Drill Dozer is the absolute definition of an underappreciated gem. In fact, if you were to look up the term “underappreciated gem” in the dictionary, it’s quite likely that you’d find... nothing. Because dictionaries don’t work that way. Quit being silly.
Still, the fact remains that Drill Dozer, released in February 2006 for the Game Boy Advance, was a critical darling that sold too few copies to become the breakout hit it ought to have been. At a cursory glance, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why that is: The game was a first-party Nintendo release, developed by the fine folks over at Game Freak, Inc. (better known for spawning a juggernaut of a franchise known as Pokémon), and specifically from the mind of one Ken Sugimori (the fellow who designed all those aforementioned ’mons). One might think that such cachet would help the game drill straight through to the top of the charts. One would be sadly mistaken.
The reason for Drill Dozer’s failure to bore its way into the mainstream has little to do with the game’s quality, as most any review of the game will vehemently attest. Instead, the game fell victim to a phenomenon that many great games developed for aging systems are cursed with: it just came out too damn late. By the time Drill Dozer landed, the Nintendo DS had been available for more than a year. Sure, the Gameboy Micro launched the previous holiday season, and that hulking grey DS Phat was hiding a GBA slot in its nethers, but the gaming public was already standing knee-deep in a stable full of janky, fledgling DS games. Thus, Drill Dozer went the way of the Shantae: lauded by the few, ignored by the many.
The game’s fairly to pierce the mainstream game market is well-documented, but just what is it that makes Drill Dozer so special? At its core, the game is a platformer. You play as Jill, the pink haired, cute-as-a-button yet tough-as-nails protagonist, as she travels in her hulking, open-top bipedal warmachine. Did I mention the thing’s got a drill? Think Final Fantasy VI’s Magitek armor as manufactured be DeWalt and you’ll be somewhere in the neighborhood of understanding this thing’s badassery.
Each stage is host to a variety of blocks of different sizes, each with different properties. Some simply break, while others regenerate after a certain period of time, while still other just won’t break at all. Littered through the world is a cadre of mundane items: statues, chairs, desks, bandits, and robots, to name a few. Obstacles vary, but all are circumvented with the same elegant solution: apply drill, repeat as needed.
At the beginning of each level, your drill has but one gear. Pressing L or R on the system spins the thing briefly, and that’s that. As you continue through the level, you’ll find two more gears, each allowing you to “shift” after your initial drilling by pressing the shoulder button at the appropriate moment. This is made even more satisfying by the game’s physical gimmick: each Drill Dozer cartridge has its own tiny rumble mechanism built right in to the cartridge. Shift gears, and the GBA/DS will rumble more fiercely in your hand. Easily the most satisfying part of any stage is the moment when you find that third gear, and the fanfare music slips seamlessly into the game’s energy-charged “you are now destruction incarnate” theme. Sure, the fact that these gears “wear out” at the end of each level reeks of Metroid logic, but it’s worth it for the sheer rush of the completion. Sometimes we must acquiesce to the inane in the name of fun.
What may end up being the biggest letdown of all is that Drill Dozer is almost certainly not a candidate for franchising. Sure, Game Freak has some serious clout, considering their little Pocket Monsters game essentially prints money, but that’s just the problem; aside from a Virtual Console re-release of their 1994 Mega Drive game Pulseman, we haven’t seen a game from these guys since Dozer that doesn’t involve catching ‘em all. Not to mention that Nintendo’s handheld systems no longer have the capacity to rumble like they once did. Sadly, it seems that Drill Dozer may be relegated to the status of a lost gem from a bygone era, enjoyed only by a very lucky few.
Based on: The vanishing classic style of sprite, and the unique physicality of cartridge-based gaming.