Gamers know Japan for its video games, and the country generally embraces that association with open arms. Time and time again, the country has displayed its pride for video games. No one can forget the Pikachu plane, which allowed travelers to fly with the iconic yellow Pokemon. It only makes sense that Japan would celebrate its role in video game history now that the Olympic Games have encouraged all eyes to focus on the nation.
The 2021 Tokyo Olympics marks the first time esports will feature in the games, but video games are actually all over the event. As noted by Polygon, the games’ opening ceremony featured music from Japan’s many contributions to the video game industry, including tunes from games like "Final Fantasy" to "Nier."
Adding to that fanfare, Google decided to celebrate through its own Google Doodle. July 23, 2021 marked the appearance of "Doodle Champion Island Games Begin!," a lengthy action-RPG that dives into Japanese mythology and history to bring joy to gamers and sports fans across the globe.
With fully rendered animated cutscenes from STUDIO4°C, "Doodle Champion Island Games Begin!" looks gorgeous, but it also contains small details to delight both Japanese history buffs and players new to Japanese culture.
Tanuki learns some new tricks
In addition to being real animals sometimes referred to as "raccoon dogs" (per Tokyo Creative), tanuki are also an important piece of Japanese mythology, which holds that tanuki are tricksters who can shapeshift at will. Gamers will recognize tanuki from their famous appearances in video games throughout the years. Mario donned a Tanooki Suit in several "Mario Bros." games, while Link encountered a naughty tanuki in the Mysterious Forest early in "Link’s Awakening." However, Tom Nook might be the most famous tanuki in all of video games, ruling his renters with an iron fist.
The Tanuki in "Doodle Champion Island Games Begin!" has learned some new tricks, literally, and skateboards his way through the game as a menace on the halfpipe. Equipped with a leaf-shaped skateboard, the Tanuki champion glides along with a paper fan and parasol to help him navigate the track. The very nature of this champion is something of a play on words, with the trickster turning its attention to more modern "tricks," like kickflips.
"Doodle Champion Island Games Begin!" wouldn’t be complete without one of these creatures, especially since they appear throughout Japanese pop culture. Studio Ghibli produced the tanuki-starring film "Pom Poko," and a giant tanuki mascot presides as the symbol of Shigaraki town in Shiga Prefecture in Japan.
Fairy tales take center stage
Amidst the creatures from Japanese mythology and references to the Olympic games, "Doodle Champion Island Games Begin!" also references a number of Japanese fairy tales and folklore. Two legends in particular, "The Story of Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad" and "Momotaro, or the Story of the Son of a Peach," factor heavily in the plot of "Doodle Champion."
In the game, a ghostly woman mourns the loss of her son, Urashima Taro, and wishes she knew where her boy went. Players eventually discover Urashima Taro at the bottom of the sea, dancing his days away with a princess. Still, the game doesn’t flesh out the more significant implications of the story.
In the original version of the tale, Urashima Taro wins eternal life in an underwater palace, completely forgetting that his parents will continue aging at home. He returns home 300 years later to find his parents have died and he has become a legend himself. The story urges children to mind their parent’s words and obey rules, or else they might end up like Urashima Taro, elderly and alone.
"Doodle Champion" also elaborates on the story of Momotaro, a boy who sprouted from a peach pit, recounting his journey to fight demons and save damsels in distress. Naturally, "Doodle Champion" reimagines Momotaro’s victory as a rugby game, putting an Olympic twist on the fairy tale.
A porcupine references the delayed 2020 Olympics
"Doodle Champion Island Games" doesn’t shy away from the fact that this happened. In fact, a porcupine character in the archery area mentions it. The character doesn’t understand why it’s so loud outside, and after being told the commotion is from the games that are taking place, it says, "Again? I thought they were supposed to happen last year."
Lucky, doesn’t acknowledge what the porcupine said. Instead, Lucky just asks if the porcupine wants to "join everyone" — and the porcupine decides it likes being inside better. The situation could be another reference to the isolation that everyone around the world went through when the pandemic was at its peak.
Who’s going to tell the porcupine that the Olympics are currently on schedule to hold its Winter Games next year?
The Master Archer is based on a real-life samurai
Part of "Doodle Champion Island Games" includes beating the Master Archer at his own sport. The Master Archer is talked up by the Inari, who’s the leader of the Yellow Team in the game. The Inari tells a story about Captain Yoichi, who "once shot a fan off the mast of a boat while on horseback."
There’s even an animation in the game featuring Yoichi and Lucky, during which Yoichi does exactly what the Inari described. While this spectacular feat might sound like a fantasy, Yoichi is actually based on a real-life samurai with the same name.
Nasu No Yoichi (a.k.a. Nasu Suketaka Yoichi) was a samurai warrior from the 12th Century. When he was just 16 years old, Yoichi shot a fan off of an enemy’s boat with a single perfect shot — while riding on horseback. According to Yabai.com, this moment had a significant impact on the Genpei War, significantly raising the morale for Yoichi’s fellow warriors and shaming the enemy army. Legend has it that this event directly led to the next major battle in the war being won by Yoichi and his fellow soldiers.
There are more than two stone lions
When you play "Doodle Champion Island Games," you’ll find yourself guided by two stone lions, who test you before you can even properly join in on the games. This lion duo leaves quite an impression, even appearing in the opening animation of the game. However, what you might not have realized is that there are actually four stone lions on the island.
The game allows you explore various areas that aren’t part of the main path to winning the games, one of which is actually at the very beginning of the game. After being told to go to a red gate, you can actually visit two houses that are on each side of the path. In these houses, you’ll find two more stone lions.
The developers shared a few comments about the game, and one of the team’s favorite parts of the game were the these two guardians, even though "they can be a bit scary given that they’re lions." The dev team also mentioned that it "love[s] how charming they are in the game’s final design." Apparently, the developers loved these characters enough to hide a couple more of them in the game.