When Mini Games Get Big
I play Sonic Adventure 2 for the tamogatchi-esque Chao raising. I play Final Fantasy for Triple Triad and for Blitzball. I play Rogue Galaxy for Insectron.
If I were to type the words “mini-game” (hey, I did it!), your reaction would be confusion mixed with hostility. The modern mini-game is Kratos, God of War, fresh from plunging his swords into various mythological beings, taking some time off with the ladies to test a different sword. It’s “Press X to kill Y!” It’s repeating the same illogical lock picking attempt in Oblivion over and over, like there’s only one lock design in the entirety of Tamriel. At best, it’s that neat little arcade machine in Starcraft 2 where Jim Raynor relaxes by playing The Lost Vikings made into a shmup. At best, modern mini-games are ignorable; at worst, they are forgettable.
That’s not the mini-game I’m talking about. I’m talking about the holistic, all-consuming one, the kind of mini-game that’s better than the actual game.
For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, Sonic Adventure 2 is where Sonic started going off the rails (assuming, of course, you discount Sonic 3-D Blast as an aberration along the lines of Mario is Missing). It’s a fun little game sometimes, but it continued the trend from its prequel of Sonic games hiding the fun inside mountains of truly dreadful levels. About half the levels in Sonic Adventure 2 are enjoyable—the rest are either poorly constructed tedium or infuriating due to the game’s shoddy camera, platforming, and everything in between.
The saving grace, though, is the Chao Garden. It’s a pretty simple idea, actually: you have a couple pet animals that you can raise from childhood to adulthood and death. You feed them either animals or steroids that you find in levels you’ve completed, and they grow both in skill and appearance. Feed a Chao a penguin and it’ll learn to swim; it might also get a pair of flippers, and start acting like one. Once you’ve fed your Chao enough penguins and steroids, you can race him against other Chaos in a swimming competition.
This sounds moronic, but it’s addictive. It’s a very simple RPG mechanic that makes you continue playing Sonic Adventure 2. The Chao game is just “RPG elements”, except instead of making Sonic jump further, you’re making your pet gorilleetah faster and stronger than other Chaos. Rather than being just a mini-game, it’s a synergistic second game that climbs on the back of the mediocre main game and makes it compelling. You play levels with the Chao Garden in mind. You raise your Chaos thinking about what items you’re going to try to get in the next level. It’s insidious.
The two games separately wouldn’t be fascinating—they’d just be tamogatchi and mediocre platformer. Together, they’re as good as chocolate and peanut butter.
Conceptually, bringing together two games into one is a very Japanese concept. Kingdom Hearts had it with the Gummi Ship. Final Fantasy‘s since VII have obsessed over including new and fabulous mini-game mechanics: card games, sports, chocobo raising, archeology. A Level-5 game isn’t a Level-5 game without a half-dozen different games. And yet the closest we’ve come in the West was that abysmal mining mini-game in Mass Effect 2, which was necessary to complete the game but tedium incarnate.
Why is this? It boils down to competing philosophy. Japanese design is like watching a rich person at a supermarket: they keep throwing food after food in, and you stand there wondering how they’re going to eat all of it. Nothing gets deleted; it’s why it was such a big thing when Final Fantasy XIII’s developers said that they cut a lot of areas from the game. “These areas were made,” an imagined competitor says, “why not use them? Add more hours to the experience!” The Western philosophy, on the other hand, is to cut. It’s more focused. All-encompassing side quests aren’t necessary when the main mechanic is so interesting. Even massive games like The Elder Scrolls games have you doing the same thing over and over without long-term mini-games, because they have faith their central mechanic is compelling. When they don’t, they tack on multiplayer modes, like with Bioshock 2, modes no one will really play a whole lot but which will probably keep the game out of stores for a month or two. It’s a lazier philosophy, and one which doesn’t add everything to the main mode of the game.
The thought with games like Sonic Adventure 2 is that if the player hates raising Chaos, well, she still has the main game. If he hates the main game, the Chaos could help keep him playing. Could Bioshock 2 have been better with a mini game where you raised little sisters in a school and then set them at each other in an academic fight club? Probably not, but it would keep the player playing longer. And the longer the player plays, the less likely they are to sell the game back to the shop and propagate the used game industry. While Western developers combat used game sales with multiplayer, the Japanese use silly little mini-games like Chaos that people have built huge databases around.