The best games within video games


Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth features a card game so compelling that many of us at Polygon have struggled to focus on the main adventure. Who wants to save the world when they can be playing a round of Queen’s Blood at the tavern, humiliating the locals by deploying a perfectly timed chocobo card?

We’re marks for this sort of distraction: the beloved game within a game. Likely you’ve come across one of these novelties before, like Gwent in The Witcher 3 or (speaking of Final Fantasy) Blitzball in Final Fantasy 10. These aren’t typical minigames but meaty experiences that, given the chance, could and sometimes do stand on their own.

Queen’s Blood is part of a trend of modern games within games. In the first two months of 2024 alone, Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth (discussed below) crammed multiple games into its sprawling RPG world, and Jujutsu Kaisen: Cursed Clash featured Jujutsa 2024 Baseball, a retro baseball game arguably better than its parent fighting game.

To celebrate Queen’s Blood and its ilk, the Polygon team has collected our favorite games within games. We’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments!


The Nintendo/Sega trio of Infinite Wealth

Reklama

Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Found within: Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth

A sprawling RPG with a heart of gold, Infinite Wealth continues the Like a Dragon (née Yakuza) franchise’s commitment to earnest narratives about the power of friendship, variety in play, and ridiculously silly fun.

Infinite Wealth’s story stretches across Hawaii and multiple cities in Japan, with a seemingly endless array of activities. There’s the usual buffet of bite-sized minigames — sports games, card games, dating games, collectible games, and so on. But the trio of the Animal Crossing-inspired Dondoko Island, the Crazy Taxi-inspired Crazy Eats, and the hilarious returning Pokémon parody Sujimon are each fun, engaging, and deep enough to justify their own spots on this list. And they’re all just a part of the Infinite Wealth experience.

At the heart of it all is sweet Ichiban Kasuga, always relentlessly optimistic and supportive of just about everyone, to the point that he’s repeatedly making his enemies into lifelong friends. And while Infinite Wealth isn’t technically an anthology story, it has something in common with them: If you don’t like what you’re currently doing, just wait a few minutes. You’ll be doing something completely different by then. —Pete Volk


Queen’s Blood

A screenshot of the Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth collectible card game, Queen’s Blood

Image: Square Enix

Found within: Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth

Queen’s Blood looks simple, with its 3-by-5 grid board and its deck of cards featuring Final Fantasy 7 critters and bad dudes. But then you start a round against an opponent, likely a kid or a barfly who’s way too cocky. And you stomp them, cramming the board with sweepers, levrikon, and elphadunks.

Did I know the rules as I led my opponent to defeat? I did not. Hell, I still don’t know what an elphadunk is. But that’s what impresses me most about what the developers of Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth have accomplished. You can enjoy Queen’s Blood long before you become an expert in Queen’s Blood. Because I am still but a humble Queen’s Blood amateur, you should check out our guide to learn more about this delightful card game. —Chris Plante


Holotactics

Found within: Star Wars Jedi: Survivor

Like so many Star Wars fans, I’ve always wanted to play holochess, the futuristic game that first appeared in A New Hope. While holotactics in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor isn’t holochess, its creators clearly took inspiration when designing their engaging autochess minigame. The rules are simple: Take out your opponent’s pieces with your own. You get a few points at the start of a game to place units on the table. Then you let them go.

The action builds from there. When your units win, you get more points. Those points carry over to the next round and allow you to put down more pieces. Lose, and you have to start from the beginning. Win all the rounds and you’ll get some sweet rewards. It’s not a novel concept, nor is it super complicated, but holotactics makes for a novel diversion between quests.

But what actually elevates holotactics into the top tier of games within games is how naturally it fits within the Star Wars world. If you rescue Bhima and Tulli, aliens referred to as the “Odd Pair,” they’ll set up shop at your base of operations. They’re just two of the many NPCs you can lure to Rambler’s Reach who add color to the town and also help build it back up from dust.

You get a basic holotactics set when you play for the first time, but as you explore multiple worlds, you can scan enemies and creatures to unlock additional pieces. Scanning takes no time at all, so you’re never going out of your way to expand this minigame you might or might not play. Like holochess, holotactics just exists in Star Wars, as much a time-killer for the player as it is for the characters in this galaxy far, far away. —Carli Velocci


Demontower

Found within: Night in the Woods

Allow me to rave about Demontower, a game hidden on the laptop of the protagonist in the beloved narrative adventure Night in the Woods. The first time I clicked the icon for it on the cat protagonist’s laptop, I didn’t expect much. I thought maybe I’d watch a goofy animation and that would be it. But the developers surprised me with an entire action game.

In Demontower, you hack and slash your way through dark dungeon floors while controlling an adorable pixelated cat. You can collect different weapons and, depending on how you play, reach different endings. Demontower isn’t just another “minigame” from the creators of Night in the Woods. According to a member of the publishing team, it comes from an entirely separate developer. It is, in the truest sense, a game within a game. —Ana Diaz


Tycoon

Found within: Persona 5 Royal

When Atlus released Persona 5 Royal, the team expanded upon the original P5 by adding a minigame called Tycoon. Based on a real-life card game, Tycoon consists of four rounds that end depending on the cards played. Turns cycle in quick succession as each player or character lays down cards of increasingly higher value in order to win a cycle and rack up points.

I won’t get into all the details of the rules, since some cards have special quirks that bring variation to the gameplay, but the most important thing to know about Tycoon is that it’s relaxed. Unlike other traditional card games, like poker, you don’t need to think too hard on your turn. It’s just a matter of picking out the lowest-value card (or cards) that you think can win. The game tracks all the points and logistics for you. It’s a nice, calming way to pass the time with the Phantom Thieves, so long as you can handle Morgana’s disappointment when you inevitably beat him. —AD


Junimo Kart

Found within: Stardew Valley

For me, the best minigames activate this little monkey brain that just wants to beat each level as if I’m a kid again. This is exactly what happened when I played Junimo Kart in Stardew Valley.

Junimo Kart is an autorunning platformer where you time your jumps to make it across gaps across the broken parts of a railway, à la Donkey Kong.

Detail and care are abundant. I love how the Junimo — which looks like an apple with eyes, legs, and arms — flies up helplessly through the air as the kart jumps. Each level’s unique theme is rendered with charming pixelated graphics that fit Stardew’s trademark warmth. —AD


Machine Strike

A screencap of Machine Strike, the tactical game within Horizon Forbidden West

Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Astewir

Found within: Horizon Forbidden West

The Elden Ring avalanche of early 2022 didn’t just bury Horizon Forbidden West. It also smothered the first truly great tactics game of this console generation: Machine Strike.

Machine Strike, if you like many others were stuck in a Tarnished fugue state through 2022, is the Gwent of Horizon Forbidden West: a brilliant little game that could stand comfortably on its own. It’s got the simple small square grid of Into the Breach plus the shrewd calculations of Fire Emblem. Your pieces are wood carvings modeled after the robotic monstrosities that define Horizon, each with a different set of stats. Various terrain tile types can screw up your day — or your enemy’s. Planning is paramount. You often don’t realize you’ve lost until a few moves too late.

Every major hub city in Forbidden West features a Machine Strike player. Defeat them, and they’ll give you one of their little pieces, thus perpetuating a cycle of finding players, trouncing them, stealing their pieces (often better than yours), getting stronger, and finding more players to trounce. Sure, on paper, my Horizon Forbidden West playthrough was “about” “Aloy,” but in practice it was really just one big quest to play more Machine Strike. —Ari Notis


Gwent

Key art from the initial reveal of Gwent: The Witcher Card Game shows a table with familiar characters — including a werewolf — in a fairly modern setting.

Image: CD Projekt Red

Found within: The Witcher 3

Gwent: The Witcher Card Game is a collectible trading card game that was originally included as a minigame inside The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But, as Polygon learned in 2016, it simply would not exist without a 48-hour sprint by lead designer Damien Monnier and his friend Rafał Jaki. Inspired by a card game played by dwarves in the original Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, the pair was able to devote just two days — over a weekend and during a period of crunch, no less — to complete a prototype. But the result was fantastic, and the digital CCG now holds a place in video gaming history.

Why was Gwent so successful? Well, like any good CCG, it has an appealing conceit. Where players in Magic: The Gathering take on the role of opposed mages tossing spells at each other, Gwent players take on the role of battlefield commanders with different troops at their disposal. The original expression of the game included three rows of troops, divided into close combat, melee, and siege weapon categories, which intersect with similar rows on the other side of the table. Later, that was simplified down to just two rows for the competitive, stand-alone CCG. It’s a style of combat that inspired competitors like The Elder Scrolls: Legends, which was put on ice in 2019. But it lives on today in the soon-to-be-released Star Wars: Unlimited, which offers two “lanes” where combat takes place — one for ground units and another for space units.

Want to play it today? A stand-alone, free-to-play version is available. The last official developer-made patch landed in October 2023. Future adjustments to the game’s balance will be handled by the community itself. If you’d like more of a single-player approach, know that Gwent also helped inspire a single-player, card-driven RPG set in the Witcher universe titled Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. It’s not half bad! —Charlie Hall


QUB3D

Found within: Grand Theft Auto 4

Scattered throughout the world of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto 4 is QUB3D, a playable arcade game that’s likely the closest Rockstar will get to making its own Tetris.

QUB3D is GTA 4’s take on the colored tile-matching puzzle genre that plays like Atari’s Klax, Capcom’s Super Puzzle Fighter, and Sega’s Puyo Puyo. (In-game QUB3D flyers cynically joke that it’s “the puzzle game you’ve played before.”) Like Puyo Puyo, players need to line up four tiles of the same color, and the number of playable colors increases as you progress. To combat that complexity, and to mix up the puzzle game formula, QUB3D adds tile-clearing special moves that tease some greater depth.

QUB3D hails from an era where developers could sneak these arcade-inspired experiences into their games (e.g., Mortal Kombat: Deception’s Puzzle Kombat, Project Gotham Racing 2’s Geometry Wars) — a risky move in the increasingly safe AAA games space. Sure, QUB3D is a little too simplistic to be in the same conversation as Tetris. But let’s encourage all game devs to create the Tetris-killer of their dreams. It’s like that old saying: Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you end up near a pretty solid puzzle game. —Michael McWhertor


Geometry Wars

Found within: Project Gotham Racing 2

If you’re playing a racing game, it’s fair to say the last thing you’d expect to find is an arcade twin-stick shooter. Bizarre Creations’ Project Gotham Racing 2 on the original Xbox was critically acclaimed for its, well, racing, but it also happened to get a lot of praise for a minigame called Geometry Wars. Accessed using a virtual arcade cabinet in the game’s garage, Geometry Wars was a surprisingly polished retro shooter where you flew around the screen, destroying shapes and fighting for a high score. It was clearly a passion project for members of the team who wanted to work on something more imaginative than accurate tire tread re-creations.

While the original Geometry Wars was a cool bonus feature, the game became a true phenomenon with Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. Released for the original Xbox 360, Retro Evolved fleshed out the original concept and added some fancy HD graphics, upgrading the concept into a full-fledged product that would eventually hit the top of the charts of the Xbox Live Arcade service. Subsequent sequels would struggle to capture the magic, but it’s amazing to think that one of the best-loved arcade games of the 2000s started life as a hidden treat in a racing simulation. —Russ Frushtick


Blitzball

Found within: Final Fantasy 10

In 2002, it was remarkable to see a fantasy sport (created by combining parts of water polo, football, and soccer) invented with such depth in its strategy and replayability. Blitzball, tucked within the sprawling role-playing game of Final Fantasy 10, even offered league and tournament modes — that’s more than some full-on sports games had to offer.

Partly, I loved Blitzball because it targeted my taste. I’ve always been way more interested in sports games than RPGs. Especially when I was younger. I vividly remember annoying my brother (who, conversely, was way more into RPGs than sports games) by replaying Blitzball rather than continuing with the main game.

And partly I loved Blitzball because of the fictional professional Blitzball player Wakka. He’s probably the first fictional himbo I had a massive crush on, paving the way for many, many more. So of course I was into what he was into. That’s what you do with crushes. —PV



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