Platform: Nintendo DS
Rating: E (Everyone)
Release Date: 11/30/2004
Everybody loves Mr. Driller. Well, those of us freaks who actually know who he is, anyways. Namco’s lovable digging machine makes a rare stateside appearance in a unique title for the Nintendo DS, Mr. Driller Drill Spirits. Previous US Driller titles showed up on the Dreamcast, Playstation, and Game Boy Color, but we lost out on the last few Driller games: Mr. Driller Drill Land on the Gamecube, and Mr. Driller 2 and Mr. Driller Ace on the GBA (though Driller 2 is finally coming to the States in 2005…four years after its Japanese launch!). A US release is a good thing, right? Let’s get down to business!
The story has never been a strong point in the Mr. Driller series. They’re puzzle games, so story isn’t (and shouldn’t) be a top priority. When was the last time you thrilled to the subtleties of the political machinations of various blocks in Tetris? Anyways…the whole Driller saga focuses on Mr. Driller himself, a young man named Susumu Hori. The most famous Driller in the land, Susumu travels the world with his friends to drill for treasure, fame, and glory.
While in some cases a bit below GBA quality, the graphics in Drill Spirits are quite good. The fluidity of animation is great, especially on the Destroyer Drill (seen in the first screenshot below; I’ll explain more about what that is later in the review).
The colors are bright and vibrant, even more so on the DS’ amazing screens. Character portraits look great, and the series’ unique art style is carried over perfectly. Even the tiny sprites of Susumu and his cohorts look fantastic, and are rife with detail and expression.
The tunes in Drill Spirits are great…many are even remixes of the music from Drill Land and other earlier titles! Everything’s mixed well, and spiced up with voice samples for various drilling actions, item acquisition, and so forth. (I should mention that the sound effect you hear when you’re running out of air is just…disturbing.) But, with the good comes the bad. After many stages, there are “cutscenes,” complete with full voice acting. This is literally the most horrendous voice acting I’ve ever heard. Take the crappiest English-dubbed anime you can think of, multiply it by a factor of ten, and you’ll get some idea of what the voice acting is like in Drill Spirits. Thankfully, you can skip the cutscenes…otherwise you’d want to stick a drill in your own ear.
The basic premise of any Mr. Driller game is simple: keep drilling downwards through colored blocks until you reach the bottom. Seems easy enough…but trust me, it’s harder than you’d expect. Same-colored blocks will stick together, so drilling just one of them can eliminate an entire clump. Caution is advised, as this will often cause blocks higher up to come crashing down on your head! And if that wasn’t annoying enough…your air supply is constantly draining, so be sure to grab air capsules to prevent asphyxiation. There’s also blocks that take multiple drill attacks to break. This can lead to some incredibly frantic action, and Drill Spirits is no exception.
Moving your character around can be done by either using the D-pad or the stylus. While it’s a novel use of the DS’ touch screen, the stylus control honestly isn’t that good. You drag your character in the direction you want to move, and tap blocks to drill them. The problem is that Mr. Driller games are very fast-paced, and unless you’re the Flash, your reflexes simply won’t be fast enough and you’ll get squished. Stick with the D-pad for best results.
Drill Spirits has four gameplay modes: Mission, Pressure, Time Attack, and Race. We’ll begin with Mission mode, which is your “regular” game. This is definitely the place to start if you’re new to Driller games, too. Here, you drill down to a set depth (500m, 800m, 1000m, etc.), avoiding the aforementioned falling blocks and suffocation due to running out of air. Each level takes place in a different country, and some levels will let you unlock additional characters to use (you only get to use Susumu to start):
- Puchi – Susumu’s dog.
- Anna Hottenmeyer – A German rival of Susumu.
- Taizo Hori – Susumu’s father.
- Ataru Hori – Susumu’s estranged older brother.
- Holinger-Z – Anna’s robot.
Each character has varying strengths and weaknesses, and once you unlock them, they can be used in any other mode.
Pressure mode is reason enough to buy this game. You do all your normal drilling stuff, but you’re being chased by a giant Destroyer Drill from the top screen. This is a big robot spider thingy…and the only time you can hurt it is when it sticks a flower out of its ass. I’m not kidding. The manual calls it a “block chute,” but us normal folk call it a “poop chute.” Sometimes they appear on the left and right of the Drill, but come on…there’s still a flower coming out of a giant drill’s ass. As you grab powerup capsules, you can unleash fireballs; the more capsules you grab, the stronger the fireball. Use the fireballs to torch the flower, and that’ll sting the Destroyer Drill but good. Fail in this endeavor, and the Destroyer Drill will grind you into chunky salsa. All the while, the Drill’s spitting out all manner of blocks to screw with you. As if there wasn’t enough tension in a Mr. Driller game to begin with, this mode adds even more, which makes the gameplay far more interesting and challenging.
Time Attack is just like Mission mode, except that you’re also being timed while drilling to your goal. Your obvious objective is to get the best time possible, and there’s time capsules scattered among the blocks that can subtract seconds from your overall time to improve your rating.
Race is your expected multiplayer mode, which is loads of fun. In this mode, there’s item blocks scattered through the depths that you can use to really screw over your opponents, and that’s always a good thing. There’s one monstrous glaring flaw in Race mode, though: each player needs their own copy of the game. This is unacceptable, as plenty of other DS titles are pushing the single-cart multiplayer function. And since Mr. Driller Drill Spirits has no 3D graphics or other system-taxing features, there’s really no excuse for single-cart multiplayer to not be an option. Ready for the final slap? The Japanese version of the game does have single-cart multiplayer, according to numerous reports flooding the net. Not only that, the Japanese cart also has an additional game mode…Dristone mode. Here, you’d grab various Dristones, each of which has a different effect on the field you’re on. Bummer.
Drill Spirits is much like an arcade game of old; in other words, it’s got nearly infinite replayability. You’ll want to keep practicing to beat your high scores, and since only a few stages are available from the get-go, you’ll need to keep playing anyway to unlock the more challenging ones. Plus, even if you lose, you’ll still earn points to buy items from the Drillmaster. These items come in very handy in both Mission Mode and Pressure Mode; one gives you five lives rather than three, another speeds up your movement and drilling, and so on. There’s a good amount of stuff to unlock, if you’ve got the patience and skill.
Maybe it’s just me, but the difficulty in this game seemed to ramp up a bit faster than in other Driller titles. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a strong challenge is just what games need these days. Newbies may find it frustrating, but time and practice will only improve your game. Drill Spirits isn’t ridiculously hard, and the various modes’ stages don’t increase the difficulty exponentially. One stage may have you drilling to 500m, and the next would be 800m. It’s not like we’re making a jump from 500m to 10,000m after all!
As is the case with many sequels/series games, I have no choice but to give Drill Spirits a relatively low Originality rating. A lot of what’s in the game is stuff longtimes fans will have seen before, with no changes. The Pressure mode saves Drill Spirits from seeming like a port of past titles, and the funky item blocks in Race mode are a welcome addition as well.
If puzzle games are your thing, then Drill Spirits will keep you occupied for hours on end. As long as you’re willing to put in the time and energy necessary to improve your drilling prowess, the game will provide nearly endless entertainment. The only downside is that there’s only a few modes, and some gamers may tire of them quickly.
Drill Spirits won’t appeal to everyone. This isn’t due to poor design or anything like that; it’s just that only a small subset of gamers like puzzle titles, and of their number, a smaller subset have even heard of the Mr. Driller games. Given the low production run of Drill Spirits, it’s going to be a tough sell with casuals, especially if the game itself is hard to come by.
Mr. Driller is one of those series that could really endear itself to everyone, if they’d give it a chance. Not only is it a deceivingly complex puzzle game, but it has more opportunities for sexual innuendo than a bad teen movie. Hey, casuals love sexual content in their games, right? Come on, characters posing with giant drills? The perverted comments practically write themselves. Rarely can such an innocent game provide endless hours of comedy. In other news…you know Taizo, Susumu’s father? He’s actually a gaming legend himself. Old-school gamers know him by his original nickname…DIG-DUG! That’s right, kids…Mr. Driller is Dig-Dug’s son. Seems that the genes for digging prowess (and funky nicknames) were passed on perfectly, wouldn’t you say?