Version tested: Wii
Mini-games haven't so much fallen out of favour with contemporary gamers as plummeted to a grisly death on the spikes of their cynicism. WarioWare was a machinegun volley of microcosmic creativity (where we picked the snot from a wincing nostril or jumped a fast-approaching sausage on wheels), but since those magnificent beginnings, our overexposure to vapid copycats has made a dirty word out of mini-games. [If not two - Ed].
It's also a dirty word that's synonymous with Nintendo's Wii. While WarioWare distilled gaming's first principles into five-second interactive sitcoms, other developers used the format to make a quick buck. Steal a few simple mechanics, skin them in a wacky theme, pour into a paper-thin metagame and bake for six months. It's a recipe for fast money. Hence Wii is now the poster-child for all that's cheap, insipid and misleading about casual gaming. Mini-game collections are scorned and shunned, just as, increasingly amongst hobbyists, is the Wii itself.
The danger, as with all black and white views, is that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Good games are good games no matter what their length, and short-form gaming can be a hundred times more compelling than the long-form epic that requires weeks and months of investment to fully reveal itself and its treats. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Traveler's Tales' Guinness World Records, a mini-game collection that's been bypassed by gamers at large (and the BAFTA review panel in small) even though it's home to one of the strongest ideas in gaming this year.
Fittingly for a licence about finding the world's top scores, the triumph lies in its leaderboards. During every mini-game, your current score is displayed in the top left-hand corner of the screen, and below that sits the top score registered on the console so far. Pass that marker while playing, and the game displays the best score recorded in your region. Now you're fighting to beat Brian from East Sussex, or Bernice from Lancashire for the accolade of county champion. Pass them and you'll be gunning for national champion and beyond that, you're up against the world record holder.
The genius is in the constant relevance. In most games the top spots on the global leaderboard are so out of reach that it renders the competitive element meaningless. What's the point in striving to record the fastest time at Nurburgring when your best efforts put you in sixteen-thousandth place? Guinness World Records makes every single high-score attempt matter, regardless of whether you're trying to beat your mum or the reigning world record holder Troy_Wondercluck from Illinois. Like Geometry Wars 2, which had the next-highest scorer on your Friends list on-screen at all times, beating your next rival is the only thing that matters.
With such a compelling competitive element dominating the experience and inspiring repeat play, shortcomings in the mini-games themselves are diminished. Seeing how many cockroaches you can eat in a minute is stupid, but do it in front of cameras and a cheering crowd for a place in the record books and, for that moment, it's the most important thing you can do. Context trumps content.
So what of the content? A 3D representation of planet earth provides the hub from which each mini-game is accessed. There are twelve landmarks pinpointed on the globe, like the Statue of Liberty and Ayers Rock, and each of these hosts three challenges. These generally take a real-life record, such as world's most tattooed man or longest fingernails, and then make a mini-game out of it, challenging you to beat the real-life record (as well, of course, as the scores of your local and global rivals).
The mini-games have been well designed and are more interesting and deep than Wii users will be used to. The World's Highest BMX Jump has you holding the Wiimote and nunchuk horizontally and pumping them up and down as fast as you can to gain speed on a half-pipe, before flicking them in the air at the top of the jump to gain extra height. Longest Balance of a Vehicle on Your Head has you holding the controller horizontally as steady as possible in order to keep a bus full of passengers aloft for as long as you can. Furthest Toss of a Cowpat approximates the discus throw, building up momentum before pitching the angle of your launch in a flowing movement.
By contrast, World's Tallest Skyscraper is a fast-paced puzzler, asking you to arrange Tetris-shaped blocks into neat square's as you build a structure high up into the air. When you complete a mini-game you're awarded coins, which are then used to purchase yet more challenges. The game's generous with its payouts, too, so you'll be able to afford most things you want after a few plays of a single mini-game.
There are some irritating oversights though. Firstly, there's no option to use your Mii. Instead you have to select one of eight stock characters, each of whom has their own default name, so if you want to start registering high scores on the global leaderboards, you'll need to go into the character editor and edit it manually. With an eight-character limit, the best you can hope for is an initial and surname, a strange restriction in a game that's all about boasting. It also seems silly to hide these personalisation options so deep rather than putting them up front. Anonymous glory is meaningless.
Furthermore, the game won't automatically connect to Wi-Fi, so you'll have to manually update the leaderboards each time you play a set of mini-games, and there's nothing so depressing as celebrating a record-breaking effort only for it to be smashed seconds later when the leaderboard refreshes, demoting you back to local champion. Finally, it would have been fun to have some stat-porn in here. While the game throws trivia at players on every screen (printing off random ticker-tape records from the official book), there's no option to see how leaderboards break down by county, or to find out, for example, which nations are best at jumbo-jet-eating. All of that data must be sitting on a server somewhere so it would be nice to parse it.
Despite these niggles, Guinness World Records is the best mini-game collection we've played on the Wii, in part because of the content but principally because of its context. It's perfect for Christmas, competing against friends and family for bragging rights, fiercely working to hold your records against rivals (stay away my sheep-shearing record, amateurs) and sharing tips and tricks in the forums, while keeping the best ones for yourself. High-score gaming has never been so well-presented, and if nothing else, other developers would do well to learn from and develop upon its example.
7 / 10