Mr. Driller: The Boy, The Series, The Legend

America doesn't care about Mr. Driller.

Which isn't to suggest anyone in its home territory of Japan cares about the series, either. Dave once relayed to me a story a friend who lives in that faraway land of natto and vending machine hamburgers: Apparently said friend asked if his young son was interested in Mr. Driller Drill Spirits, for which he was rewarded with one of those "Dad, you don't get anything, do you?" looks and informed that Mr. Driller is for girls. Let's face it, regardless of where you live, no amount of muscles is going to overcome Susumu Hori's baby blue and pink outfit. The Japanese love Hello Kitty, but by god Mr. Diller just takes it too far.

Mr. Driller got its start as a third installment in the Dig-Dug? series, which makes perfect sense. Even before the Dig-Dug guy showed up as a playable character in Mr. Driller G, the connection was pretty obvious: They're both Namco games that involve burrowing into the earth. Except, of course, that aside from the occasional dislodged boulder, Dig-Dug had less to fear from gravity and spent much more of his time inflating tiny dragons. And for some reason the "earth" in Mr. Driller tends to be comprised of delicious-looking snack cakes, cheese and assorted colorful pastries. If you ever actually managed to drill to the bottom of the delicious morsels, you learn that the snackable debris emerging from beneath the ground is a byproduct of a race of tiny blue guys living at the core of the earth who seem oblivious to the fact that their hyperactive patisserie was threatening the very existence of life on earth. In other words, plot isn't the strong point of the series.

Mr. Driller

Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco

ARC: (U/J | 1998) | PS1: (U/J | 1999) | DC: (U/J | 1999)
GBC: (U/J | 2000) | WSC: (J | 1998)

Based on: A cuddly yet nightmarish world in which cookies threaten all life on earth. (Also Dig-Dug.)

Properly speaking, the Driller series got its start in the arcades. But, properly speaking, who goes to the arcades these days besides DDR addicts and Matt? It's been a good ten years since arcades were a worthy destination for anyone but willy-waving Street Fighter? freaks and dopey guys trying to impress teenyboppers with their Butterfly-dancin' skills. We miss you, golden era of the arcades. Please come back.

There isn't much to the original Driller. You drill through desserts, try not to asphyxiate and do increasingly stupid things to thwart gravity and acquire precious oxygen capsules. I wasn't terribly good at it back when it first came out, but an ex-girlfriend had a flatmate who was obsessed with the game and would play for hours on end. I'd watch in fascination, because who doesn't love watching someone else playing Mr. Driller? And even though he wasn't very good either, the music alone was worth sticking around for.

Whenever Mr. Driller acquires an air capsule, he sounds "Lucky!" in his squeaky Japanese way. However, it's a really crappy sample and more than one person has noted that it sounds like the little guy is screaming "Ecchi!" Which of course is Japanese for "perverted," and that lends the game a very different tone.

Mr. Driller 2

Developer: Namco | Publisher: Namco

ARC: (U/J | 2000) | GBA: (J 2001 | U 2005)

Based on: Taking a fruity, girl-oriented video game concept and making it even girlier.

The sequel to Mr. Driller also got its start in the arcades, but I didn't actually see it there until moving to San Francisco in 2003. The Game Boy Advance port, however, I played way back in the heady days of 2001, when the GBA was still a murky promise indigenous to Japan and American gamers weren't yet outraged by its crappy, unlit screen.

Driller 2 added a few new things to the Driller mix-o-rama. Like a second character, Susumu's (German?) rival Anna Hottenmeyer. Anna's interesting in that she has a considerably more masculine voice than the main character of the series, despite being ostensibly more female. Admittedly, it's sort of hard to tell from the artwork. Everyone looks pretty much androgynous when they're reduced to a giant head and huge rubbery limbs attached to a tiny ball of a body.

I don't know about the arcade game, but the GBA game tossed in a few special effects to show off the power of the handheld system, such as making the entire playfield spin 180 degrees at inopportune moments. It says a lot about how far handheld gaming has come that a game which was pretty "wow!" a few years ago is completely mundane at this point. And to prove it, Namco Hometek inexplicably released the game in the U.S. in 2005, long after it was in any way fresh or compelling. Well played, old beans.

Mr. Driller Great

Developer: Namco | Publisher: Namco

ARC: (U/J | 2001) | PS1: (J | 2001)

Based on: A sudden realization that Mr. Driller needed some actual variety to sustain an entire franchise.

Unlike the first two Drillers, I actually did see this in the arcades first, on my 2001 trip to Japan. It had competitive head-to-head gameplay and six selectable characters, and by happy coincidence it had just been released for PlayStation a few days prior to my arrival in Risingsunland. An odd quirk of Japanese game shops is that they tend to have used (but immaculately-kept) copies of every game conceivable within a day or two of release, so I snagged a copy.

Alas, I was only able to play it once or twice due to Circumstances, but what I saw was pretty much completely rad: In addition to the competitive play, the full cast of playable characters and the classy graphics that look beautiful on that portable PSOne 5" monitor, the home port also introduced the Drillstone mode. Namco always (well, almost always) does a great job of adding value to their arcade-to-home ports, and this is a fine example. Drillstone is different than standard Driller action in that your oxygen doesn't deplete with time; instead, for each block you destroy, you lose a point of air. This adds a different sort of strategy to the action: you find yourself trying to destroy large, combined blocks instead of individual ones and setting up as many combos as possible. The fewer moves you make, the longer your air lasts. You can also collect power-ups called Drillstones, which are basically items you can use at any time to do things like destroy all on-screen blocks of a given color or restore a certain amount of air. It's action-tastic. And apparently much too difficult for the mere mortals at Namco Hometek to translate, since they habitually ignore Driller games with Dristone mode. (Or in the case of Drill Spirits, excise it altogether.)

Mr. Driller Ace

Developer: Namco | Publisher: Namco

GBA: (J | 2002)

Based on: "Hey, what if Mr. Driller had his own virtual pet, like Tamagotchi? That would rock so hard!"

This is another Driller chapter that I've never really had much time to play. This salty taste, is it... tears?

The series' first home-only game, Ace was for GBA and had a story mode of some sort. I do not read Japanese, therefore it was completely lost on me. But! Apparently it involved bacteria of some sort -- not just any bacteria, Pacteria. Susumu had to put on a little knight outfit (still in pink and baby blue, of course, because god forbid he should try to affect anything like dignity) and go on a Drillstone-type adventure in which he collected little Pacteria companions.

Due to the brevity of my Ace experience, I didn't have time to figure out what the Pacteria did. But I do know you can hook this cart up to Drill Land for GameCube and upload Pacteria data. Personally, though, I'm thinking that of all the collectible poke-pets ever to appear in a video game, "bacteria" is a strong contender for "worst."

Mr. Driller Drill Land

Developer: Namco | Publisher: Namco

GCN: (J | 2002)

Based on: Pure, unadulterated awesomeness. Handle this game with care lest you succumb to a lethal dose of awesome-poisoning.

Ah, here we go: the crown jewel. Well, maybe not "crown." What is that pink thing Susumu wears on his head, anyway? Football helmet? Ultra diadem? Whatever. This game is the jewel on it.

Drill Land takes the basic Driller gameplay model and makes it <I>awesome</I>. There's still a standard drill mode ("World Tour"), but even that completely rules thanks to the fact that the accompanying music is the Mr. Driller theme song, which is a Gamera-like affair in which a chorus of children extols the virtue of Susumu Hori (as it turns out, he's everyone's best friend).

The framing concept for Drill Land is that all the mini-games are theme park attactions in a stupendous park created (apparently) to celebrate how much Susumu rules. Actually it's an evil plot by the nefarious Dr. Manhole to tap into some sort of incredible energy source at the earth's core, the rub being that it threatens to blow up the planet in the process. Or something. I'm sort of guessing at the details since it's all in Japanese. You might wonder why Dr. Manhole would unleash his evil plan right in the center of a theme park guaranteed to attract the one hero who could actually stop him. You might also be curious about why villains so often make bids for power that threaten to destroy the world in the process. But when has evil ever been about common sense? This guy's probably had a rough time of it; his name is Manhole, after all. The sheer innuendo alone must have made high school been hell for him, and the rest of his life was undoubtedly no better.

Beyond World Tour, the other minigames are even better; only Star Driller seems mundane, as it's basically a standard Driller game with a few little special collectible gimmick capsules that cause random effects (low gravity, meteor strike, black holes to clear away chunks of blocks, that sort of thing). The rest of the game is pure meaty brilliance thanks to the three other events, each starring a different Driller supporting cast member.

The first is Taizo's (aka Dig-Dug) Drindy Adventure. I'll spell the equation out to speed comprehension along: Drindy = Drill + Indy (Jones). So, yeah, basically this is the Dig-Dug guy wearing a fedora and descending into an ancient pyramid in search of treasure. And it actually somehow gets even better than that, since this is where the gameplay begins to deviate from the standard Driller fare. Like in Drillstone mode, there's no air meter or time limit -- in fact, even breaking blocks doesn't affect your air. And blocks don't automatically disappear, even when four of the same color connect. The only hazards are those contained in the environment, although that's plenty to keep you sweating once you reach the second difficulty level. As you dig, you dislodge boulders and unearth spike and fire traps, among other dangers, and the further you get the more ambitious the traps become.

Even better is the minigame featuring Ataru, Susumu's sullen brother with a rad space bunny for a pet. Called Horror Night House, it sends you into a spooky pit where vampire ghosts lurk within blocks. Break a block section while a vampire is inside and you'll set it free and cause it to attack you. (They can also attack if you stand in one spot for too long, so it's good to be restless.) To fight the undead you can pick up handy little vials of holy water, which when injected into a block stun the vampires in all neighboring block -- break the blocks while they're stunned and the vampires turn into, uh, "Dristals." Not to be mistaken for "Dristan."

The absolute best mode, however, is basically a retro-themed spin on Drillstone: The Hole of Druaga, based somewhat spuriously on Namco's not-quite-a-classic Tower of Druaga. You descend into a maze, conserving air and fighting Slimes, Knights and Wizards in search of a key, which is in turn protected by a Dragon. You have to kill the dragon to get the key, which is sort of a shame because he's cute enough to activate a person's "nurture" instincts. But it's him or you, and he has a tendency to rain blocks on your head, so murder it is. Once you've offed the dragon you go and fight some sort of boss guy who can only be hurt by using Drillstones that destroy blocks of whatever color his aura is. It's a pretty simple idea, but when matched with the dynamics of a Driller game makes for a challenging and sometimes brain-bending experience.

Drill Land is pretty easy to find; I checked on eBay and saw three or four copies up for grabs, all with Buy It Now values that put it at about $30. Which is a fine deal. So you should consider going and get one. Just be careful, because sometimes idiots put up copies of the original Dreamcast Mr. Driller and call it "Drill Land." And be sure your system can play Japanese games.

Mr. Driller Drill Spirits

Developer: Namco | Publisher: Namco

NDS: (U/J | 2004)

Based on: The development community's fumbling first attempts to come to grips with the Nintendo DS.

The most recent Driller game is also the most regressive. While it's a healthy step above the original, its content and depth are closer to Mr. Driller G than to Drill Land. As a result, it feels pretty lacking. The Drillstone mode is just a standard offshoot, which can only be played by Susumu, and the other cool alternate modes are replaced by something called Pressure Driller, which is basically a really crappy attempt to use the second DS screen: A giant robot chases Susumu into the depths, and you have to outrace it to the bottom. (You can stun the robot from time to time by firing missiles when its enormous sunflower petals are open. No, it really doesn't make a damn bit of sense.)

While Drill Spirits includes all the extras you'd expect -- all characters unlockable, and a shop where you can purchase goodies to make your drilling a little easier -- it feels a bit perfunctory. And the DS-specific elements like Pressure Driller and the ability to control your character with a stylus feel pretty much completely half-assed. Oh, and Namco Hometek didn't bother translating Drillstone Mode in the U.S., leaving the American edition about half as enjoyable as its foreign counterparts. Yes, counterparts. The U.K. edition is fully translated and fully featured, so if you can find an import shop or other mule who'll help you snag a European edition of the game you can enjoy the magic of Drillstone in your native language. Assuming your native language is English, of course.

What the hell was Namco Hometek thinking?: A Lamentation

The US release of Drill Spirits is, basically, a portable version of the original Dreamcast Mr. Driller with some added multiplayer and unlockable characters and a decent if shallow "Pressure Mode" added. It's fun in sort bursts, but ultimately nothing too substantial. Drillstone, on the other hand, brings Drill Spirits more in line with the phenomenal Drill Land for GameCube. It turns the usual speedy race against time into more of a thoughtful adventure; since air only vanishes when you smash a block, you have to stop and think about your actions. Is it better to chip away at the single blocks below you and avoid causing a potentially dangerous cascade of falling bricks at the expense of more air, or are you better off breaking a large block to let gravity clear out blocks for you while hoping you don't find yourself squashed?

To make things a little less daunting, you can occasionally find air capsules (though not many) and hidden Drillstones, large colored gems that help you in your quest. Yellow gives your character bonuses like speed or a defensive barrier, blue changes on-screen blocks to a certain color, red smashes all visible blocks of a given color, and green restores air. Overall, it's a welcome change of pace from the manic digging of the standard Mission and Pressure Modes, and it wouldn't really have been so difficult for Namco to translate -- besides the names of the gems and occasional onscreen warnings (many of which are already in English), there's nothing to localize. Really, it's a bit of a letdown. And inexplicable, too; I've heard Namco wants to make Driller a viable franchise over here, but you'd think they'd realize hacking the meatiest portion from the heart of its flagship relaunch title would be a bit on the counter-productive side.


Mr. Driller Characters

Susumu Hori

The eponymous Mr. Driller himself, although given his childish and/or feminine appearance and voice the title of "Mr." seems a bit generous. Believe it or not, he's the greatest driller in the world, which in his little universe makes him awesome. In the real world, it would make him a great candidate for intensive blue collar labor.

Poochi

Susumu's talking dog with a saccharine-cute voice. As a playable character, he's capable of leaping two block instead of one, which is great if you tend to be clumsy and fall into pits often.

Anna Hotenmeyer

Anna is Susumu's rival and apparently has a crush on the boy, which goes to show there's no accounting for taste. Apparently the genetic imperative to propagate and perpetuate the species trumps common sense.

Taizou Hori

Susumu's father, who was once the hero of the Dig-Dug games. He more recently put in an appearance as a character in Namco X Capcom, where he was totally buff. Obviously, Susumu takes after his mother's side of the family. Well, no, actually his mother is Kissy from Baraduke, and anyone who could survive that janky disaster of a game is no one to mess with. Maybe Susumu's adopted.

Ataru Hori

Racer-X to Susumu's Speed Racer; Protoman to his Mega Man; Haliburton to his Red Cross. Well, OK, that's going too far -- Ataru isn't evil, he just doesn't get along with the rest of the family. And given that his dad's a brash ignoramus and his brother apparently breathes helium, it's hard to blame him.

Holinger-Z

The Driller clan's totally sweet pet robot, who is mechanically cheerful and perfect for beginners thanks to his low air consumption rate and ability to shrug off a single crushing blow per turn (effectively doubling your lives).

Usagi

Ataru's cosmic rabbit, who basically is the greatest driller in the universe. Once you unlock him, playing Mr. Driller is like battling through chapter one of Final Fantasy Tactics? with a party full of T.G. Cids.