Doodle Champion Island Games shows Google can get video games right

Google’s JRPG-inspired mini-game collection is a delightful and surprisingly polished gem.

Release: July 23, 2021
Developer: Doodle Team / STUDIO 4°C
Platform: Web
Play at: Google Doodles

Google is hardly known for its success in the video game field. Despite numerous attempts – and some serious spending – the company has always struggled to align its vision for the future of the industry with that of its player’s. Now, with the rather awkwardly titled Doodle Champion Island Games – released to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics – Google’s Doodle Team has looked to gaming’s past for inspiration, and created a wonderfully charming throwback to classic JRPGs and sports titles of old.

Its influences are clear from the outset. The lavish introductory movie – made in partnership with Tokyo-based animation house STUDIO 4°C – impresses immediately. Its painterly art style channelling both Studio Ghibli and the beautiful opening sequence from 2019’s Link’s Awakening remake. It’s accompanying musical number too, is a gloriously whimsical mash-up of My Neighbour Totoro’s end theme and Wii Sports Resort’s lobbies.

A gorgeous animated introduction sequence sets the scene brilliantly.

Once we arrive at Doodle Champion Island, the influences don’t stop. Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the game was inspired by 16-bit Japanese video games of the 90’s; and this is immediately obvious in the game’s detailed pixel-art characters and idyllic small-town locations. Talk to the villagers and they’ll be more than happy to tell you their troubles. Venture inside a building and you’ll be treated to a lovely Zelda-esque musical number.

Pichai also claims that Doodle Champion Island is the most complex Google Doodle ever created. And it’s easy to see why. Usually intended as a way to commemorate specific days and holidays throughout the year, Google Doodles are often no more than elaborate links leading to related websites. This Doodle is something else; a full game with around 4 hours of content that would sit quite comfortably amongst the Switch’s eclectic, indie-heavy library.

The character design, art style and animations are consistently brilliant. Table tennis descends into chaos as your opponent hurls multiple balls at you, while ‘artistic swimming’ is a fun and frantic take on the rhythm genre.

Champion Island itself is divided into seven distinct zones, with each playing host to a specific mini-game. Archery, climbing, artistic swimming, table-tennis, skateboarding, rugby and marathon running are the games in question. Each offering an enjoyable and unique spin on the sport in question. Victory in each event is rewarded with one of the game’s seven sacred scrolls and a statue in the game’s main square.

Playing as Lucky the cat, you are free to explore the island and visit each of its themed areas in any order you please. A compass can be used to warp instantly between events but doing so would risk missing some of the game’s bonus activities and side quests. One local near the table tennis event carries a flame used to conjure a tougher opponent in spirit form. Another will task you with finding the town’s missing champion climber.

A short behind-the-scenes video showing just how much work went into creating The Doodle Champion Island Games.

The sporting events themselves are relatively short and straightforward affairs – they can all be completed in around a minute. But what impresses most is the cohesion and confidence evident in each of them, and in the package as a whole. Champion Island may seem slight on the surface, but it has a polish and an easy charm that will have many indie developers looking on with envious eyes. From the simple arrow-keys-and-space-bar control scheme to the brilliant autosave feature that allows you to close your browser and return later – right down to Lucky’s delightfully bouncy running animation – this is a game that has been assembled with real care and craft.

Google are renowned for their pie-in-the-sky ideas and abandoned projects, and endeavors such as Stadia have done little to convince that the company is serious about video games either. Doodle Champion Island Games however proves that they do at least have some very capable game developers working behind the scenes. Developers with a genuine love of the industry and its classic titles. This is a delightful little game, and a lovely surprise from a rather unexpected source.

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