I Love My Silly Little Mini-Games
11:35 AM EST on February 24, 2023
Kweh. Kweh!? Kwehhh!? K-KWEHHH!!!
Every night this week, those noises have haunted my dreams. They are the noises of a chocobo, specifically the rideable bird cutie Choco from Final Fantasy IX, and even more specifically, the noises Choco makes in the mini-game Chocobo Hot and Cold. I have been replaying FFIX since the weekend, thanks both to winter-induced boredom and the fact that I hadn't played my favorite video game of all time in, like, three years. A few hours into the game, you get access to Chocobo Hot and Cold, and this is where my fun really begins.
Chocobo Hot and Cold is, you guessed it, a version of hot and cold: You get on top of Choco in an area—first a forest, but then you get access to a lagoon and a sky garden—and begin to peck at the ground, looking for treasures. If you're super far from the one treasure active on the map at a time, Choco will hit you with a disappointed "Kweh." As you get closer, his excitement level rises, first to "Kweh!?," then to a startled "Kwehhh!?" Once you narrow down the search area and hit the treasure, he screams "K-KWEHHH!!!" and you begin to mash a button to dig the treasure out.
Here, let's watch a video:
There's no real point in mastering Chocobo Hot and Cold. Sure, you need to dig enough treasures up to unlock all 24 Chocographs, which help you get better weapons and armor once you hunt down their locations on the world map, but otherwise it is just a minor diversion. And yet, by my count, I have spent about eight hours of my precious time on this earth, just this week, digging up treasures over and over. I'm not even halfway through the storyline, yet I've already gotten Choco's beak level to the maximum of 99 (he gains levels as you dig up treasures; he does not usually reach 99 in a normal playthrough).
At first, my goal was just to get the Chocographs, but then I decided to grind the points you get for each treasure, in order to buy both a Robe of Lords (10,000 points) and a Protect Ring (8,500). Are those pieces of equipment, which you can also get via other, less repetitive methods in the game, worth it? No, probably not, but that misses the point: For some horrifying reason, I like playing Chocobo Hot and Cold until my eyes bleed and my fingers hurt from spamming the square button over and over.
I love mini-games. I have ever since I wasted many precious, never-to-be-recaptured childhood hours going through each and every one of the distractions in Pokemon Stadium on the Nintendo 64. I have written about my love of long and extensive role-playing games before, but whenever I am playing one I will gladly interrupt whatever epic story a game is building in order to play hours upon hours of a silly little mini-game that barely affects my power, the story, or anything beyond my itch to get better at a game within a game.
This has happened over and over in my life. When World of Warcraft introduced pet battles—essentially a Pokemon rip-off with less adorable fighters—I went around the massive playable area, collecting all the best pets in order to... uh... actually, I still haven't figured out a use for them beyond doing some easy quests every few days. I never finished Grand Theft Auto V, but I sure as shit got really good at its golfing mini-game. Golf isn't really a mini-game in the same way as something made up specifically for a prestige game, but the golf in GTA V was pretty well done, so I sunk many hours of 2013 into it. Don't even get me started on Gwent. The card game inside of The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt may only give you some extra gold here and there, but it's so addictive that they turned it into a full-blown spin-off game. I like to think I played a part in making that happen, because I played so much Gwent. So much, you guys.
And then there's Blitzball. Just reading that word will fill Final Fantasy X veterans with one of two feelings: marrow-deep dread, or immense and life-affirming joy. You can probably guess which one it is for me. In FFX, your often-annoying protagonist is Tidus, who is a Blitzball star from a city 1,000 years in the past. I won't bore you with how he gets to the present day, but what you need to know is that you, too, can be a Blitzball star. What is Blitzball? It's like soccer, but underwater and with Dungeons and Dragons math. Math in sports? What will they think of next?
(There are many, many video guides on YouTube, often stretching past the ten-minute mark, on how to win at Blitzball. I have watched a lot of them.)
I'm not exaggerating when I say this: You can play Blitzball for hundreds of hours. I know because I have probably done just that. In between going around the world to recruit the best players, and then grinding matches over and over to level them up, I have become an expert at a sport that doesn't exist, in a game that forces you to play exactly one match before you carry on with trying to stop a world-ending apocalypse. There's some narrative dissonance involved with stopping your epic quest in order to play a bunch of Blitzball matches, but credit to the creators for making Blitzball deep and engaging enough to sustain sickos like me.
It's not easy to do that! Many, many games have mini-games that I play once and then never bother with again. Persona 5 is one of my favorite games of all time, but all of its mini-games, ranging from darts to batting cages, are bad and boring. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas tried to make "going to the gym" into a gameplay mechanic, and it stunk. Even Final Fantasy IX flounders outside of Chocobo Hot and Cold; there is a jump rope mini-game that makes me want to throw my controller through the screen, and its own card game, Tetra Master, is shallow. Hell, I bet a lot of people don't like Chocobo Hot and Cold, either. It is pretty repetitive, and the rewards don't really encourage mindless grinding of the kind I frequently engage in. I still love riding around on Choco, though.
It takes finesse to make a mini-game worthy of attention, and most games don't really bother. It's easy to tell which mini-games are thrown in just to have some activity that's different from the core gameplay loop, and which are supposed to be a selling point for a game. For every game of Gwent I've played and enjoyed, I've suffered through many a speeder race in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (a nearly perfect game with some truly awful mini-games; Pazaak is Gwent if you hate life). When I find one that hits the spot, though, that's it for me. I will spend so much time, too much for anyone with a normal sense of fun, mastering these games, usually for no reward. Every "K-KWEHHH!!!" is just the right kind of dopamine hit I need to look for the next one, over and over again until I've lost control of both my save file and my life.