As games have grown more immersive, the virtual worlds we play in have grown more realistic. And what kind of a world doesn’t have games? In video game design, there’s a long tradition of games within a game, whether it's alternative modes, mini-puzzles, games that add to the reality of the world, or completely separate titles. Some of these mini-games are fun and addictive enough to claim a few hours. Others keep you coming back for more, or even transcend their parent game. Here are a few of the best mini-games to play for yourself.
Not seeing anything you like here? Don’t forget to check out our other guides, like the Best Mobile Phone Games or the Best Games for the Nintendo Switch. For hardware, check out our Best Keyboards and Best Controllers guides.
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Witcher 3 (2015)Gwent
Witcher’s Gwent might be the most addictive and engrossing strategy card game ever to grace an RPG. It’s beautifully balanced and enormously fun, with familiar characters and artwork from the world you’re exploring as Geralt of Rivia. You play as one of two opposing armies who combat each other with different cards and abilities.
Playing Gwent adds a layer of depth to Witcher lore (it is mentioned in the original books), but it also serves as an entertaining game in its own right. Gwent eventually spawned a stand-alone game, but I prefer the elegant in-game version, which was quick to learn but offered enough depth to be tough to master.
Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014) and The Old Blood (2015)Wolfenstein 3D
Wolfenstein wins the meta mini-game award with the wonderful nightmare sequences in The New Order and The Old Blood. If you choose to get 40 winks in certain choice locations, you'll trigger nightmare sequences for BJ Blazkowicz. These nightmares are some of the most unforgiving, classic Wolfenstein 3D levels, where you'll have to beat Nazis, attack dogs, SS troopers, and eventually big boss Hans Grösse. Fun fact: Wolfenstein 3D was the very first first-person shooter game!
Both Wolfenstein games are available at Amazon (PS4, Xbox, PC)
Red Dead Redemption (2010)Poker
Looking to kill a little time in the local saloon has taught me just how easy it is to play until the sun comes up. I’ve played more poker in Red Dead Redemption than I have in real life, because it’s a beautifully realized mini-game that perfectly captures the thrills of no-limit Texas Hold 'Em. If you wear the elegant suit in the original game, you can deal yourself an extra card from the bottom of the deck, but you have to balance an arrow to prevent the other players from noticing that you’re cheating and throwing down. Sadly, Red Dead Redemption 2 ditched the cheating option.
Red Dead Redemption is available at Amazon (360, PS3)
Tekken elevated fighting games to new highs and was a big success on the original PlayStation. It had intuitive controls, 3D graphics, and a slower, more strategic feel than other hand-to-hand combat at the time. The limited power of the original PlayStation made lengthy loading screens inevitable, but Namco had the bright idea of including Galaga, one of its older arcade hits, as a playable mini-game while Tekken was loading. Beat the Galaga mini-game, and you unlocked Devil as a playable character.
Playing mini-games during loading screens is such a good idea that I wondered why every game didn’t do it. It turned out that Namco patented the concept. (The patent expired in 2015.)
Grand Theft Auto III (2001)Taxi Driver
Things can get a little crazy in GTA, so having the option to work a side gig that helps you develop your driving skills and earn a little pocket money is handy. There’s something weirdly relaxing about ferrying people around the city streets in between mob hits and drug deals. The GTA series is packed with mini-games, with early titles allowing you to take on the role of a paramedic or firefighter, and more recent sequels offering impressively in-depth golf, bowling, tennis, and dart games. There’s even some soothing yoga in GTA V, but I still prefer to work as a cabbie when I want a break from the frenetic violence.
GTA III is available at the PlayStation Store (PS4)
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)Fishing
Slow, relaxing, maybe even a little boring: It seems weird that fishing has become a standard mini-game for any large virtual world, but if any series is to blame, it must be The Legend of Zelda. Many games in the series have included fishing in one form or another.
Breaking up action-packed quests with a gentle afternoon at the fishing hole can be a lot of fun. The method of catching fish changes from game to game, but I think Twilight Princess kicked its fishing game into high gear with the option to fish in any water and use different kinds of bait, hook, or lure. With the weather, time of day, and even season factoring into the prospective catch, you need knowledge and technique to land the best fish.
Blade Runner (1997)Voight-Kampff Test
As a big Blade Runner fan, I spent many hours investigating homicides on the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles. Westwood’s 1997 point-and-click adventure cast you as detective Ray McCoy and featured an original story that overlapped with the movie plot. Hunting replicants is tricky, so the game would sometimes allow you to administer a Voight-Kampff test on a suspect to determine if they're a replicant or human. It gave you a close-up view of their eyeball, and you had to choose your questions that would make them sweat a little but not put them under so much pressure that they clam up before you can decide whether they’re a replicant.
Blade Runner is available at GOG (PC)
Project Gotham Racing 2 (2003)Geometry Wars
A hugely popular racing game and Xbox exclusive, Project Gotham Racing 2 landed in 2003. I spent weeks playing this, partly because it featured a race in my hometown of Edinburgh. It wasn’t until a friend told me to go into the garage and try the arcade cabinet that I discovered Geometry Wars. It's a delightfully intense and chaotic top-down multidirectional shooter that reminded me of Robotron. I was hooked.
Geometry Wars was popular enough to spawn a series, including stand-alone sequel Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved on the Xbox 360 and Steam (PC). Later releases landed on Nintendo and PlayStation consoles too.
Final Fantasy X (2001) and Final Fantasy VIII (1999)Blitzball and Triple Triad
Not many game series can match the epic scale of Final Fantasy, which is host to a multitude of mini-games. Two of the best are Blitzball and Triple Triad. Blitzball is a bizarre, complex, full-contact underwater sport that’s hugely popular in Final Fantasy X. Choose to play, and it’s easy to get obsessive about putting together the ultimate team to win tournaments.
Triple Triad is a strategic card game that first appeared in Final Fantasy VIII. It’s easy to grasp, but it takes a while to build a good deck, and there’s enough strategic depth to hook you. One of the other nice things about Triple Triad is that you can challenge almost any NPC in the world to a game.
Driver (1999)Survival Cops Chase
This action-packed driving game for the original PlayStation cast you as undercover cop John Tanner and tasked you with infiltrating a crime syndicate while posing as the ultimate getaway driver. If you managed to get past the insanely frustrating tutorial and out of the parking garage, it pushed boundaries with expansive maps covering Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
When you're playing as Tanner, you have the option to select different driving modes that function as mini-games, like checkpoint races. But Survival was the pick of the bunch for me. The conceit is simple: It challenged you to stay alive as long as possible as an endless supply of cop cars try to ram you off the road.
Fallout 4 (2015)Terminal Hacking Pip-Boy App
If you mention mini-games and Fallout 4 in the same breath, Terminal Hacking will spring to mind. To access secured terminals, you need to engage in mini brain teasers to find the correct password in a list of words and code, with incorrect selections revealing how many letters you matched correctly. You can click on matching brackets to remove incorrect entries.
The wastelands of Fallout 4 also contain full mini-games to play on your Pip-Boy, the wrist-worn computer that handles your inventory and personal info. You start with Atomic Command, which is a Missile Command clone, but you can also find cartridges for other Pip-Boy look-alike games, like Pipfall (Pitfall!), Red Menace (Donkey Kong), Zeta Invaders (Space Invaders), Grognak & the Ruby Ruins (The Bard’s Tale), and Automatron (Robotron) scattered around the wastelands. Bethesda also offered an underappreciated mobile app for Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile that turned your phone into a Pip-Boy, complete with the mini-games.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (2020)Orlog
While there’s definitely a lot of filler and bugs in Valhalla, the combat dice game Orlog is a lot of fun. You roll and pick dice to unleash axe or arrow attacks, defend against them, or steal coins that can be spent on God’s Favors. These special abilities are applied at the end of each round and often change the outcome. You can find an Orlog player in most towns, and each one has a different God’s Favor you can win by beating them.
Like all the best mini-games, it’s easy to pick up but reveals a satisfying strategic depth as you get more into it.
AC: Valhalla is available at Amazon (PS4, PS5, Xbox)