Mr. Driller is one of those franchises that is great but slips into the back of your mind after you play it. It's basically a puzzle Dig Dug, where you must drill down as far as you can through a randomly generated puzzle of blocks, all the while keeping an eye on your air consumption and making sure pieces of block don't fall and crush you. It's definitely a fun game and a fairly successful franchise, with several games spanning the PS1, Dreamcast, mobile, Wii, Xbox 360, and the list goes on. What's disappointing to me, however, is that the series opus never made it stateside. Most of the aforementioned releases were just the basic game with maybe one or two other features, where as today's game is a collection of the series at its finest. It's a crying shame that the only way to experience this hidden gem is to import a copy on a Japanese Gamecube, because Mr. Driller Drill land should stand proudly with the best puzzle games of the generation.
Due to the story being in Japanese, it's hard to follow as a non-Japanese speaker, but based on my research, Drill Land follows the Mr. Driller himself, Susumu, and his friends attending a new theme park called Drill Land. The park is secretly run by mad scientist Dr. Manhole, who is attempting to drill the world apart, and lured the Drill Team into the park with the intent of stopping them from thwarting his eventual plans. It's basic but gets the job done, allowing for the characters to exhibit their general personality traits and keeps things moving towards a goal. It also shows off the cute as a button art style with voice acting abound, but its just there to set atmosphere and tone. The real star of the show isn't Mr. Driller, Dr. Manhole, or even the Dig Dug guy who is now cannon to the franchise. No, the star of the show is the park itself and all of the wonderful things you can do in it.
There are several "attractions" in Drill Land, each one serving as a different take on the Mr. Driller formula. Think of it as several great game ideas packed into one, whereas most would take each individual idea and make it a spin off title. Some of these deserve that treatment, but let's just take a quick look at each of the main attractions:
Drill Land World Tour: The base Mr. Driller any series vet would recognize. Dig blocks, don't get crushed, don't turn purple and collapse due to a lack of oxygen. It has the added benefit as being the only game able to be played by any one of the games six characters. You drill through layer after layer, with every 100 Meter mile stone changing the country you are in, like the Mr. Driller version of "It's a Small World". That doesn't mean much for gameplay, but else can you do to it to make it feel better? This is the comfort zone stage, where you can relax and play one of Namco's most addicting arcade hits. Just with a touch of a bigger scale, and a genuinely fun to listen to chorus of Japanese children singing like it's the end of a magical adventure.
Star Driller: Same as above, but with items added to the mix. Some items increase your max oxygen, some clear a bunch of blocks, some summon meteors that can't be combined with other surrounding blocks. It's overall a nice thought, something along the lines of what a Mr. Driller 3 would add, but overall isn't too game changing. It's worth playing for the music, and yes, that goes for every part of this game, but they amped it for Star Driller. It wouldn't sound out of place in Hyrule Castle in Breath Of The Wild.
The Hole Of Druaga: Further cementing that Mr. Driller is just a very late addition to Namco's line of Classic Arcade games from the 80's, Hole Of Druaga is a very clear parody of the classic arcade RPG The Tower Of Druaga. It's in about 3/4 of the Namco Museum Collections that was released on every possible system except the Wii U, so I imagine if you're interested in Mr. Driller, you at least know what Tower Of Druaga is. Regardless, you might be disappointed to find that the similarities sort of begin and end with the name and logo. This is Mr. Driller The RPG, and that is not a bad thing in the slightest. In fact, it is my personal favorite of the bunch, and the mode I find myself most often going back to. The ultimate goal is to find a key and use it on the exit, which I guess is a call back to Druaga as well, but that's more of a basic element of RPGS at this point. You will probably first notice that you have a map and inventory screens. Yes, the items you pick up can be saved for later and you can navigate though multiple floors. It's a random set up each time, but rooms can be above and below others or next to one and other. For side rooms, you must get to it via a gate on the side you wish to go on, while you can dig straight down for below rooms. If you reach rock bottom, there will always be an item that lets you teleport to the top of a room of your choice that you have already been to. One of the most unique things is the oxygen meter turns into an HP counter. For every block you drill, it goes down by one, so conserving HP is a must. Add in some enemies and a boss guarding the key, and you got some solid side scrolling RPG action. Even with the language barrier, I could figure out what most items and enemies did, and that's a testament to how well this mode is designed, given how complex this could have ended up being. Also has great music. Just assume that for each game at this point.
Drindy Adventure: Obviously an Indiana Jones parody, but it works really well without that comparison. Your goal is to collect all of these gold statues throughout the map, avoiding traps along the way. When blocks attach to eachother, they no longer disappear when there are four or more in a structure, and there's no oxygen system what so ever. Your main source of death will be the traps surrounding the statues, as they are everywhere. Boulders, flame throwers, spikes, you name it, it's out to kill you. It's the most careful you'll have to be in any of the games, throwing the balance of risk vs. reward a bit. Not one that I returned to often, but one I think falls in line with the running theme of the entire package: take Mr. Driller's core and change the way it's played. The lack of a time limit of any kind allows the stages to be less frantic and more maze-like, which changes how I approach Drindy Adventure compared to any other mode. Something is ultimately lost when you remove a time limit, but that works to the games advantage. Which could be represented by Dig Dug guy losing the helmet and gaining an Indiana Jones style hat, but now I think I'm reading too deep into this.
Horror Night House: In this mode, you travel around a dimly lit maze being chased by ghosts. They will float between the blocks, and if one catches up to you, it'll drain some HP. So to combat this, you must pick up these holy water bottles that you can inject into blocks with the B button. These will light up several blocks in a bubble around where you injected it, and if a ghost is caught inside that light bubble, it will freeze. Drill the block when it's frozen and it will die, turning into a collectible gem. Collect so many gems to complete a floor, and complete all the floors to win. A bit more complex than some of the other modes on paper, but it really isn't Blocks don't crush and kill you, but drain a little HP. So in a move opposite to Drindy Adventure, Horror Night House is all about constantly moving. But it quickly becomes the easiest mode of the bunch as a result. Each game up until now has been challenging, but never punishing. Mr. Driller is very much a "one more time" sort of game, which makes sense considering its arcade roots. That mentality is maintained by restricting the player in various ways that don't get in the way of having fun, like the oxygen meter and maze like traversal. More variables to make more mistakes with. Take away or reduce the significance of those variables, and it becomes easier and less rewarding, as seen in this particular attraction. It's not bad or even unfun to play, but it's the least rewarding getting through this one than any other.
Outside these attractions are a variety of shops to buy things like cards and other stuff I'm not sure how to use. Again, I'm looking at this game from a foreigners perspective, and I have to admit, some of the menu navigation and in game systems don't make a lot of sense to me. But hooking up the game to Mr. Driller A and buying balloons isn't the most important part, it's the five main attractions and what they do. And what they do is take an already great game concept and just throw out whatever new ideas they can into it. I'm sure you can think of several game games that could benefit from this set up. Maybe a Sonic Mania Land or a Pac Man Theme Park. Regardless, this is probably the best game in the Mr. Driller series for creativity alone. It earns points for feeling bigger too, relishing in its super chibi bright art style and a far-more-grand-than-a-puzzle-game-should-get soundtrack. Seriously, Tales of Legendia's own Go Shiina knocked it out of the park with some of the greatest music in a video game. The music can stick out in my mind days and months after hearing them, and with dozens of other games with hundreds of awesome tracks entering my ears in that time frames, it amazes me that I still go to Mr. Driller Drill Land when I want to hear quality orchestral and big band music in a game. It's a criminally overlooked OST that deserves more recognition. Of course, it's easy to see why. This is a Japanese Gamecube exclusive, so I could say this is a criminally overlooked game in general. If you have the means to play Japanese gamecube titles, you could do far worse than this one. It's dressed in charm and soaks in color, all to better show off an engaging core experience that everyone, Mr. Driller fans especially, should at least try. If you don't like Mr. Driller, this game shouldn't really convince you to play it though. It's like a Mr. Drillers breakfast bar. If you like breakfast foods, then this is heaven, but if you're looking for lunch, it won't be here. And of course, joyless people don't like breakfast food anyway, so if you're capable of having fun, join me at the breakfast bar and dine in on one hell of a delicious buffet of Drilling delight.
FINAL VERDICT: A blast of fun.
ONE SENTENCE REASONING: This is Mr. Driller at his finest and most varied, being a magnum opus other games in the series wishes they could be.