We’ve seen a lot from Bandai Namco lately, in the evergreen retro category. But that’s to be expected, right? The Namco Museum title is basically a brand of its own. But all that space between Bandai Namco then and Bandai Namco now is largely underrepresented. Take Mr. Driller, for example. From 1999 to about 2004, Mr. Driller was challenging Pac-Man for Namco’s arcade mascot position. But as cute as he was, and despite the connection to Dig Dug, the colorful and unique puzzle series more or less faded into obscurity. This was an even bigger tragedy for North American puzzle game fans, as one of the best games in the whole set was never localized. But now that the Switch is out here making weird stuff cool again, we finally get to play it. And Mr. Driller DrillLand, with its adorable Namco-meets-Astro Boy vibe, variety of game modes, and goofy self-referential sense of humor, is definitely worth the wait.
Originally released for the GameCube in 2002, Mr. Driller DrillLand takes the series’s core (you know, drilling) and finds several new ways to frame it. The goal in Mr. Driller is to simply drill down as far as you can go, and of course the materials you drill through are color-coded. Anything of the same color that’s touching your spot is also cleared, leaving anything left hanging by itself to fall. So while you’re always drilling and watching out above you, depending on the mode you’re in there’s something different to take into account. After all, this is DrillLand, the world’s first underground theme park, uh, dedicated entirely to drilling enthusiasts. Also, the main character’s dad is the guy from Dig Dug, and he has a Cool Dad Soul Patch and that rules.
Is it really a theme park if it kills you?
The “standard” Mr. Driller play is available, which is more or less an endurance mode. You choose a character with a unique ability, then drill as far as you can before you die. You can collect little air capsules along the way, so as long as you’re fast and careful, you can drill to your heart’s content. Mr. Driller is great because it’s a sort of role-swapping for a puzzle game. Usually the blocks are moving around the board as the player figures out where to place or guide them, but this time everything is still and peaceful until your bizarre hobbyist shows up to wreck everything, often at the risk of their own life. It’s as frantic or as thoughtful as you want it to be, and when those two intersect, that’s when the sweat kicks in.
Once you get your bearings (a new difficulty choice will help ease you in), it’s a good idea to try the other attractions, because why not? Puzzle games can sometimes suffer from monotony, so having all these variants built in with a theme park hook is hella endearing. Variants range from a Tower of Druaga parody (that somehow brilliantly incorporates maps, locks, and enemies) to a treasure hunt featuring Dig Dug dad, which removes the speed elements entirely in favor of miniature puzzles within the puzzle involving buried gold and boulder traps. Each game has a different star (none of whom are the dog, who isn’t tall enough for any of the rides), but the standard mode does let you choose a character (including the dog). So you’re either playing Mr. Driller with significant rule alterations, or you’re playing Mr. Driller with a single, variable mechanic (also there’s a dog). It sounds simple on paper, but playing it really feels like a ton of thought went into designing all the variant modes.
Just let the dog go to outer space. What could possibly go wrong?
In terms of extras or non-drilling content, there’s a surprising amount of it for a 2002 GameCube game. Don’t go in expecting something like a Digital Eclipse museum, but there is more here than the bare minimum. You can listen to the music and rewatch the little cutscenes, but there’s also a bunch of gadgets and doodads you can buy and appreciate. There’s a stamp board to track your progress in-game (remember when achievements weren’t around?), and my favorite part is a library, which has a few paragraphs on each attraction and a few on Mr. Driller history. It’s all written diegetically, and the localization is really sharp and funny. You still won’t walk away really knowing what a Tower of Druaga is if you didn’t already, but it’s a fun feature that adds to Mr. Driller’s whole “connected Namco universe” vibe.
I had no idea Mr. Driller DrillLand ever existed. Knowledge of import GameCube games that didn’t have Goku on the cover wasn’t a hobby of mine in the early 2000s. But I did know of Mr. Driller, and having a new, hidden-gem sort of experience pop up on the Switch feels really special. It’s like a game that was never meant to be, but here it is anyway because it’s 2020 and anything goes. If you like puzzle games, cute Japanese things, Namco history, or Dig Dug, you’ll have a great time here. The 2D visuals have aged tremendously well, the gameplay variety is wild for this genre, and all the little extras are fun to poke at. There’s even local multiplayer! Mr. Driller DrillLand definitely earns its theme park aesthetic with a charm and structure that fit the bill.
Release Date: June 25, 2020
No. of Players: 1-4 players
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco
A review code was provided by the publisher.