There was a time when Mr. Driller was widely considered one of the best puzzle series around. After the first game hit arcades in late 1999, it spawned a bunch of sequels throughout the following decade, with 11 different versions launching in 10 years. And then... nothing. We haven’t had a new one since 2009. Until now, that is, with Mr. Driller: DrillLand on the Switch.
To be fair, calling this one ‘new’ isn’t entirely accurate, even though that’s certainly the case round our neck of the woods. DrillLand originally launched on the GameCube in Japan back in 2002 but never made it to the west, meaning this HD remaster marks the first time it’s been localised into English and made available for purchase outside of its native country. It’s a good job, too, because it’s one of the best games in the series.
For those not familiar with the general concept of Mr. Driller, the central aim – before taking into account the variations introduced in this version – is that you have to continually drill downwards by removing coloured blocks. The main thing making this a problem is gravity: as you remove blocks you’ll also cause others to fall, meaning you not only have to keep moving down but also be wary of falling debris dropping from above. As well as this, you also have a finite amount of air that can only be topped up by collecting capsules; these are sometimes tricky to get and require some elaborate drilling (which in turn usually creates even more of an avalanche above you).
The story here is that young Susumu Hori (the titular Mr. Driller) and his pals have decided to attend the opening ceremony for DrillLand, the world’s first underground theme park. Built half a kilometre underground, it’s home to a variety of drilling-themed attractions. It’s fairly niche as far as fairground themes go, but it looks like it’s managed to attract a decent number of visitors regardless – much to the delight of the park’s mysterious creator, Flüid. And if you don’t think he’s going to end up being a bad guy, then you haven’t played many video games.
This slightly silly plot is in place for two reasons. Firstly, it allows for some brilliant cut-scenes where all the Mr. Driller characters have a chat about the various rides; these should have you chuckling fairly frequently. More importantly, though, the theme park setting gives the game an excuse to mess around with the standard Mr. Driller formula in a bunch of different ways, presenting each variation as a different ‘ride’. Players have to take on each of these rides and clear them in order to progress to the next part of the story, at which point they’ll take on progressively longer and harder versions of each ride.
The first of these is called World Drill Tour and it’s just your bog-standard Mr. Driller ruleset, here for those who just want to experience Mr. Driller at its purest. You’re given a set depth to reach – 500 metres in the first level, 1000 metres in the second, and so on – and that’s about it. It’s normal Mr. Driller, which in itself is lovely. Things start to get tweaked slightly with the next ride, Star Driller, which is similar to the standard mode but takes place in space and adds a power-up that triggers a random effect. Some of these can help you – refilling your air, blowing up every block on the screen, and so on – but others can mess things up for you, like creating a black hole that will send you back to the top of the screen. It’s a fun variation that doesn’t get so crazy that it stops feeling like Mr. Driller.
Drindy Adventure is the third game type and it starts to kick things up a notch. It’s inspired by the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark and has you collecting gold idols as you make your way downwards. You need to collect a set number before you reach the bottom otherwise you’ll fail, and to make things even trickier, there are boulders dotted around the stage which can roll sideways and crush you if you aren’t careful. Whereas Star Driller feels a lot like standard Mr. Driller with power-ups, Drindy Adventure is the first mode here that actually affects your strategy and makes you approach the game a little differently because you’ll have to go out of your way to collect the idols and dodge the boulders.
Horror Night House mixes things up even more; in this one, the aim isn’t even to reach the bottom. Instead, each stage has a number of ghosts roaming around, hopping from block to block. You have to collect holy water bottles and use them to ‘bless’ the block a ghost is hiding in; this will let you safely drill the block, kill the ghost and cause it to release a ‘drystal’. Once you collect a set number of drystals you’ll clear the stage. It goes without saying, but by this point your normal Mr. Driller tactics are getting less and less useful.
Finally, there’s the most elaborate of them all, The Hole of Druaga. Based on the classic Namco game The Tower of Druaga, this basically turns the Mr. Driller formula into a procedurally-generated dungeon crawler where you have to explore a series of interconnected caves in search of a key that will open up the dungeon door to a final fight against the evil Druaga. Practically every main Mr. Driller rule is changed by this point; air is depleted every time you make a move (instead of time-based), there are now enemies to fight, there’s a world map and you can now collect items that are added to an inventory and used whenever you need them.
The important thing to note about these five distinct game modes is that despite most of them deviating noticeably from the standard Mr. Driller formula, they’re all hugely entertaining in their own way. Players will have their own favourite modes, but there isn’t an obvious weak spot here (which is just as well, because you have to complete them all on a certain difficulty level to unlock the next difficulty level across the board). For those who are completely new to the series as a whole and need to be eased into the process a bit, there’s a new ‘Casual’ difficulty setting that makes the game a little less ruthless than it was at the turn of the millennium (though of course, that’s still available as Classic difficulty).
Given that Mr. Driller DrillLand wasn’t even trying to be a graphical powerhouse back when it launched on the GameCube and focused more on being fun than fancy, it’s aged tremendously well. The HD upgrade appears to have simply been a case of redrawing the assets in a higher resolution, so both the cutscenes and the game sections look pin-sharp at 1080p in docked mode and 720p in handheld. The localisation is solid too; all the Japanese dialogue has been retained but it now has English subtitles for the first time.
When we reviewed the GameCube version more than a decade ago and scored it a 9, we ended by saying: “It's a pity it wasn't released outside of Japan so gamers everywhere could appreciate it." Infamously, the GameCube version of DrillLand had extra copy protection built-in which meant that even if you used a special boot disc to play it on a western GameCube, it would check the region again when it came to using the memory card, meaning you could never save or load your game. As such, the only realistic way to properly enjoy it on actual hardware in the past was to buy a Japanese GameCube, and that was a stretch too far for many gamers.
The fact that the west is finally getting the game in the first place is a lovely thing to see. The fact that we’re getting an HD version of it with online leaderboards is even better. Ultimately, though, the fact that it’s still such a hugely entertaining game, still one of the most flawless examples of the ‘one more go’ formula, arguably the best in the series and (while unintended at the time) such a perfect fit for handheld gaming is the best thing of all.
Mr. Driller is one of those elite few puzzle games that, like Tetris, remain immensely playable no matter what year it is. The GameCube edition was one of the finest examples of this and, a full 18 years later, it hasn't aged a single day. Given that you can easily enjoy it in 10-minute bursts or epic three-hour sessions, there are fewer games better suited to the Switch. A must-have for puzzle fans.