1. Caravan, Fallout: New Vegas
Plenty of video games contain mini-games or side quests, but some of these diversions are so elaborate—in terms of their rules, novelty, or production value—that they could practically stand on their own. Take Caravan, the card game created for Fallout: New Vegas. Drawing from their own decks, each player builds up three stacks of cards—called “caravans”—until they’re valuable enough to “sell.” One nifty thing about Caravan is that it combines elements of traditional card games with collectible card games like Magic. You can play it with a standard 52-card deck, but you’re better served by customizing the deck, loading it with the cards that fit your strategy—the cards don’t even have to come from the same deck. It’s a nice fit for the world of New Vegas, where you’re not liable to find a pristine deck of cards, but you do pick up the stray deuce or joker in travels. And Caravan works perfectly well in real life, too.
2. Rapunzel, Catherine
Most of the games-within-games on this list are markedly different from the mothership that contains them. The arcade game Rapunzel, though—found in the bar where much of Catherine’s story takes place—is practically a clone of its parent. The main game in Catherine has players shove building blocks around in an effort to climb a tower. So does Rapunzel, just with fairy-tale trappings (rather than the dadaist nightmare tableau of the main quest). The major difference is that Catherine limits the player’s time, while Rapunzel lets you take as much time as you want, instead limiting the number of moves you can make. This one change in the rules gives Rapunzel a surprisingly distinct feel, shifting the emphasis to precise strategy rather than quick thinking.
3-6. Duality, Let’s Get Ready To Bumble, Go Go Space Monkey, and They Crawled From Uranus; Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Let’s face it: The average citizen of San Andreas has a fairly high probability of being run over, shot, stabbed, beaten, or, in some cases, crushed to death by a machine-gun-wielding gangster in a jetpack. All of which may explain the four arcade cabinets located throughout the city. At first glance, they might seem like mindless, coin-guzzling diversions, yet scratch beneath their 16-bit veneer and you’ll find a subtle commentary on life and death in San Andreas. In the game Duality, for instance, you control a 2D spaceship that must shoot and collect a series of asteroids and power-ups. The catch is that the points you earn are either “black” or “white” depending on the objects you choose to collect or destroy—which, like a Seinfeldian black and white cookie, may just be a powerful symbol of urban race relations. The game Let’s Get Ready to Bumble might seem a little less obvious, as you take on the role of a lone bumblebee who collects flowers and avoids deadly thorn bushes. A simple arcade apiary, or a stinging polemic on the drug trade? Then, of course, there’s Go Go Space Monkey, a fast-paced side-scroller in which a space-bound simian battles waves of alien bananas—a thinly veiled tableau of devolved urban insanity. Finally, there’s the aptly named They Crawled From Uranus, in which you take on the role of lone starfighter battling waves of warships swirling out of the blackened…ahem…void. Yes, in the cap-or-be-capped world of San Andreas, even the games you play are ripe with symbolism. Either that or they’re just a really good way to avoid death for a few minutes.
7. Geometry Wars, Project Gotham Racing 2
Exploring the garage in the second Project Gotham revealed a simple “retro” arcade game that would almost come to outshine the racing series that spawned it. Geometry Wars took elements from Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV, gussied them up in a neon party dress, and brought the action to outer space. A refined standalone version of the game, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, was a launch title for Xbox Live Arcade, and reintroduced the twin-stick shooter as a genre, paving the way for the likes of Everyday Shooter, Super Stardust HD, and Squid Yes! Not So Octopus.
8. Pure Wite Lover Bizorre Jerry, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle
Travis Touchdown is the definitive man-child, shirking responsibility so that he can attend to his impressive collection of trading cards, Gundam models, lightsabers, and wrestling magazines. So, of course, when the top-ranked assassin in the world needs some R&R at his fabulous motel room, he likes to pop in the shoot-’em-up based on his favorite cartoon: Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly 5. Most surprising, perhaps, is that this game is one of the few elements of No More Heroes devoid of any sexual innuendo. Well, except the menu refers to the game as “BJ 5.” And then there’s the anime intro movie unlocked when you win, which is…you know what, never mind.
9. Tin Pin Slammer, The World Ends With You
In the Shibuya of The World Ends With You, there are few things that can manage to snaps the game’s heroes out of their emo malaise. Name-brand clothes do the trick, as does ramen, but they really get a charge out of fashionable little pins. It’s just like being a junior high punk all over again! These pins are Neku’s only source of power, and when he’s not using them to slay noise and reapers, Neku’s pins are good for a friendly game of Tin Pin Slammer, a sort of pogs-meets-Pokémon tabletop action game. Some loyal fan of The World Ends With You have established real-life games of Tin Pin Slammer, though we’ve yet to see any of their pins transform into sledgehammers.
10. Triple Triad/Tetra Master, Final Fantasy VIII and IX
Triple Triad seems like the worst sort of cynicism at first blush. When Final Fantasy VIII came out in 1999, collectible card games were getting a second wind as Pokémon replaced Magic in kids’ hearts, and Square could smell the money. What could have just been a cash grab ended up as one of the more enjoyable and coherent parts of the game itself. Each of the 110 cards—picturing a character or monster—has four numbers on it (indicating strength) and is placed on a 3-by-3 grid where the cards “battle” each other. It’s like the kids’ card game War, but in multiple directions, with crazy lightning gods and just the right balance between simple rules and complex strategy. It’s still easy to find a pickup game online, so you don’t have to play FF8 at all to enjoy it. Square mustered up a sequel to Triple Triad in Final Fantasy IX, but Tetra Master upsets the balance of Triad balance with more complicated rules. Compounding the misstep, FF9 forces you to play Tetra Master, rather than just offering the option as in FF8.
11. Pazaak, Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic
Cool people in Star Wars are card players. The swashbuckling Han Solo actually won his ship, the Millennium Falcon, from shifty trader Lando Calrissian. Solo’s game, Sabacc, has absurdly complex rules, according to lore. Since Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic aims to make players feel cool without forcing them to dive into Sabacc According To Hoyle, it made more sense for the developers at BioWare to come up with a simpler card game. Thus the blackjack derivation called Pazaak was born. The goal in Pazaak is to get as close to 20 as possible without going over, and the first player to win three hands in a two-player match wins the whole shebang. As with Caravan in Fallout: New Vegas, the player’s own deck personalizes Pazaak. You can find and buy cards in the game and play them once per turn, either adding or subtracting to get closer to 20 points. There are Pazaak players all over the game’s planets. Sabacc must draw all the cool guys though, because the Pazaak players you meet tend to be a bunch of goons.
12. Fortune’s Tower, Keystone, and Spinnerbox; Fable II
Everything in Fable II can probably be characterized as a game within a game—timing the pendulum swings while blacksmithing is downright hypnotic—but the three designated “pub games” are a bit more fully fleshed out. (So much so that they got their own separate release as an Xbox Live Arcade download.) Fortune’s Tower is a kind of simpleton’s solitaire, where the player constructs a two-dimensional card pyramid from the top down. Keystone is probably the most complex of the three pub games. It’s a combination of roulette, craps and Jenga, where money is placed on various betting areas. Winning is determined by throws of the dice, rather than a wheel. Spinnerbox is nothing more than a Fable II-style slot machine. Cash rules everything around Peter Molyneux’s capitalist fairy tale land of Albion, so the potential to lose your slum rent or piss away your fruit-stand protection money with some barstool gambling makes a lot of sense in the world. At least you’re not spending it on a golden-hearted prostitute or a terrible tribal tattoo.
13. Blitzball, Final Fantasy X
The main character of Final Fantasy X is fair-haired young Tidus, and we learn two things about him right off the bat: He enjoys wearing half-shirts and long overalls, and he was a Blitzball celebrity in his homeland. Blitzball is sort of like water polo, but entirely underwater, and in his strange new land, Tidus gets another opportunity to be a star. You don’t have to play Blitzball to finish the game, but you can win prizes, so there’s a bit of an incentive to get a feel for the game—when to pass, when to block, and how best to use special moves to score. Plus, as you travel the world, you occasionally run into strangers who can be recruited for your team, some of whom can quickly turn the tide. Amid the monsters and evil demigods of Final Fantasy X, if you’re looking for a less intense way to kill time in-game, Blitzball’s always there for you.
14. Lost Viking, StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty
Real-time strategy is an intellectually challenging genre, which is what makes Lost Viking such a perfect palate cleanser in Blizzard’s StarCraft II. A winking reference to the Super NES Lost Vikings series (also developed by Blizzard), Viking’s visuals are richer than the pixelated old-school arcade images on the load screen, but it still feels like a game that would hungrily eat your quarters. Since there is no way to pay for extra lives, victory in this shoot-em-up, versus the Zerg, Protoss, and a ludicrous Transformer-like final boss, comes only with the determination to play over and over again until you’ve mastered the patterns of the units blitzing past you and trying to blow your poor Viking out of the sky.
15. QUB3D, Grand Theft Auto IV
Hewing to the series’ usual cynicism, the arcade game QUB3D in Grand Theft Auto IV is billed on its title screen as “The Puzzle Game You’ve Played Before.” Indeed, the game does smell strongly of colorful-blocks-dropping-from-the-sky puzzle games like Tetris, Dr. Mario, and especially Puyo Puyo. In QUB3D, the blocks sort of roll down the screen rather than falling, a distinction with only a mild difference. QUB3D demonstrates that when a game grows as massive as Grand Theft Auto IV, developers can find room for their pet projects in the niches. Because while it may not be the most inventive thing (by its own admission), it’s not unpolished—clearly, some care went into refining its look and ruleset. Someone on the Rockstar team had an itch to make a puzzle game, and Grand Theft Auto provided the unlikely venue where they could scratch it.