Wash away the shame of minigames and embrace the potential of short video game collections.
By Jordan Minor
Just as film fans may prefer action movies over rom-coms or prestige drama or schlock horror, gamers have their genre preferences, too. Personally, I enjoy a few shooters, but can’t stand most battle royale games. I’ll also give any fighting game or strategy game a shot, even if they’re mediocre. However, one genre with very few if any diehard fans is the minigame collection.
Minigame collections have a not-undeserved bad reputation for slapping together a ton of tiny, half-baked game ideas to technically qualify as a complete product. They lure in more casual consumers with quantity over quality. They’re the video game equivalent of generic budget value pack cereal from wholesale stores. Mario Party is one of the only Nintendo franchises you can dunk on without much blowback.
However, the idea behind bundling together a bunch of shorter gaming experiences into a single work has merit. Just reframe it a little. Don’t make video game collections, make video game anthologies.
Now, I admit calling something a “video game anthology” instead of a minigame collection might be the most pretentious, insecure rebranding since comic books became graphic novels. But I think a little bit of pretension accurately reflects the elevated artistic aspirations of games already experimenting with this model. Plus, the name recalls television anthologies. What game doesn’t want to be compared to American Horror Story, Black Mirror, True Detective, or The Twilight Zone?
So what is a video game anthology? I think the idea is pretty self-explanatory: a video game made up of smaller games tied together by a shared idea. It could be a single creator exploring one theme across different mechanics. It could be a group of indie devs each taking their own crack at a single theme like “love” or “shooting.” During a game, jam teams of developers work together to finish a game over a weekend. Put a bunch of games from the same game jam in one bundle. It could be a collection of games all set in the same fictional universe that aren’t necessarily sequels to each other, like short stories.
If you think about it, many games already stitch multiple smaller, easily digestible, single-session games together to create a greater whole. They’re just called levels. Most levels aren’t meant to be standalone experiences. Their stories are incomplete and they rely on players having knowledge from previous levels. However, some of the most memorable levels stand out so much because they function as bespoke games in their own right. Call of Duty’s No Russian. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Three-Leaf Clover. Uncharted 2’s train sequence. Final Fantasy VI’s opera sequence. Any Legend of Zelda dungeon. A video game anthology leans into this already existing potential.
Nothing Mini About These Games
I wouldn’t be so into this idea if I hadn’t already played so many games that pull it off beautifully. To continue the short story comparison, the structure works wonderfully in interactive story games such as Stories Untold, The Beginner’s Guide, and What Remains of Edith Finch. Telling Lies is basically four follow-ups to Her Story in one. Mario Party may not be great, but with WarioWare, Nintendo deconstructs the minigame collection genre they created with a surreal cynical comedy tone and rapid pace that tests your knowledge of gameplay grammar itself.
By showcasing so many survival horror gimmicks from across its history, Five Nights Freddy’s: Help Wanted is the most varied and substantial entry of the franchise. It may not have the narrative depth of some of these examples, but I would never call the library of 51 classic board games and card games in Clubhouse Games a simple minigame collection.
Even games that don’t fully adopt this anthology model can still benefit from it. Instead of an overwrought campaign, Battlefield V’s single-player story mode consists of brief vignettes highlighting underappreciated heroes from World War II. It’s the perfect vehicle for exploring, say, the racism faced by Black French-Senegalese soldiers. Despite cries to turn it into an endless game as a service, Nintendo wrapped up Super Mario Maker 2 updates with the ability to combine multiple levels into one world. That small change opens up so many possibilities for creators now that ideas and meaning can spread across levels in conversation with each other rather than crammed into a single stage. Travis Strikes Again isn’t the No More Heroes 3 we’re still waiting for, but by setting its action inside different fake video games worlds it definitely mixes up the experience.
SuperMash is a game practically about making a gaming anthology. Its intriguing central mechanic has you mashing together different game genres and playing the results. I mashed together Metal Gear-style stealth with a Galaga-style shoot ’em up to create Wild Flop Catcher, a game where a secret agent named Mongoose shoots lasers from his hands to destroy random planes that interrupt his sneaking. None of these games are that enjoyable on their own, but remixing your creations and comparing them against each other is very novel and had me playing way longer than I thought considering the otherwise low quality.
Conversely, there are some games I wish would consider an anthology approach, because some ideas just don’t work as entire games but have too much promise to be dismissed as minigames. Pong Quest turns the classic ball-and-paddle game into a roguelike RPG, like Windjammers meets Atari’s own Adventure. The tricks it uses to make that combo happen are kind of clever. The longer a match goes on the more health you lose, but you only finish opponents off by scoring points, so you need to play fast and effectively. You can also activate different balls with different abilities such as unpredictable arcs, bouncy mushroom trails, and a Breakout-style shield. Unfortunately, the experience quickly wears thin. A cool sketch of a game like this would fit way better in perhaps an anthology of other Atari remixes, like the recent Missile Command: Recharged or the graffiti-tagged Retro Atari Classics.
Sum of Its Parts
Ironically, the game that most inspired this story isn’t even out yet. UFO 50 will include 50 tiny single-player and multiplayer games from an alternate future 1980’s dimension made by famous indie developers behind Catacomb Kids, Downwell, and Spelunky. While that pedigree is certainly a selling point, the concept itself hooked me because it’s so cool and we just don’t see it that often. Let’s fix that. Let’s make more video game anthologies.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.