Namco's Mr. Driller is certainly one of the greatest arcade puzzle franchises ever, and has even surpassed its arcade heritage on home consoles in the the past decade of its existence. Whilst Drill Land remains the franchise pinnacle, subsequent releases on WiiWare and DS have still been fun entries in the series, providing plenty of drilling action for fans who want to continue Susumu Hori's adventures on the current generation of consoles and handhelds from Nintendo.
It should come as no surprise to find that Namco is favouring DSiWare with a release that's only available in Japan, no shock given past exclusivity of titles like Mr. Driller Drill Land on Gamecube and Mr. Driller A on GBA. Released a year ago to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of Susumu Hori's arcade appearance, Hori Hori Action Mr. Driller comes in at the premium end of the DSiWare scale with a price tag of 800 Points. Whilst this might seem a bit much for a puzzle game you actually get quite a lot of bang for your buck; in fact there's more play modes included here than you'll find in the similarly-priced WiiWare release (though the greater variety in the level size and difficulty still makes Mr. Driller W worthwhile).
Unlike previous console outings there's nothing to unlock here (beyond possibly Ataru's black rabbit Usagi, who is traditionally an unlockable character ever since Mr. Driller G,) so you have access to all levels of play in all modes immediately with the standard cast of characters. Instead of the level-based leaderboards present in Mr. Driller W, each character has a separate top score and medal rank listed for each level of the Mission and Time Attack modes in the character/level select screen. A third game mode is the Dristone mode (also from Drill Spirits), which features five levels and can only be played with Susumu Hori. The DSi's screens are put to good use presenting a look akin to a vertical arcade monitor, with the action split between top and bottom and a sidebar for stats like your score, remaining air and depth level.
Mission mode features ten levels of play divided into 17 different stages of varying depths; including two different infinite play modes, one of which has a superficial resemblance to the Star Driller game from Drill Land. Players who have played Mr. Driller games before will find the controls immediately familiar, with the D-Pad controlling your chosen character and A button for breaking blocks. As with the Drill Spirits game on the DS you can optionally use the stylus to guide your driller, but as the difficulty increases the precision of the D-Pad will be necessary if you're to join the Drilling Elite (prospective members remember to use the secret passphrase when applying!) Each level has various medal rankings to work towards by getting the highest score possible. If you want gold medals you'll need to reach goal depths in the shortest time possible and without losing any lives, which definitely adds replay value.
Time Attack Mode provides a stiff challenge for experienced drillers by requiring players to complete a single level using only one life within a target time limit. You can pick up items to reduce your elapsed time, which will become more essential as you progress since higher levels have shorter and shorter target times. The more difficult levels also feature special blocks that cause the screen to rotate, and new styles of X block that cannot be broken which merge to form pits that will trap you with no means of escape. There are ten levels which can also be played in "mirror mode" for a total of 20 in all. You only clear a level and get your best time recorded if you beat the target - which gets quite challenging as early as the third level!
Dristone mode is similar to the Hole of Druaga game from Drill Land and Pacteria Mode from Mr. Driller A on the GameBoy Advance, except that there's no branching areas or enemies and you have a constantly dwindling air supply as in the regular Mission Mode. Part of what made Hole of Druaga interesting was the fact that you only lost air when you used your sword to break blocks, making the strategic use of Dristones to change block colour and destroy them an important element of the game. Whilst there are fewer air capsules present, the fact that pressing X to access your Dristone inventory does make this a less compelling mode than previous games which featured these power-ups.
Your performance in all the games earns you points - similar to "miles" from Mr. Driller A on the GBA. As with that game these can be used to buy power-ups in different game modes like barriers or extra lives, to give you a little edge. It's a nice little feature that can help out players that are having trouble with a really tough level.
The audio features a welcome rearrangement of the excellent soundtrack from Mr. Driller Drill Land; importers familiar with that game will be happy to hear versions of the tracks from the World, Horror Night House and Star Driller games in the background as they play in addition to the voice samples from previous games on the Japanese Nintendo consoles. Sadly the opening animation and Mr. Driller theme song from Drill Spirits and previous generation Driller games is absent, no doubt due to the size limit on DSiWare releases.
This is effectively the same as the Japanese, European and Australasian Drill Spirits game minus Multiplayer and Pressure Driller modes (Dristone Mode and single-cart multiplayer were missing from the North American release), so if you have a Japanese DSi and own a copy of Drill Spirits from those territories you're really not missing anything here. If you don't have Drill Spirits and do own a Japanese DSi then this is a pretty compelling proposition, since it means not having to carry the game card with you at the cost of missing out on a couple of modes and the opening animation. Given the world-wide release of Drill Spirits we'd be surprised to see this condensed version released outside of Japan, but anything seems possible in the current console generation!