Mr. Driller loves traveling across platforms...you think he wouldn't visit the DS?
Mr. Driller has appeared on the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Wonder Swan Color, as well as the Dreamcast, PlayStation, and GameCube. Even so, I've managed to miss the well-received puzzler until Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits. It seems I chose a poor starting point, though, as I found terribly little to do in spite of the basic game's clever design.
The game's premise is fairly simple. Armed with a drill, you must drill down a long shaft of dirt to reach the goal or earn a high score. The dirt you drill comes in different colors. The smallest unit of dirt is the same size as your Driller character, but it usually consists of larger and more oddly-shaped clumps which disappear entirely when drilled at any position. Of course, digging your tunnel has repercussions: the dirt above falls down as its foundation is drilled apart. If two clumps of similar color touch they merge, potentially stopping the dirt's descent. If combined clumps create a new clump larger than three units, the new clump will disappear immediately. Large clumps are similarly destroyed after they fall.
Frequently that dirt will fall on you.
Mr. Driller is not for the weak of heart: there is rarely time to rest and evaluate the situation. The game has a very steep learning curve, and if new players can't quickly get a feel for how the blocks fall enough, they are likely to walk away in disgust. Players who manage to avoid the collapsing grave will run into another threat: air. Players must collect capsules of air, often surrounded by tough rock which, if drilled, will cost twenty units of air (almost the amount gained from an air capsule). Creating a path to the precious air usually requires strategic drilling, which tends to distract the player from the toppling ground above.
Simply put, trying to evade crushing pain while hunting for air is very taxing, and the slightest oversight will result in doom. Initially equipped with only three lives (without items), inexperienced players can easily become discouraged. Characters with different attributes, such as an ability to withstand one flattening, provide some relief...if newbies can complete the missions to unlock them before throwing in the towel. Similarly helpful power-ups from the item shop (such as a speed increase and extra lives) are purchased using mileage points earned while playing the game, though using any such item disqualifies the player from the placing a high score. Realistically, these crutches make the game slightly more accessible to beginners, but they don't enhance the game's appeal in the long run: those who can quickly multitask will find Mr. Driller engrossing, and those who can't are plumb out of luck.
New players might find Pressure Driller mode less daunting. In this mode a giant drill chases the player, and the player must destroy it by collecting energy capsules (similar to the air capsules) and firing shots upward where the drill is currently vulnerable. Dirt placement is less sinister in this mode, and as long as the drill doesn't catch up, the player can die indefinitely. Being somewhat clumsy at the game myself, I found this mode to be more enjoyable than the difficult Time Attack or Mission modes. It also makes notable use of both screens: the top screen displays the drill and which portion is vulnerable, while the bottom focuses on the player. If the behemoth ever shows up on the bottom screen, you know you're in trouble!
While untalented players will eventually give up on the single player modes, they should have been able to find comfort competing against other drilling dunces. Unfortunately for North American gamers, Namco did not include the single-card play found in the Japanese edition. This is a real shame, as the GameCube import's multiplayer was critically acclaimed, and this version's multiplayer is said to be good as well. I was unable to play Mr. Driller DS competitively for this review, and I expect I never will. North American gamers also miss out on a mode replacing the time constraint with a limited number of moves.
If you like skin-of-your-teeth puzzle games, Mr. Driller is an excellent choice. However, this version's stinted multiplayer, minimal single player modes, and high difficulty will leave the game lacking in the eyes of all but the most dedicated puzzle-heads. Anyone curious about Namco's puzzler should import the multiplayer-friendly (and region-free) version from Japan or hunt down a copy of its GameCube cousin, Drill Land.