In recent years, Japanese game makers have tried to revive the 16- and 32-bit era’s beloved niche of arcade-puzzle series, but these nostalgia cash-ins have mostly failed. Capcom’s Puzzle Fighter came back to life on smartphones as a free-to-play gacha mess. Sega’s Chu Chu Rocket returned with too many complications as an Apple Arcade exclusive (and, crucially, zero multiplayer). And Hudson’s Super Bomberman sputtered onto the Switch’s 2017 launch lineup as a mess, though it eventually received some face-saving patches.
As a result, I shudder whenever I see a cult-classic, puzzle-arcade series return on modern, download-only storefronts. The genre that used to thrive on cartridges and CD-ROMs has become ripe for microtransactions and slot-machine mechanics. Which is why I’m taking the unusual step of reviewing such a launch going right.
Mr. Driller DrillLand, out today on Windows PCs and Nintendo Switch, is one of the rarest games from Namco’s early-’00s period, which was otherwise marked by the blistering 3D likes of Ridge Racer and Tekken. The cartoony, 2D game, which launched exclusively in Japan in 2002 for the GameCube, was arguably a swan song for the studio’s legacy as an ’80s arcade juggernaut. Thankfully, today’s updated, translated version leaves well enough alone: its pure gameplay experience returns with 1080p-friendly touches.
$30 may be a bit steep for this classic game, but it’s the best Mr. Driller game ever made, and it’s a remarkable love letter to the Namco of old.
Clearing a path to a flow state
Plus, quite frankly, I’m happy to have this enormously cheery and weird game right now.
Like other puzzle games from its era, DrillLand comes with a silly and largely unnecessary plot, and it includes the same Japanese voice acting found in the 2002 version. Mr. Driller and his friends have been invited to visit a fictional amusement park, and its every attraction twists or modifies the core Mr. Driller gameplay formula with some thematic gimmick. (His friends, if you’re wondering, include his dad—as in, the guy who starred in Dig Dug—and a cheery, talking dog named Puchi.)
One of these attractions is essentially a port of other Mr. Driller games, because it simply asks players to dig, dig, dig. Your primary object is to dig through colorful blocks from the top of the screen as deeply as possible. That may seem simple, but if you dig carelessly, you may leave hanging fragments that fall and crush you, and your digging path is complicated by “solid” blocks and a requirement to pick up oxygen tank refills. This is a high-score chase mode, since you’ll get more points for clearing various depth amounts quickly and efficiently.
Since the first Mr. Driller game launched in 1999, no other puzzle game has copied its formula. Unlike color-matching and piece-fitting classics, Mr. Driller emphasizes the flow state of constant, efficient movement and digging, which benefits from spatial awareness of shapes and colors all around you. Matching other colored blocks factors into your success, and your downward digging can put color-matching combos into motion, so there’s a two-headed thrust to your Mr. Driller DrillLand progress. That this gameplay still feels special and unique makes this 2002 re-release a worthy puzzling option for anyone who may have missed the series before.
But even if you find that puzzle system a bit wanting, the four other modes add clever twists to its formula. The best mode removes the oxygen-filling requirement and converts the whole game to an Indiana Jones spoof, where you’re forced to create digging paths that lead to treasure pickups while avoiding traps and—oh, I love these—giant rolling stones that will smash through your digging path and threaten you, like the chase scene from Raiders. Another mode pays homage to Namco’s classic Tower of Druaga series, as it forces Mr. Driller to take specific paths through a dungeon, collect treasure and keys, and fight bosses. And a haunted-house mode turns you into a ghostbuster of sorts, as it makes you freeze and capture ghosts within the blocks that you’d otherwise dig through.
That’s the Puchi attitude
Between each of these challenges, a fully voiced cut scene will play out with the Driller crew’s personalities clashing in giddy, Saturday morning fashion, and while you can mash buttons to skip these, I’d suggest not. The whole package radiates with DayGlo-bright designs—all handsomely scaled to modern screen resolutions and a 16:9 ratio—and part of the inflated $30 cost is that you’re sometimes expected to sit back and marvel at how weird and elaborate the game’s story gets.
This should particularly delight anyone who still fondly recalls Katamari Damacy, which debuted on PlayStation 2 two years after DrillLand‘s launch. You can see the seeds of Katamari‘s wacky plot and King Of All Cosmos character planted by the Driller family’s saccharine-sweet trials. Meanwhile, DrillLand‘s perky J-Pop soundtrack, presented here at full fidelity, isn’t identical to Katamari‘s classic tunes by any stretch, but the up-tempo charm and vocal-melody components are almost identical.
The weirdness doesn’t end there. At any time, you can load a lengthy, music-driven parade sequence, where various Driller-series characters stomp across your screen, almost-but-not-quite in time with the music. There’s no way to fail this mode; it’s not technically “gameplay,” and you can only modify it by pressing a joystick to change the marchers’ tempo. Why is this in the game? I have no idea. But now I kinda wish every video game had an optional parade sequence as an amusing distraction. (Just think of how TLOU2‘s post-apocalyptic Seattle might look with its mutated monsters stomping to the music while holding batons.)
To finish the package, the game includes a pair of four-player battle modes. One is a parallel race through standard Mr. Driller gameplay, where each player races to dig through identical content, and the other is a ho-hum battle mode where players dig through the same, shared screen in search of a randomly placed treasure. The latter feels unfair as a versus game, while the former is pretty meager with its battling and “garbage” mechanics. Still, as family-friendly four-player modes, they’re better than nothing (but, sadly, don’t work online).
Nitpicks, not dealbreakers
The biggest drawback to the whole package is a $30 pricetag, which is high for a 2002 re-release. As far as “new” content, you’re getting a newly translated script (no new English voice acting), an admittedly smooth upscaling of the original 2D assets to 1080p resolution, and a new “casual” difficulty level—which, I should be blunt, is far from casual. Mr. Driller DrillLand can be pretty unforgiving to new players due to how quickly its falling block fragments fall and harm your character, and entire runs will get wiped out due to a severely limited pool of lives. (Casual mode only adds a single extra life to each mode, which, I have to say, doesn’t suddenly make the package newbie-friendly.)
Worse, the game’s digital download doesn’t include any form of instruction manual, so you’ll go through trial-and-error to answer serious questions about the game. Which levels should I play first? Do shiny blocks, which disappear after a certain amount of time, mean anything in a level? Why don’t each individual mode’s “level 2” and “level 3” sections unlock? Is there a point to spending in-game coins on a shelf of collectibles? And how do all of the items in the item shop work? The last question is crucial, because beginners will rely on that item shop, not the “casual” mode toggle, to survive their earliest sessions. Some in-game guidance to that effect would have been appreciated.
Thus, it’s not a perfect collection. Still, I’ll take a re-release that’s doggedly old-school over the microtransaction alternative. DrillLand is exactly the kind of unique, satisfying, and cutesy puzzle-action game I want right now, and its brand-new appearance on the portable Nintendo Switch is particularly welcome. (And since the series’ iOS $1 version from 2009 is dead, thanks to a lack of 64-bit update, we’ll have to settle on this week’s solid port.)