If Namco had a corporate mascot that wasn't Pac-Man it would almost certainly be Mr. Driller. The retro arcade game from the end of the last century has spawned a franchise seeing seven games released with a version of some form on nearly every console made in the past decade. Its popularity is not only down to the simple, yet engaging gamplay based around drilling through colourful blocks to to a pre-set goal depth, but the game's world and the appealing characters which populate it. For a run-down on Mr. Driller history, check out the first impressions of the latest entry in the series Mr. Driller W; this review concerns the ne plus ultra of Mr. Driller games: Mr. Driller Drill Land (subtitled "Dream and Adventure in Underground!").
After formatting your memory card and creating a save file you're treated to an animated introduction that sets up the story of Drill Land. Watching this introduction is quite a treat: the intro and numerous cut scenes are of sufficient quality you'd think you were watching excerpts from a children's television show. A mysterious figure is unveiling a wonderful theme park dedicated to Team Driller with many attractions on offer. Before being opened to the general public the drilling heroes will be given a chance to try out the rides themselves: all are drilling games with themes inspired by theme park rides at Disneyland and Hollywood films. Following the intro there's a theme song and video that's much like the introduction to an animated television show as our characters and the villain, Dr. Manhole (and his bumbling cohorts) are introduced. Right away it's apparent that the development team of Project Driller were given a lot of leeway and the indulgence pays off with one of the very best games to grace the Gamecube.
The Drill Land logo is Mr. Driller's head in profile with Magic Kingdom-style castle minarets topped with drill bits coming out of the top of it. The Disneyland-esque atmosphere continues throughout every aspect of the game. The opening menu features the park in one corner and Susumu Hori (Mr. Driller himself!) in another holding an entry ticket. Selections for single-player games, multi-player games and options are in the middle between them. The options consist of whether or not to enable rumble and also indicate that players can use the GBA-Gamecube link cable to use their Gameboy Advance as a controller in place of the Gamecube controller if desired.
If the opening menu sounds a bit bare bones that's because the main game hub is Drill Land itself. Choose the Single Player option and you'll be asked if you've been to the park before. Say "No" and you'll get to play through from the beginning with an opening cinematic showing Team Driller as they walk around the park. Once this animated sequence is finished you're presented with a zoomed-out 3/4 view of the theme park and a small graphic of Team Driller. You move the entire group of characters from place to place using left and right on the control stick or d-pad, with the park containing several destinations surrounding a central fountain.
As with previous Mr. Driller games the basic game consists of drilling down through blocks of various colours to reach the goal located at a set depth. Pressing the A button drills blocks above, below, left or right depending on which direction you push the control stick or d-pad. Blocks of like colours will stick together as they fall and groups of four or more will disappear, destabilising the blocks above them. Every 100m clears the blocks above; reaching the preset depth or losing all three of your lives ends the game.
The included five variants of this basic game are Drill Land World Tour, Star Driller, Drindy Adventure, Hole of Druaga and Horror Night House. Selecting an attraction results in the presentation of a colourful graphic with the game description and rules accompanied by a voiceover from one of the friendly Drill Land staff. Your first time through you'll get cinematic bookends before and after completing a level in any attraction. There are four difficulty levels in all: 500m, 1000m, 2000m and Endless. Completing a level in one of games causes a stamp to appear on your "ride card." You must get stamps for all rides at the same level and complete a boss battle against Dr. Manhole's giant drilling machine in the centre of the park to unlock the next level. You'll only have access to previously completed levels and the currently unlocked one upon subsequent plays; with the highest score and play time for each of them. Sadly no leaderboards are on offer and no initials are entered for high scores.
Drill Land World Tour is much like the Disneyland "Small World" ride in basic theme. Every 100m the country name and matching dancing characters in the score sidebar change providing a nice accent. The 1st level looks like the traditional Mr. Driller game, but the 1000m and 2000m levels get much wider and the blocks scale smaller to fit them all in the screen. This is the only one of the games where you can choose which character to play with; otherwise it's the same as the original Mr. Driller game in terms of having a constantly dwindling air supply and hazards in the form of X blocks, boulders and disappearing crystal blocks.
Star Driller has a lot of 1950s hollywood space imagery around it: Drill Land's version of "Mission to Mars?" Susumu Hori - the titular Mr. Driller - puts on a space suit to drill down through blocks textured like "moon rocks." This game is largely similar to World Tour, except that the screen width remains the same through all the difficulty levels. Other than X blocks with a metal rather than a wood finish the other major difference is the presence of ? blocks which have different effects on the gameplay when touched. Some of the effects are positive, like reducing gravity to make blocks fall slower or increasing Mr. Driller's speed; others like the UFO will put you back at the start of the level. It's a nice addition that spices up the regular game.
Drindy Adventure has an Indiana Jones theme (Drindy = Drill Indy - get it?). Susumu's father, Taizou Hori puts a fedora on top of his Dig Dug helmet and leaps into adventure! Unlike the previous two games there are no oxygen tanks and you don't run out of air. Instead you have the usual three lives, but additional hazards besides falling blocks in the form of spike traps, flame jets and boulders. Your goal is to collect a pre-set number of gold statues as well as get to the bottom. The problem is that the aforementioned boulders will start to roll over you if you take the statues next to them. It's an interesting and challenging take on the standard Mr. Driller game that removes the time aspect and replaces it with sometimes frenetic drilling to escape being crushed by big rolling rocks. Another major difference is that whilst like-coloured blocks will still stick together if they touch they will only disappear if drilled.
Hole of Druaga is a nod to the classic Namco proto-RPG coin-op Tower of Druaga and has a medieval theme. Anna Hottenmeyer, Mr. Driller's German rival/love interest, puts on a suit of armour to rescue a princess! You use a sword instead of a drill to destroy blocks and like Drindy Adventure there is no constantly dwindling air supply. Instead, each time Anna's sword strikes a block or enemy she loses 1 percent of her health; more if she's hit by them first. In addition to heath vials you will find different "dristones" which are colourful jewels that can affect different aspects of the game such as destroying or changing blocks. The object of the game is to rescue the princess located in one of a number of interconnected rooms filled with enemies like knights, sorcerers and vicious blobs. Aside from falling blocks and other enemies you'll need to fight a dragon in order to get the key to unlock the final chamber and win the game. Hole of Druaga is possibly the most involving of the games due to the quest and inventory management aspects and features the biggest departure from the normal depth-based goal.
Horror Night House has a horror theme: Ataru Hori (Mr. Driller's emo brother - dressed in a black cloak, naturally) is trying to decend to a certain "floor" in a haunted house. Intervening floors are cleared by collecting a set number of gems, rather than drilling to a fixed depth. In order to get gems you need to use your drill to "inject" Holy Water into blocks containing ghosts. These ghosts move from block to block; drilling blocks which have ghosts in them without first injecting the holy water will cause all ghosts on the screen to turn into bats and fly at you, depleting your heath. If you have injected the blocks with holy water before breaking them the ghosts turn into gems you can collect. As with Drindy Adventure and Hole of Druaga there is no air supply constantly running out, but a set number of health points that you can replenish with hearts found sporadically as you progress through the floors. It's possibly the easiest of the games, though having to navigate the mine field of ghost-infested blocks trying to find rarer and rarer holy water vials to fill your drill does prove challenging as the game progresses.
After you've finished with the park attractions, it's time to take a tour of Drill Town with its shops and exhibits. Every time you play one of the games you earn currency that can be used in the two Drill Town shops. You can visit the card shop to buy virtual trading card packs in an effort to collect a complete set of Drill Land trading cards or you can get some nice virtual collectables like statues and postcards from the gift shop. All of your swag and your ride card can be viewed any time you're not playing a game by pressing the Start button. You can see how many of each card you've purchased (as with real collector's cards you often get duplicates) as well as view the front and back of the card. You can view items purchased from the shop and rotate and zoom the camera view on them. Naturally the chrome finished Mr. Driller is the most expensive item on offer -- you'll surely want to show it off to your friends when you get home!
Also in Drill Town are a music hall where you can listen to any of the excellent 26 music tracks that appear in the game (also featured on the extremely rare Project Driller CD) and a cinema where you can view all the animated segments including the intro and theme song video. In addition there's a library featuring text screens for each of the Drill Land attractions as well as the previous four games in the Mr. Driller series. The last stop in Drill Town is for owners of the Gameboy Advance counterpart to this game: Mr. Driller A. If you have that game and a GBA-GCN link cable you can use Drill Miles earned in Mr. Driller A to purchase special items in Drill Land like extra lives in Drindy Adventure or dristones in Hole of Druaga. Every time you start Drill Land afterwards you'll be asked if you want to use any purchased game items, just in case you want to conserve them.
No theme park is complete without an electric light parade and Drill Land is no exception. The final sight to see in Drill Land is the Dreamin' Parade with a host of Drill Land characters marching in a night-time neon procession. Moving the control stick or d-pad will cause their marching speed to change; pressing the A button will cause characters to wave or do tricks. Be sure to visit on your way out and don't forget to get your hand stamped before exiting to the main menu for free re-entry!
As if all that wasn't enough there are a couple of multi-player options at Drill Camp accessible from the main menu. 2-4 players can compete in a split screen race to the bottom of a 500m level complete with power-ups that speed up their own driller (chosen from the full Drill Team roster - minus Ataru's rabbit Usagi) or interfere with the progress of others. The other multi-player game is Battle Mode, in which players are located in a single block-filled screen, but instead of trying to get the bottom they're trying to find a hidden gold coin (proximity is indicated by pad rumble, if enabled). You can stun opponents by drilling them or causing blocks to fall on them. Neither are very deep games, but they're fun extras.
The number of Mr. Driller variants included in Mr. Driller Drill Land is quite impressive and it's a shame that this game wasn't localised elsewhere as it's a terrific game which would definitely have a large audience outside of Japan. Sadly for the importer the game is very problematic due to anti-import measures undertaken by Namco in this and at least one other Gamecube game, Donkey Konga. Most methods of running import games simply bypass system region checking to get the game to boot, but Mr. Driller Drill Land appears to check the system region prior to Gamecube memory card access. Whilst the game will initially create a save file, it will never update it or load from it unless it's detected a Japanese region code setting. As a consequence the only recommended method of playing Mr. Driller Drill Land is on a Japanese Gamecube or Wii system - this is one game that certainly justifies getting either!
Mr. Driller Drill Land is an iconic puzzle game from a veteran arcade and console game maker that simply should not be missed. The consistent level of quality and detail in the presentation shows a great deal of care and attention went into developing this game, elevating it into a timeless classic. Namco should be commended for giving the developers the freedom to make the game they wanted to make, but it's a pity it wasn't released outside of Japan so gamers everywhere could appreciate it.