To mark special date-related occasions, or perhaps just for kicks, multimedia giant Google will occasionally use a "Google Doodle" piece of artwork or other interactive experience in place of their usual logo on their search engine page at Google.com. Whether commemorating anniversaries of major scientific discoveries or playing music to celebrate a holiday, these Doodles have taken many forms. On January 16, 2013, they would take the shape of a retro-style game featuring a zamboni at an ice rink as the controllable protagonist.
Upon clicking the "play" button within the playing field, the 8-bit-style background music and sound effects begin, along with the unveiling of the controls: Use the directional keys on your keyboard. That is just about the entirety of the introduction, and gameplay begins immediately afterward.
The bottom of the playable screen shows a series of indications: A fuel gauge, a points counter, and a clickable toggle for sound muting. The in-game scene depicts a frozen pond where a girl is skating. This action is disrupting the perfectly smooth surface of the ice, which is why our zamboni-driving hero is needed. Although, rather than call it a "zamboni," it may be more appropriate to refer to the vehicle as an "ice resurfacer," since Zamboni is the name of the company that made the famous vehicle. In fact, the Google Doodle exists as a tribute to Frank Zamboni himself, who was born 112 years ago, on January 16, 1901.
The point of the free-to-play browser game to use the directional keys to steer the vehicle over the disrupted pathways on the ice, thus restoring them to an immaculate smoothness. Points gradually rack up, one at a time, for doing so. The directions do not perfectly correspond to on-screen movement; some slippery sliding does occur, simulating a truly icy environment.
The player must contend with a limited amount of gas or, theoretically, the game could never end. Fortunately, after each successful ice restoration, new characters emerge from the ice hut, sometimes tossing items onto the ice as they ruin it -- including gas cans. Collecting a gas can restores the fuel gauge, allowing continued play.
This make the game a challenging puzzle of efficiency and problem-solving, especially as later levels grow in size and complexity, even introducing new obstacle items. Unfortunately, one other element that increases the difficulty of the Google Doodle game is that leaving disrupted ice in thin slivers can make it very difficult to see spots that are missed. Even as the game mercifully causes missed ice to flash when fuel is low, if only a pixel or two were left on a pass, these can be nearly impossible to spot. Errant drivers will end up mindlessly circling the ice, frustrated, as they seek to collect the last bit.
Mechanically, this game feels like a Pac-Man clone, focused on traveling over certain pick-up areas to complete each stage; granted, the Doodle has no walls and no real enemies. The old-school high-score-seeking style is intact, though, and the vintage feel throughout will be appreciated by arcade fans.
Ultimately, while the Google Doodle is no threat to win any Game of the Year awards from mainstream gaming outlets, it represents a pleasant diversion, and a bonus item in the game of Life that we play every day. There is truly nothing to lose, and hopefully the simulation will be archived for new players to try on a later date. Sometimes a brief, free flight of whimsy might be just what a person needs.
Eric Bailey blogs at NintendoLegend.com, where he is reviewing every American-released NES video game. He also serves as Editor-In-Chief of retro gaming features site 1MoreCastle.com, and can be followed on Twitter @Nintendo_Legend.