Drill Dozer

Developer: Game Freak
U.S. Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. Release: February 6, 2006
Genre: Drilling Action
Format: 8-Megabyte Cartridge

Based on: Three gears in two dimensions; a gearhead's fantasy, as filtered through the candy-colored lens of Japan.

Games | Game Boy Advance | Drill Dozer

Article by Nicola Nomali | July 25, 2008

Like all electronic media created since computers became less than house-sized, video games have been competing to stay at the cutting edge of technology for roughly as long as they've been around. Home systems were going at it least as early as 1978, when the Magnavox Odyssey gave way to the Odyssey˛. (That's Odyssey multiplied by Odyssey, for Odyssey times as many excitements!) Atari prided itself on its faithful recreations of arcade hits, regardless of however accurate they actually weren't; the Genesis bore the words "High Definition Graphics" and "16-BIT" in raised lettering right on the face of the console, incorporating into its very being a boast that the Intellivision only dared to allow George Plympton to brag about; and Neo Geo games advertised their ROM size as if "the 100 Mega(byte) Shock" could really justify the purchase of a two-hundred-dollar cartridge. And while the standardization of a select number of platforms might have slowed things down compared to PCs, developers with something to prove were more than willing to load their circuit boards down with unique microchips that could coax just a bit more flash out of an aging machine.

Much of the driving force behind this zeal was the pursuit of gaming in three dimensions, a kind of holy grail that was continually faked and teased until finally becoming universally viable with the release of the PlayStation. Once they got it, of course, developers quickly proved they had no idea how to handle their new toy, flooding the market with ill-conceived experiments with only the odd Mega Man Legends? or Metal Gear Solid to provide a rare glimmer of what the format could really offer. Things gradually improved as they became acclimated to the technology, but many 3D games today still struggle with such fundamental components as "aiming" and "seeing what's in front of you." Or even "moving."

But it was fine for your character to handle like a tank or the camera to swing about wildly as you tried to make a precise jump, because polygons, man! Consumer support has always played an implicit role in the arms race of technology, and even at its worst, we were willing to overlook usability for what could pass as realism. Bigger was better, 3 was better than 2, and there was no reason to ever look back. Only now is it beginning to resonate with people that this might not be the most reliable maxim, particularly in light of the needlessly costly and complex games demanded by today's most powerful systems -- and the overwhelming success of the Wii, a bona-fide Fun Machine powered by tech barely improved over last generation's.

We ought to be thankful that Ken Kutaragi was blowing hot air when he said the PlayStation 3 would take us to 4D gaming, because with 3D on top for this long, we've had enough time to look back and see that not only does each new game not need to be the most mind-blowing spectacle we've ever seen, but there was never anything wrong with the first two Ds, either. Many bridges to the old paradigm were burnt during that initial lusty rush from squares to solids, and most properties that couldn't or wouldn't make the leap were abandoned for years, if not forever. Thankfully, with titles like Mega Man 9 and Wario Land: Shake It!, they seem to be on the rebound as much as lighter 3D games are on the rise; but for many years, their only recourse was to make portable platforms their ghetto. There, they offered entertainment noticed only by what was, in a pre-DS world, a much smaller, much less influential audience. But when an excellent game did find its way to an interested party, it was cherished and praised, and through humble word of mouth, the art form was sustained for that much longer. This was ultimately 2D's saving grace -- all things looking better in hindsight, you might call it death by exposure turned cozy hibernation. And one of the titles that best facilitated it was Drill Dozer for the Game Boy Advance.

Developed by Game Freak, known everywhere as "the guys who make Pokémon," Drill Dozer demonstrates beyond a doubt that the second dimension still had much left to give when it was hustled to the door in the mid-'90s. Never trying to emulate or play catch-up with 3D, Drill Dozer's success is a direct result of its willingness to embrace its own simplicity. Unlike, say, Metroid Fusion, which has always felts like it could have stood to make use of a few more buttons than the GBA actually has, Drill Dozer nearly has buttons to spare. All the action is carried out with the D-Pad, for movement; the A Button, for jumping; and the shoulder buttons, for drilling. These three simple actions are the player's sole means throughout the game, and although the challenges become more intense over time, never once does it feel like something's missing. Instead, it becomes clear that drilling -- and drilling alone -- is the answer to everything.

The singular premise makes sense, since the game cartridge includes an internal Rumble Pak that vibrates whenever the drill is in use -- which, again, is always. It's probably the fastest possible way to drain a GBA's battery, but no better tactic to stand out from the crowd on a system that's ailing, especially when the technical fortitude of the game itself occupies some awkward interval between the intentional low-fi quality of EarthBound and the pint-sized wizardry of Gunstar Super Heroes?.

The game opens with our heroes, a lovable gang of thieves called the Red Dozers, looking to retrieve their prized heirloom, the Red Diamond, from their super-evil rival gang, the Skullkers. Jill (as in drill), elementary school daughter of gang boss Doug (as in dig), assumes authority once her father gets laid out in an ambush, climbing into the titular Drill Dozer to take her prepubescent revenge. No, it's not Shakespeare, but what the story does best is facilitate the gameplay: The first stage has Jill infiltrating Skullker headquarters from beneath the earth, then demolishing their barracks to clear a path upstairs. The game isn't about to throw anything advanced your way yet, but just pushing a huge drill through the enemies' bunk beds, lockers, laundry -- their toilets -- is immediately empowering. Shortly thereafter, the plot moves to an art museum, where a trio of enormous dials must be spun in the correct combinations to crack open the vault. It's a unique situation, central to the story, yet influential of the action as well. The game is full of scenes like this.

Above all else, though, each stage is made to be a playground for the Drill Dozer, and the plot-mandated set pieces are spaced out by a jungle of destructible objects that must be navigated with increasingly nuanced use of the drill. For example, if Jill snags a block in midair, she'll remain attached, and if you continue to hold forward as the block is destroyed, she'll move on through the debris. This sets up scenarios with multiple blocks suspended just so far from one another that she can move from one to the next, eventually reaching a perch inaccessible by jumping.

In fact, like everything else, Jill gets most of her vertical movement done by drilling. For another example, holding the R Button will spin the drill clockwise, while L spins it counterclockwise. Drilling in one direction, then immediately switching to the other will cause Jill to suddenly scoot backwards, and if performed while drilling an object off the ground, she'll go flying a short distance, amounting to a makeshift wall-jump.

This also goes to show that most hurdles that appear before Jill are actually the very devices she'll need to traverse the stage, rather than mere barriers to be demolished. Half the fun is studying your surroundings and deducing how the level designer envisioned you getting from one end to the next. The solution is never so obtuse as to leave you stuck, and accidentally destroying one of your stepping stones will only hurt your efficiency, never prevent you from completing a stage. Rather than captivating the player in fear of playing the "wrong" way, Drill Dozer welcomes you to play however you like, where the tangible reward for perfect play is the inherent fun of pulling it off. Mechanisms absolutely needed to reach the end simply can't be destroyed, but using them still takes a modicum of finesse.

Jill begins every stage with one gear to operate the Dozer, but her more complex maneuvers require the use of second and third gears, which are found along the way. Each gear comes with an incremental boost in speed and power, which adds to the effectiveness of her entire repertoire. The aforementioned deflection jump, for instance, will throw her much higher and farther if she's in third gear when reversing direction. Additional gears can also sustain the spin of the drill for longer, which comes in handy for set-ups where the drill has to continue running between separate mechanisms. Second gear more than doubles the duration of first gear, and third gear, usually found late in the stage, can keep things spinning indefinitely. At its most visceral, this means opportunities to casually steamroll through solid walls, crowds of enemies, and whatever else, as everything turns to dust and Junk Chips (that is, currency) at your feet. It's more than appropriate that, once you acquire third gear, a swelling, triumphant theme song plays for the remainder of the stage.

The more gears Jill carries, the deeper the miniature puzzles before her become, and the more the game exhibits its boundless diversity. There are blocks that rebuild themselves over time, bolts that must be screwed or unscrewed to build bridges or open paths, blocks that can only be destroyed from one side, moving "Socket Lifts" that must be leapt between with the deflection jump and precise timing, bombs that must be avoided while allowing them to clear a path through indestructible matter, and many more unique devices. There are even stages taking place underwater and in the air, where a propellor attaches to the drill and spinning it becomes your sole method of propulsion. A new trick is introduced in just about every stage, and old ones are combined in unexpected permutations, never repeating quite the same way. As the game winds down, the levels gradually take on the image of side-scrolling military-grade obstacle course. You know, with drills -- as in, physical drilling drills, not the ones barked out by a hard-assed drill sergeant.

As long as it's spinning, the drill can deflect enemy projectiles, and once it gets into a foe firmly, that's usually the end of it. Since enemies pose such a nil threat, it feels like little more than a formality when a mob of them occasionally files onscreen to heckle Jill. (The most basic fodder even stop just short of Jill before taking a swing at her, ensuring they'll never hit you unless you blunder into them yourself.) While you're free to purchase Energy Tanks to raise the Drill Dozer's maximum energy, it isn't particularly hard to get through the whole game on what you're first given. And even if it gets drained completely, you're allowed to try again from the beginning of the last room entered for a paltry fifty Junk Chips.

With death being of such little consequence and most of the action being carried out through situational gadgetry, some would label Drill Dozer a puzzle platform game. But even in light of its heritage, its formula is closer to Super Metroid than Toki Tori. While the former also has an environment riddled with elements designed to interface with the player's abilities, from grappling blocks to Morphing Ball passages, it ultimately serves as a showcase for the core gameplay, which is still based in free-form action. Jill is bit more limited than Samus in how she can use her skills, especially given the overall linear structure of her game, but the flow from room to room, with an incidental secret hiding in every corner, makes the two surprisingly comparable. Just be sure to replace any expectations of silent wonderment and isolation with receivers for lighthearted cartoon mischief.

If nothing else, Drill Dozer earns its action cred through its boss battles. Each major fight pits Jill against a metal behemoth that must be killed by employing strategies not unlike those in normal gameplay, but with the required reflexes multiplied several notches. The proper tactics aren't always obvious, but the bosses are more than eager to beat Jill to a pulp while you figure it out, forcing you to think and act on the fly. One battle sees you catching missiles from a police mecha by spinning the drill in the direction opposite their rotation; a blue exterior indicates they're spinning left, while red means right. But, being missiles, they speed from the boss's cannon such that you've only a split-second to reason, "Red...so...left!!" On top of this, the boss can only be damaged by sending a missile back as its fuse is about to blow, so while matching colors to polarities, you're also playing Hot Potato.

Another memorable encounter pits Jill against a robot the size of a tower, which she must dismantle from the inside out by navigating a series of interlocking tunnels leading to its vital reactors. Some tunnels can only be traversed by constantly spinning counterclockwise, while others will refuse admittance unless you're twirling clockwise; and in being spit from one tunnel to the next, you once again have precious little time to adjust before losing all your progress. In this case, Jill has a time limit, and letting it run out will see her ejected from the robot, forcing her to avoid a series of hard-to-dodge attacks before she can get another chance at ripping out its wires. And because that just wouldn't be enough, each tunnel also contains a series of gates which will only let Jill pass if she enters them while shifted into a specific gear; and if she's not, she gets rocketed backwards, wasting more valuable seconds. With all these pressures converging, things can get a bit hectic.

Yet it's the successful implementation of so many concurrent factors that ultimately makes Drill Dozer so rewarding, even when it's not its typical friendly self. Players seeking more of that delicious punishment can hit up the Red Dozers' shopkeeper for treasure maps to secret stages, which push the skills practiced in adjacent areas to their ultimate realization. Each stage also offers a number of hidden treasures to excavate -- some of them poised conspicuously on just-out-of-reach ledges, others hidden deep in alternate paths that can only be reached by turning in Junk Chips for special, super-tough drill bits. These treasures eventually give way to an assortment of mundane bonuses (things like different text box borders, if you're into that), but again, the process of jumping through all the hoops necessary to unlock everything is satisfying in itself.

Still, the optional content isn't quite enough to satisfy a persisting addiction to the core gameplay, and compounded with this is the inevitable downside to the meticulous level design: With such deliberately planned layouts, right down to the placement of the gears, no run can be too different from one before it. It's these niggling issues that relegate Drill Dozer to a game you might pull out once a year rather than one you play repeatedly, compulsively, but that's still much more than anyone expected from such a dinky little product on a dinky little system.

By 2006, the DS was beginning to come into its own with titles like Kirby: Canvas Curse? and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow?, but the handheld boom wouldn't benefit the poor GBA. Nintendo was perfectly eager to sweep it aside and elevate the DS that much higher, particularly in the West -- such that it's amazing Drill Dozer was released outside Japan at all, unlike the lamented Mother 3?, which arrived only a couple months later. Evidently, someone liked it, since it was released with a full-color manual and mini-comic fleshing out the game's quaint backstory; not even most DS games get that kind of treatment. Perhaps the inclusion of the Rumble Pak was deemed novel enough to get it noticed, but add-ons like that are exactly the kind of extravagance Western gamers have learned not to expect to see localized. Whatever the cause, Drill Dozer is an abnormally fortunate game to exist and have available, and it remains a testament of the importance of ingenuity over raw specs. Indeed, without the spark of creativity, all the microchips in the world amount to nothing more than Junk.

The Joy of Drilling