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Platform: Nintendo DS
Genre: Puzzle
Developer/Publisher: Namco
Release Date: November 30, 2004
ESRB Rating: E

Originally announced as a launch title for Nintendo's new handheld, Namco (for reasons I've yet to ascertain) wound up holding back the release of Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits for a week. (The subtitle, incidentally, seems to have no other purpose than to be a couple words that can be abbreviated as "DS". Why they didn't just call it "Mr. Driller DS", I've no idea.) Perhaps they thought the competition of Super Mario 64 DS and Madden NFL 2005 would be too much for them to make any serious profit. At any rate...

Let me start off by saying that this is the first Mr. Driller game I've ever played, so you may want to keep that in mind when reading this. Mr. Driller is apparently a very popular series in Japan, and it has a small but dedicated fanbase here in the States. For others who may be new to the series, allow me to briefly explain what it's all about: The main character, Susumu Hori, is the son of Taizo Hori, the star of the classic early 80s game Dig Dug. Mr. Driller itself is sort of a cross between that game and Columns, as I'll explain in a moment. If there's any sort of storyline to the game beyond that, it's lost on me. There is talk of "blocks mysteriously appearing" under certain nations, and in one game mode you see an old, evil-looking guy laughing at you if you lose, but none of this is explained in the game or its manual.

There are three singleplayer game modes available: "Mission Driller", "Pressure Driller", and "Time Attack Driller". There is also a multiplayer race mode, and a "store" where you can buy extras (like extra lives, faster movement, and such. (Unfortunately, using these items is "just for fun"; the game will not count it as a win if you complete the level, nor will it show up in your records.)

"Mission Driller" is essentially the default game. In each level, you're thrown into a pit filled with colored blocks. You must drill down through these to reach a predetermined depth. As you might imagine, this is not as simple as it sounds. First of all, there's no oxygen in the pit, so you have to periodically pick up "air capsules" littered throughout the level to keep from suffocating. Moreover, these blocks have interesting properties: Drilling through one causes all adjacent blocks (as well as blocks adjacent to those, and so on) of the same color to disappear as well, destabilizing the cavern and threatening to bring the whole place down on your head, literally. As blocks fall, they will become "stuck" to other blocks of the same color, which will sometimes save your life; however, if a group of four or more blocks of the same color join together, they will disappear as well. Just to keep things more interesting, there are also white blocks (which don't stick to anything, and have none of the other properties of the colored blocks), brown blocks (which take five drills to break, and will cause you to lose 20% of your air) and crystal blocks (which will eventually disappear by themselves, destablizing the pit at inopportune moments). Being crushed by a block or running out of air will cause you to lose a life; lose all three lives and the level ends. Successfully completing Mission Driller levels will unlock extra characters, each with their own characteristics. These include Puchi (Susumu's dog), Holinger-Z (a robot), and Taizo Hori (the original Dig Dug himself).

"Pressure Driller" (which I personally find to be the most fun of the three modes) plays similarly to Mission Driller, with one minor detail: There's a humongous "Destroyer Drill" coming down to kill you! There is also no depth limit to Pressure Driller, since the object is to destroy the Destroyer before it gets you. As you dig your way down, you'll find "power pills" which will allow you to throw fireballs at the advancing robot, damaging it. Besides digging its way down to you, the Destroyer Drill will spew crystal, white, and brown blocks from chutes in order to impede your progress; it is these chutes you must attack in order to destroy it. Though you will still die if a block falls on you, you essentially have infinite lives in this regard; however, respawning takes several seconds, in which the Destroyer Drill can easily catch up to you. (Of course, if a block is in danger of falling on you and you can't get out of the way, you can just use a fireball - this destroys all blocks directly above you.) If you run out of air or are hit by the Destroyer Drill, you will lose the level, and the aformentioned anonymous evil-looking guy will laugh at you. As you go on to later levels, the Destroyer Drill will become faster and able to take more damage.

The final mode, "Time Attack Driller", simply has you race through a level as quickly as possible. There are a few special items and blocks in this mode: steel blocks which cannot be drilled through. "Flip" blocks which will turn the level over 90 degrees, time icons which will reduce the amount of time on your clock (this is a good thing), and a block which will create paths of Crystal Blocks in order to aid you.

I have not yet had a chance to try the multiplayer race mode, so I can't say much about it. Part of the reason is that I simply don't know anyone in the area who owns a DS, but a more pertinent problem is that, for reasons completely indiscernible to me, Namco removed single-cart multiplayer from the North American version of Mr. Driller DS. Not "neglected to add", removed. The Japanese version (which was released only two days later) has single-cart multiplayer intact. I can only assume Namco's executives were in a "screw-the-gaijin" mood.

Which brings me to some of the other cons of the game. First of all, the voice acting is horrible. Some of it literally sounds like they took some little kids off the street and recorded them reading off cue cards on the first take. Thankfully, it's not really necessary to pay attention to the dialogue. Secondly, there are a few little quirks in the game that I find somewhat annoying. For instance, in Pressure Driller, after you throw a fireball your character's drill will be pointed up. If you're in a hurry, you might throw it, then immediately start hitting the Drill button, and wonder why the hell you aren't going anywhere. (In the meantime, the Destroyer Drill will have caught up to you.) Then, too, there is the weird fact that the China level of Mission Driller makes you lose air at a much faster rate than you should; at first I thought this was simply a consequence of it being a harder level, but in the next level (India), your oxygen consumption is normal again. Thirdly, stylus controls are essentially useless. Fourth, this game will give you a very serious case of "Gamer's Thumb", and not for a good reason: As much as you may finding yourself dodging blocks and racing for air, you will just as often find yourself incessantly tapping the Drill button; you can often keep yourself completely out of harm by simply staying on one edge of the screen and continually drilling down. This not only ruins the challenge of the game, but can make you quite bored at times (not to mention making your thumb sore).

However, my biggest issue with the game is that it very much feels like a GBA game that was quickly ported over to the DS. The only part of the game that really makes use of the second screen to any degree is Pressure Driller, and even this could be done on the GBA, albeit it would have to be slightly modified. No part of the game takes advantage of the DS' greater processing and graphical power, or any of its special features. Indeed, the gameplay takes place entirely on the bottom screen, which uses the same ARM7 processor the GBA has. I realize this may seem like a petty complaint, but it seems to me that if a game can just as easily be made for the GBA as for the DS, it might as well go on the GBA, especially since it still has a much larger userbase.

Overall, Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits is not a bad game, and with the current dearth of DS titles (which will continue until around March), it's one of the better ones available. Still, I somewhat regret not waiting until it dropped to $15 or $20. Moreover, if the multiplayer is important to you, you may want to consider importing the game from Japan; there's little text (so even if you don't read Japanese, you shouldn't get too confused), and you'll be able to play with people who don't own the game. While I am a bit disappointed (both with the game in general and the multiplayer issue), I'll forgive Namco if they start working on Katamari Damacy DS. Like, right now. Get on it, Namco.

Servo5678 says The USA version is also missing an entire game mode. Some kind of RPG thing, I think.

amib says The missing mode in Mr. Driller DS is Drillstone, a more thoughtful, puzzle-based mode. I dunno where to find a good description, though.

Update, 03/24/05: Looks like Namco's intent on appeasing me: Katamari Damacy DS is now in development.

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