Way back in the ancient days when the Game Boy Advance was Nintendo’s main handheld, Game Freak (yes, the Pokémon people) released a creative little platformer called Drill Dozer. Placing you in the role of a slightly crazed girl who tears through stages and foes alike with a powerful drill, it quickly established itself as an all-time classic with its unique take on platforming, though it never became popular enough to justify a sequel. Now, nearly 20 years later, an indie developer named Ahr Ech decided to make Pepper Grinder, a sort of spiritual sequel. Carrying on the spirit of platformers of yesteryear while bringing in a ton of great new ideas of its own, Pepper Grinder stands as an excellent new entry in the genre and one that we’d very much suggest you consider picking up.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

The story takes place in a world of islands where piracy runs rampant. You play as a quiet adventurer named Pepper who amasses her pile of booty not by taking it from others, but by discovering it in various ancient caches. During a storm, Pepper's ship is wrecked on the beach overrun by these goofy narwhal-like creatures called Narlings, who raid her ship while she’s passed out and steal all her treasure. When Pepper comes to, she soon discovers a mysterious drill device called Grinder, and sets out on a vengeful quest to destroy the Narlings and reclaim her riches.

Pepper Grinder is a classic 2D platformer through and through, taking you on a linear journey through levels stretched across various themed worlds. Though unlike most platformers, jumping isn’t emphasized nearly as much here—most of the focus is placed on the chaotic might of Grinder and its ability to bore through almost anything. There’s a frantic glee to Pepper Grinder’s gameplay that we’ve rarely experienced in other platformers, and much of which has to do with its reliance on razor-sharp reflexes.

A bit like the classic Sonic games, level designs are often defined by sections of blazing-fast speed interspersed among slower-paced sections where you’re meant to catch your breath. Yet when it’s time to go, Pepper Grinder isn’t the kind of game that gives you very much time to calculate proper timing. As soon as you go underground, the gas pedal is floored and you're blitzing forward whether you want to or not, only leaving just enough time to react to obstacles you’re hurtling towards.

It’s a testament to Pepper Grinder’s excellent controls that the overall experience is so enjoyable, as much of your time is spent hanging on for dear life. For one thing, the controls are very simple to come to grips with—you simply hold down the right trigger to spin the drill up, and you can juice the engine a bit by tapping ‘B’ for a big sudden speed burst that’s great for nailing those jumps between pits. Meanwhile, the physics are as responsive and tight as you’d expect in a high-intensity platformer, and while you never feel like you’re totally in control of the wild drill, there’s a sense that you have just enough to always point it where you want it to go.

Top-notch level design is a highlight of Pepper Grinder, and this goes a long way toward making it such a unique and enjoyable experience. Every level introduces some new stage gimmick, such as an early stage based around Donkey Kong Country-style barrel blasts or another where you can turn your drill into a minigun with infinite ammo, and this wealth of ideas gives Pepper Grinder wonderful variety. Yet no matter what the new flavor is, there’s always a careful balance between exploration and action, lending each stage a great pace that doesn’t feel too fast or slow.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

To add more replay value, there are plenty of collectibles and additional challenges to overcome if you think your skills are sharp enough. Every stage has five hidden skull coins that you can use to buy materials in a shop like cosmetic outfit changes for Pepper or keys that unlock hidden levels, while you can spend all the treasure you grab from stages on a gacha that’ll give you stickers for use in a photo mode or temporary health boosts that’ll up your max HP. Additionally, beating each stage once will unlock a time attack mode for it that has some tough requirements for getting a gold medal, demanding mastery of both the stage layout and Grinder's movement mechanics.

Visually, Pepper Grinder takes a lot after the high-bit art style seen in games such as The Mageseeker, One Step From Eden, or Grapple Dog, and it looks in all the best ways like a lost GBA game. Bright colors just pop in each stage, especially when there’s an explosion of treasure from another Narling you wasted with Grinder, but it’s the little details and animations that really take this visual style from good to great. Things like a dynamic camera zoom when you deliver the final blow to a boss, or the way in which the menu UI twitches and vibrates, add that extra bit of character and manic energy which helps Pepper Grinder stand out from its peers.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Pepper Grinder also features a standout soundtrack that perfectly matches the bristling energy and inventiveness of the gameplay with an eclectic music lineup that throws a lot of cool ideas your way. It features elements of drum and bass, house, pop, jazz, and funk among others, all of which combine into something that feels surprisingly cohesive considering the range. You simply never know what kind of music might play in the next stage, yet it always feels like a great fit for the action onscreen.

The only real (rather minor) complaint we have about Pepper Grinder is that there simply isn’t enough of it. It should only take about four to six hours to beat, and maybe a few more if you collect everything and nail the gold times in the time attack. Of course, it’s always better for a game to go out on a high note than overstay its welcome, but with the wealth of ideas and excellent gameplay here, we couldn’t help but wish that there was another world or two to flesh it out.

We encountered some minor technical issues in the review build, too, including a glitch during the final boss fight that made the boss invincible. However, they didn't amount to much more than minor annoyances, and we've been assured that a patch to smooth out these issues is already in the works for release shortly after launch.


Pepper Grinder is a wonderfully inventive and fun platformer that no fan of the genre will want to miss out on. It may have a runtime that feels a little too short, but this is ultimately a deeply enjoyable, challenging, and highly replayable game with lots of personality. If you think you’d be interested, we’d suggest you pick up Pepper Grinder at the next opportunity (and there's a even downloadable demo if you're on the fence).