A hidden GameCube gem that deserves to be dug up.
The Mr. Driller series from Bandai Namco hasn’t always made it out of Japan, with only a smattering of the entries coming to the west over the past two decades. My experiences with the series have been mostly limited to Nintendo portables, whether it’s the Game Boy Advance release of Mr. Driller 2 thanks to the Wii U Virtual Console or the Nintendo DS title Mr. Driller Drill Spirits. One game always was referenced in hushed tones as the best entry in the series: Mr. Driller Drill Land, a 2002 GameCube game that remained exclusive to Japan until 2020. After 18 years, Drill Land has made it to America and all of the hype was warranted. This is an excellent and intense puzzle game filled with a ton of variety that, courtesy of the HD remake, shows absolutely no signs of age.
For the uninitiated, Mr. Driller is a spin-off of the arcade classic Dig Dug where you control a cartoony character through a descending tunnel filled with colored blocks that disappear when drilled at the press of a button. The goal is typically to reach the bottom without being squashed by a falling block, but building off of that simple concept is where Drill Land excels. The conceit here is that Drill Land is an amusement park that series hero Susumu Hori and friends are visiting. Five distinct attractions all iterate on the basic drilling gameplay in ways that reframe how you approach the overall puzzle. World Tour and Star Driller are more traditional modes, as you just try to make it to the bottom without dying. Star Driller adds some additional space mechanics, involving different power-ups and special blocks. Horror Night House positions you as a ghost hunter, collecting holy water that has to be injected into blocks with ghosts in them so you can collect their essence. Drindy Adventure is an Indiana Jones-inspired dungeon dive where you collect gold relics while avoiding rolling boulders and spike traps. The most interesting mode is The Hole of Druaga - based on the arcade game Tower of Druaga. This one is basically a Mr. Driller RPG of sorts, as you fight enemies, gather items, and wander through a dungeon with branching paths. The goal is to find a key and then go fight a boss, primarily using the items that turn blocks into different colors and then blast blocks of specific colors. While all five feature similar controls and overall mechanics, each one brings something unique to the table. I regularly found myself bouncing between the modes, enjoying all of them equally. If one level gave me trouble, I’d switch to another one. It helps stave off potential frustration by having variety.
All five modes feature three main levels of escalating length and difficulty as well as a final special level that is usually an endless mode. At face value, that doesn’t seem like a lot of content, but the overall challenge can make the total of 15 levels a tough task to work your way through. Two difficulty options are available to choose from: Classic, which is based on the original game, and Casual, which is a little bit gentler. Additionally, helpful items can be bought with the points you earn from playing to give you a boost during levels giving you trouble, whether it’s adding more lives or making your driller move faster. These boosts add a degree of accessibility that makes the game approachable for players who might find the standard difficulty too much of a challenge.
In addition to the single-player mode, a pair of competitive multiplayer modes for two to four players is also available. One is focused on players racing to the bottom of a level while the other is more of a battle mode, with all players sharing the same screen. As far as I can tell, they’re basically untouched from the GameCube original, which is fine, but they don’t quite have the longevity of more modern couch multiplayer games. It’s nice that it was retained in the remake, but I find it to be much more of a bonus mode than a centerpiece.
Thankfully, the centerpiece of Drill Land is spectacular. Gameplay is often pulse-pounding, as you have to stay nimble to avoid falling blocks and the frequent specter of a swift death. While parts of Mr. Driller could certainly be compared to the modern roguelike trend, what makes this stand out is that it’s fundamentally a more arcade-like experience. This feels more akin to a frantic block puzzle like Puzzle League or Tetris. I’m one of the half-dozen people who like Wario’s Woods a lot, and to me, Mr. Driller is also evocative of that unsung Nintendo puzzler. But honestly a comparison to other puzzle games doesn’t quite do Drill Land justice because of its sheer variety and depth. You could build a full game around any of the five modes and they would all be good.
Adding to Drill Land’s endearing qualities is the presentation, which transfers wonderfully to HD in the remake. A variety of cartoon cutscenes round out the world and the loose story. Packed in the in-game library is a dizzying amount of lore for the series, which ties into Namco’s arcade history. Visually, each mode has its own style, with Druaga looking more like its inspiration and Horror Night House having a spooky overlay. The biggest highlight of the presentation is the soundtrack from composer Go Shiina, however. Most of the music is energetic and fun, loosely touching seemingly every musical style. Some tracks are big and orchestral while others feature a heavy electronic influence. The variety, much like the five main modes, is delightful. The music also changes as you progress through the levels, usually starting off gentle and peaceful at the beginning and ramping up in intensity as you reach the end. Drill Land’s soundtrack might be the best video game soundtrack I’ve never heard before. This might retroactively compete with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker for the title of Best GameCube Soundtrack.
While the challenge is steep, the remake of Drill Land adds more flexibility in the difficulty. The game is still not easy, but is well worth experiencing for how brilliantly an overall simple design is iterated on between the five modes. Also, replaying levels means you get to hear the soundtrack more often, which is a treat because the soundtrack might be the best part of an already fantastic game. Ultimately, it’s a shame it took 18 years before Mr. Driller Drill Land made it to America. We’ve missed out on an absolute marvel of an arcade puzzle game that is jam-packed with personality and gameplay variety. I highly recommend you don’t let the opportunity to play this game pass you by. Who knows when the next time is we’ll see Mr. Driller and his friends come back.