishing minigames. Though fishing in Nier really frustrated me at first, I ended up enjoying it a lot! Where Animal Crossing: New Horizon‘s precise placement and timing often frustrates me, I find fishing in Nier: Replicant more meditative. Plus, Nier spends most of his time helping others, and fishing is one of the few times where he can sit back and relax a little bit.
What’s the worst minigame you’ve played? What makes it so bad?
Emily: I hate the Sparx the dragonfly minigames in Spyro: Year of the Dragon. After a certain amount of rage and swearing, I made my husband do them all for me so I could 100%(+) the remastered trilogy for Switch. And back to my fishing minigame point: my least favorite fishing mechanics are from Animal Crossing (this might be a controversial point, but I just don’t like waiting for hours and wasting my meticulously crafted bait trying over and over again to catch a single rare fish!!) and Stardew Valley (notably, these are two of my favorite games of all time, so my beef with their fishing elements is not personal).
Zainabb: I’m most frustrated by clunky minigames that are essential to progression. I don’t know if it fully counts as a minigame, but I absolutely hated the Batmobile missions in Batman: Arkham Knight. The Batmobile controls are likely the worst I’ve ever faced; controlling an actual tank would probably be smoother and less frustrating. As you can use the Batmobile in the open world sections of the game, I’m not sure if the vehicle levels are really minigames, but they do impose various restrictions that you don’t normally have to reckon with. For example, they often feature some kind of high-speed pursuit or timed element. Being forced to wrestle with stiff, unintuitive controls while timed, in order to move the story forward, is my worst nightmare.
Emily: Oh man, yeah. To that point, the zoomer races to move contraband through Haven City in Jak II are impossible, not fun, super precise, timed, and worst of all, required for plot progression. Misery.
Melissa: Is it cheating to say Blitzball again? Because like… it’s Blitzball. It’s always been you, Blitzball.
Cress: After a few fruitless rounds of “Tetra Master” in Final Fantasy IX, I just wiped its existence from my memory. Final Fantasy VIII had “Triple Triad,” and I could actually enjoy that one, unlike the arcane hidden math that is “Tetra Master.” Yeah, HIDDEN MATH! That number you see on the card? Forget it! It’s a variable in an equation you aren’t privy to, and I’m pretty sure the programmer’s don’t even know. Then it came bundled with Final Fantasy XI because honestly, who would ever pay for it?
Maddi: I’m sorry, but I loathe—LOATHE—Gwent. I know people love it enough that it’s its own downloadable game, and I appreciate the narrative flavor it adds, but I struggled with the rules right out of the gate and still don’t understand how to properly play. I also didn’t like that losing at Gwent means the player fails certain quests; it offended my completionist sensibilities.
Second only to my distaste for Gwent is The Witcher 3‘s tournament minigames in the Blood and Wine DLC. I abandoned my save file for months because I refused to lose the horse race, despite struggling deeply with the mechanics. In both cases, the pressure to win and be good at the minigames made them significantly more stressful than fun.
Tabletop players: do you make use of minigames in your games? How, why, and how do you keep the plot moving?
Melissa: As a GM, I personally have not. But as a player in a Pathfinder game Cori runs, I have played a minigame—specifically a game of dice. My character is a half-orc barbarian (formerly a baker) and an extremely reluctant adventurer who’s really just in it to get revenge on the man who destroyed her business; she goes into a fugue state every time she rages. She’s not particularly well-versed in the seedier sides of society, so, while investigating some corrupt ambassador, she found herself playing a game of dice that she (also me) didn’t know the rules to. On her first roll, she apparently rolled the best possible combination, won some money, and awkwardly asked for information. It was a delightful exchange that helped further define my character (doesn’t know anything, phenomenally good luck) and the world (seedy).
In a D&D game I play with Nola and some other friends, our characters ended up in the bar of a ghostly pirate ship, as one does. In this game, I play a bratty prince with refined tastes and a serious lack of experience with the world. Many of the pirates at this bar were playing drinking games, and my character, in a desperate bid to prove that he’s cool and interesting, joined in—except neither me nor my character know anything about drinking games. Our DM had to explain the rules of the game to me, and my confusion filtered down through my character, who had a miserable time that led up to an existential crisis. Thanks, minigames!
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.