One of the oldest, but also most underappreciated, Video Game Settings.
In the same way a Mini-Boss can be placed halfway through the way to the whereabouts of a main boss, a mini-dungeon is a location accesible through the overworld that appears as a precedent to a main dungeon. It is explored for a particular purpose, but in terms of storyline it's less important than a main dungeon. Because of the lower importance, the mini-dungeon has a simpler layout and design, and thus it's not too difficult to tackle. Though the standards of the average mini-dungeon can vary according to the game, there are some general characteristics shared by most of them:
- As a general rule, it's not guarded by a boss, but rather a mini-boss.
- It can share some traits and trends with the dungeon it's preceding, thematically or in terms of gameplay.
- It may combine some aspects of a normal overworld area, similar to a Dungeon Town.
- In some cases, it's a place that is intended for characters to test their skills before venturing into the more dangerous dungeons.
If the place is optional to begin with, then it's either a Bonus Stage or Bonus Dungeon (depending on how and when it's accessed). Compare Dungeon Town. If the first stage in a game happens to be a mini-dungeon, it's a Noob Cave.
- From Super Mario Bros. 3 onwards, it has been a tradition in subsequent 2D Mario games to have a midway-placed Fortress or Tower level in each world (two in some cases), often guarded by a Mini-Boss that appears recurringly through the game. In the case of Super Mario World, in addition to having fortresses, it also introduces Ghost Houses, and one of them is guarded by a mini-boss (Big Boo). By extension, this also applies to the Yoshi's Island games, though the mini-boss in each fortress is unique to it; there's also the level "KEEP MOVING!!" in the first game, played right before the final level, that has the castle/fortress theme heard.
- In the fourth episode (game) of Commander Keen, the Castle of Sand Yego is played similarly to the Pyramids (the game's resident dungeons), but it's optional and serves mostly to prepare the player for harder levels.
- Most mini-dungeons in The Legend of Zelda are present for Link to search items, abilities or anything else necessary to enter the main dungeons:
- Southern Face Shrine in Link's Awakening. It houses the Face Key that gives access to the northern Face Shrine (main dungeon). Also the Moblin Cave, where you save an NPC that allows you to access the Bottle Grotto; and Kanalet Castle, where you acquire Plot Coupons needed to obtain the key to the Key Cavern.
- Ice Cavern and Bottom of the Well in Ocarina of Time. The former is necessary as Link earns there the Iron Boots, which are required for tackling the Water Temple (and upon their obtainment, Sheik appears and teaches Link the Serenade of Water so he can warp to Lake Hylia and enter the Water Temple at once). In the latter, the Lens of Truth lies within, and is necessary for navigating the Shadow Temple. To a lesser extent, there's the Thieves' Hideout, inside which the young hero has to rescue the four carpenters before he can proceed into the desert.
- At least four in Majora's Mask: The Deku Palace where Link infiltrates to learn a song that gives him access to Woodfall Temple, Pirate's Fortress to retrieve the Zora Eggs which are the key to learn the melody that opens the way to the Great Bay Temple, the Gibdo Well to get direct access to another mini-dungeon, the Ancient Castle of Ikana, where in turn Link looks for a way to get access to Stone Tower Temple.
- The Savage Labyrinth in The Wind Waker, whose first 30 floors are required to get the chart that leads to one of the Triforce fragments to enter the Very Definitely Final Dungeon (the remaining 20 are much more difficult but also optional, thus becoming a collective Bonus Dungeon). The game also has Fire Mountain and Ice Ring Isle, which are short but contain items (the Power Bracelets and the Iron Boots, respectively) necessary to access through main dungeons (Earth Temple and Wind Temple, again respectively).
- Royal Crypt in The Minish Cap. Upon completion, Link receives a gold Kinstone from King Gustaf to open the Source of the Flow, enter the Veil Falls and reach the Cloud Top to access the Palace of Winds.
- The Bokoblin's fortress in Twilight Princess, immediately preceding the Arbiter's Grounds. The game also has a few caves across Hyrule (with the one in Lake Hylia being almost as long as the first floor of a main dungeon), though they're optional.
- The pyramidal tombs in Phantom Hourglass (the first being in the Isle of Dead, and the others in the Isle of Ruins), where the corresponding four Cobble Knights rest. In them, Link has to 1) find a way to the isle where Mutoh's Temple is, 2) enable said way in that island, and 3) enter the temple.
- Pirate Stronghold in Skyward Sword, where Link has to find clues to track the next main dungeon, the Sandship.
- There are several of these in A Link Between Worlds that make you focus on using one, sometimes two, of the items you get from Ravio. There is also always a Treasure Hunter guy who hints at how to proceed to the treasure.
- The 120 Shrines in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They feature no more than a handful of puzzles or just a combat encounter against a small Guardian. Some don't even feature those, as they require completion of puzzles or other challenges on the overworld.
- The Spacestation in Jet Force Gemini is played akin to the cargo ships visited by Juno, Vela and Lupus through their individual routes, but it's severely wrecked and the only relevant thing to do is rescue Tribals.
- Inverted in Star Fox Adventures, as the main dungeons in the game (the satellital regions of Dinosaur Planet, as well as the Force Point Temples) are always accessed and completed before the mini-dungeons (the Krazoa Shrines). The reason is because, during his quest, Fox alternates between looking for the Spellstones and looking for the Krazoa Spirits; so whenever he finds a Spellstone and puts it where it belongs, his next objective is to find a Krazoa Spirit and take it back to Krazoa Palace, to then proceed to the next Spellstone and repeating the process. This is the reason why the last thing pending before facing the Final Boss is to retrieve the remaining Krazoa Spirits, as by that point all Spellstones have been retrieved.
- Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption have, respectively, the sunken Orpheon Frigate and the wrecked GFS Valhalla as relatively large and intrincate mini-dungeons, which respectively precede the Phazon Mines and Pirate Homeworld as huge, gargantuan dungeons.
- Ōkami has two: The Sunken Ship and the inside of the Water Dragon. The former precedes the Imperial Palace and even has the ítem that allows Amaterasu to get access to it. The latter is explored to get a magical Crystal Ball in order to give it to Queen Otohime and, right after its completion, a series of dramatic events occurs and leads to the entrance to Oni Island, the next main dungeon.
- The entirety of Challenge Mode in Pikmin 2 is about exploring 30 miniature caves, most of which are only 1-3 floors deep, and derive from the Story Mode caves whose depths range from 5 to 15 floors except the Emergency Cave, which is a Noob Cave (only 2 floors deep) and thus another mini-dungeon.
- The two areas of Vono Islands explored in The Last Story. Namely, the Mysterious Forest and the Shipwreck. They're explored before the Gurak Island, a main dungeon.
- NetHack has a few side branches, such as the dwarf caverns, a couple towers and the quest.
- Dragon Age: Origins has The Fade, the realm where spirits, demons, and dreaming human reside. You enter it completely out of nowhere, while exploring a tower where demons have overrun the mages within, and once you're in, you must complete it to continue. The stage itself is a repetitive puzzle maze, your player character is completely alone, there is next to no dialogue or plot progression, and the entire place is intentionally blurry and out of focus. It is so infamous to DA fans that several mods exist which allow you to bypass the mini-dungeon completely while collecting every reward from it.
- The Brick Road dungeon in EarthBound is placed just before the cave leading to Rainy Circle, which contains one of the Eight Melodies.
- World of Warcraft used to have several places commonly referred as mini dungeons or outworld dungeos. These were areas in the main game world (rather than being instances like proper dungeons), that othervise functioned similar to dungeons, with elite enemies designed to be fought as a group. They usually had quests associated with them with rewards similar to ones you'd get from actual dungeons. However, in later expansions most of the enemies in them lost their elite status, making them easier to solo and not any different from normal areas.
- Aside from Bonus Stages, the platform games in the Crash Bandicoot series have special mini-stages that are accessed through special means: Collecting N. Brio or Neo Cortex icons (first game) and stepping on a colored platform or skull-patterned platform, aside from other things (second, third and fourth game). These stages - often called "Gem Routes" or "Skull Routes" - are much harder than the actual levels and rarely have a checkpoint. In the case of Skull Routes, you also have to reach the place without dying beforehand. Completing succesfully the Neo Cortex stages will net you keys that open secret levels; completing the Skull Routes will net you gems (in some rare cases colored ones, which are the ones that give access to the Gem Routes). The Gem Routes themselves only have regular gems as rewards.
- Star Wars: The Old Republic has an odd play on this trope. There are "story areas" walled off to anyone but a character on a certain point in their class quest. The character enters them and has to fight through some level-appropriate mobs to get to the story goal and progress. You can ride shoutgun on another class's story with someone you're grouped with, but you won't be able to interact with the Cutscene parts at the end.
- DROD: The Second Sky has a couple of examples:
- "Upside-down Mine Entrance" is the prelude to "Shattered Mine"; it introduces the pickaxe and powder kegs, which are the main puzzle elements in the latter level.
- From early in the game, it's been hinted that the climactic confrontation will take place at Nethlekempt Farrows. To draw out the player's anticipation, the approach to Nethlekempt Farrows consists of two mini-dungeons ("The Scorching Path" and "Fire Hotlands") followed by a full dungeon.
- Most games in the Etrian Odyssey series avert this trope as, instead of exploring a set of mini- and main dungeons, the player's party has to explore a gigantic meta-dungeon (Yggdrasil Labyrinth). However, the following games play it straight:
- Legends of the Titan has the Caves, single-floored ecosystems with a relatively compact explorable area (usually a 3 x 3 map of quadrants worth 25 spaces each). And each of them has a specific purpose related to a request accepted in the Dancing Peacock in Tharsis, though a few of them are also linked to the main story. Completing a Cave awards a stamp and a brief description of the Cave and its inhabitants. The main dungeons are the much more complex Mazes, or Labyrinths, which are multi-floored locations with mini-bosses and a boss each. And every floor has its own large area (whose map dimensions are also bigger: 7 x 6 at most).
- Nexus has, in addition to full-fledged labyrinths, sub-dungeons of varying sizes (though all of them are still only one-floor tall). They're placed not too far from the main dungeons in the overworld map, and employ the same gimmicks seen in them (though often remixed to provide much harder puzzles, as seen with the Blossom Bridge which requires a much more clever use of the transport platforms than in the Petal Bridge). These sub-dungeons are the setting for unique sidequests involving the game's supporting characters.
- Spyro: Year of the Dragon: Each of the levels have "sub-levels" accessible through separate doors. Most sub-levels have an Egg Macguffin (sometimes two) and extra gems that you have to collect, usually by solving the problems/puzzles in each one. Some of the sub-levels are exclusive to one of Spyro's allies that he has to rescue first.