Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits
Release Date: November 30, 2004
Buy 'MR. DRILLER: Drill Spirits': Nintendo DS
Tetris set an early precedence for puzzle games, one that has proven to be exceedingly difficult for most developers to overcome. Nearly twenty years after the fact, almost every real-time puzzle videogame that sees release is either loosely or, the more likely case, directly derived from Tetris creator Alexy Pajintov’s meticulously tuned work. As much as I dislike games with easily traceable influences, modern puzzle games are a rare exception for me. Frankly, Tetris is a hard act to follow. I rarely use this term to describe anyone, but Pajintov was a genius.
The late seventies through the early eighties were a great time for game design, as the technology was just powerful enough for passable functionality, especially in terms of control. Gone were the days of the limiting early analog technology with the limited useability inherent to that type of electronics. Movement made its way to a level of exactness that lent itself to a newfound focus on great game design, since the impressiveness of seeing a game in motion was no longer enough to attract people to a given cabinet. Sure, the usual stinkers were still present, but many of the games release during this period were extremely creative and unique. Almost every game featured a unique style of play, something that is missing from most games today.
Gaming was reaching new heights of gameplay, much of it so tightly crafted that the results are still untouchable today; Pac-man, anyone? But most of these development scenes were in the United States, Japan, and parts of Europe. This makes it all the more impressive that a Russian mathematician managed to create the greatest real-time electronic puzzle experience ever to see release. Think about that for a second: Pajintov was not employed by a gaming company, like the creators of games like Pac-man, Space Invaders, and Burgertime were. He had not a single other soul to help him through the creative process. And he was clearly left-brained, as most mathematicians tend to be; yet he created a style of gameplay that manages to entertain purveyors of both abstract and visual thought. He unintentionally stumbled on the holy grail of game design decades earlier than it probably should have been discovered. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. We’re talking about a work so influential that Pajintov himself could not adequately follow up his own creation. Have you played any of his post-Tetris games? Probably not, but if you did you probably didn’t realize it. When the creator cannot top his first game, you know it’s something special. And something a bit daunting for the non-Russian-mathematician types who want to make a good puzzle game.
Now it’s the year 2005. (You were aware of that, right?) Nearly twenty years after Tetris was distributed worldwide, and the derivatives keep on coming. Puyo Pop, everything on the Nintendo Puzzle Collection, Lumines; all of these would never have seen release in their current form if not for Pajintov’s original work. Some stray further from the old ways than others (Lumines), most do not. The many incarnations of Mr. Driller lie somewhere in the middle. From the Playstation to the Dreamcast to the Nintendo DS, the fundamental properties of the Mr. Driller formula have remained by and large the same; to describe it in a few words, I’d say it is somewhat of an inversion of the Tetris formula. Instead of the usual falling pieces, Mr. Driller, true to its moniker, has players digging through preset blocks. This changes the thought patterns necessary for play in quite a few substantial ways, thankfully leading to a different headspace than most puzzle games provide. At the same time, the gameplay is almost overly simplistic, and will quickly bore players who cannot be bothered to explore its nuances.
The basics: Players must drill towards a goal buried under a tall vertical mass of multicolored blocks set up in patterns that are usually ingeniously organized to be open for various approaches during gameplay. Each time a block is drilled, every block that it is touching of a similar color will dissapear along with it, inevitably causing other blocks to end up falling down, opening up the possibility for planned combo strings. In the midst of this, players must keep blocks from crushing their poor driller, and manage air supply by collecting bottles of oxygen to stay alive.
Because the blocks in each stage are always consistent – rejecting the on-the-fly planning of Tetris for a more Japanese “planned out” feel -- Mr. Driller ends up giving mixed feelings of being very close to most other puzzle games and yet radically different at the same time. Unlike Puyo Puyo, Mr. Driller games have the player working to solve something, instead of fighting off impending doom. In terms of the more mainstream releases, Mr. Driller is the most traditionally puzzle-like game yet.
Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits for the Nintendo DS is the pinnacle of Mr. Driller gameplay, though most gamers wouldn’t care to recognize this. For fans of the series the changes are massive; for everybody else, they aren’t much to give a care about one way or the other. There are now six selectable characters including the original driller, Susumu. Each character has a very unique playstyle with differing attributes ranging from slow to extremely fast in the movement speed and air consumption categories, and three out of the six have special abilities to balance out any qualms one might have for their basic stats. Only Susasmu is available at the start, however; the rest of the characters have to be unlocked.
The Pressure Driller mode has players on the run from a daunting Destroyer Drill that rapidly plummets towards them as they dig. Air is now harder to come by, but new fireball charges are spread about the stages to allow players to defend themselves and eventually destory the evil Drill. This mode is infinitely more frantic than the already nerve-wracking Mission mode, though it is clearly much less focused, and therefore not as strong of an overall experience. It’s a nice diversion, but the best games – when playing and competeing for score, and just trying to finish the game – are still in the mission mode.
Drill Spirits does make use of both DS screens and has touchscreen support, but both are more a novelty than anything. The added vertical visibilty does apply to this game nicely, but it’s nothing that this game couldn’t do without. As for taking advantage of the DS hardware graphically, well, Drill Spirits just doesn’t. At all. This looks like a crisp Gameboy Advance game and nothing more. That is not necessarily a negative, but with the high price tag on this one, some gamers might be hoping for a bit more than what is presented.
The music is... well, it’s Mr. Driller music. Regardless of whether or not you’ve played one of these games, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about: Old-school videogame music. Exciting, hyperactive sounds that parallel the almost blindingly colorful graphics. Drill Spirits sounds exactly like it should.
Looking at the lackluster selection of DS software currently available, picking up Drill Spirits is an unfallible way to get some playtime on your system. Even if an adequate selection of games was somehow available, this game would still stick out, especially for people who haven’t played the series before. Somewhere between the halfway psychotic 2D graphics and the incredibly innovative, if slightly dated, gameplay, Mr. Driller comes extremely close to “classic” status. Drill Spirits is closer than ever, and while its low production values might make it hard for many gamers to justify its purchase, believe me: If you have any affection for puzzle games at all, this is the game to get. Alexy Pajintov would be proud.