Mr. Driller hasn't changed much over the years. His first outing came back in 2000 on the Dreamcast and Playstation, with numerous sequels following afterward. At its core, however, the Mr. Driller franchise has stayed true to its puzzle-based, action-oriented roots.
The titular hero, a cuddly and androgynous drill maven (c'mon, his gender appears totally ambiguous) needs to put his drill mastery to use as he burrows beneath the Earth's crust in a race against time. As Mr. Driller, players need to reach a certain depth (say 500 meters) to clear stages and win the game. Of course, the deeper into the ground he goes, Mr. Driller needs to watch out for a myriad of hazards.
You can run out of air and choke, for starters. You also need to watch out for falling blocks. When groups of blocks strike a nearby group of the same color, they will all collapse. This lets you form combos (lots of points) but also increases the chance of a fatal slip up, as Mr. Driller needs to maneuver quickly if he wants to survive a cascade of lethal blocks.
Puzzle fans (or even Tetris fans, which had better be all of you reading this) know that simplicity is never a bad thing in and of itself. Thing is, where pretty much everyone loved Tetris, not everyone loves Mr. Driller. Reasons why this is so run the gamut, but one thing is for sure: any Mr. Driller game, while simple at heart, requires fast reflexes and an equally fast noodle to master.
And it's no different in Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits, the latest title in the series for the Nintendo DS. You still play a miniscule driller as he digs his way past rows of colored blocks, collecting air capsules so he won't run out of oxygen and asphyxiate. What differentiates Drill Spirits from other games in the series are several different game modes, extra characters and of course, the dual screen and touch screen format of the Nintendo DS.
But is it enough to make it classic? More importantly, will Drill Spirits put the DS to good use and become the definitive handheld version of the old-school puzzler? Initially, the dual screen format seems very well suited for a game like Drill Spirits. Advanced players know that being aware of your surroundings is key, as being careless will leave the tiny Mr. Driller crushed beneath tons of pastel colored blocks. The top screen of the DS unit lets you see more of the action and exactly how drilling has effected the blocks above you.
This lets you strategize more effectively, increasing your chances of success and generally making the game feel a little more involved than before. All very good things. During one of the different game modes, where you'll be trying to escape a menacing drill monster, the second screen really comes in handy. Most of the action will center on the bottom screen, but you'll see the giant drill descending on your position on the top screen. The only issue one can make is that it can get a little tough to keep your eye on both screens. You'll find yourself glancing up and down repeatedly, which sometimes leads to the premature death of Mr. Driller.
Unfortunately, that's about the only thing of note regarding the top screen. Menus often splits between the two screens, offering colorful graphics and making the different options easy to read, but it's nothing you could label as "revolutionary" or even necessary for that matter. It's all very disappointing. Call me crazy, but I think games made specifically for the Nintendo DS should exploit the handheld's abilities to the fullest. In the end, all gamers really get from the top screen is an extension of the bottom one. Again, this aids in gameplay somewhat, but it would have been nice to see entire game modes structured around the dual screen layout.
What about the bottom touch screen? Well, it works, in that you can touch the screen to navigate menus and touch-lead Mr. Driller across the screen. It just doesn't work very well. Drill Spirits is all about speed and timing, and using the stylus just isn't as precise or as quick as using the d-pad and buttons. We really wanted this to work well. But it didn't. Time and time again, Mr. Driller would end up buried under a pile of multi-hued rubble when led by the stylus. Again, it's not that it doesn't work; it's just not as responsive and intuitive as the D-pad alternative.
Drill Spirits includes various different game modes, including Mission Driller, Pressure Driller, Time Attack Driller for single player mode, and a multiplayer Driller Race. Each game mode, including the multiplayer one, is structured around the same basic premise. You can also play as a bunch of different characters, each with their own abilities, such as faster movement or drill speed. Time Attack Driller is exactly what it sounds like: you need to drill as fast as possible.
Mission Driller is the basic mode, where you dash around the planet and drill in different countries to specific depths. You'll visit Egypt, Japan, China, India and America, but all this means is that you'll drill to a different background.
Playing Driller race with another player is perhaps too simple for its own good, and its requirement of a copy of the game for each player is more than a little disappointing. Considering the simplistic nature of the game design and graphics, and considering that Namco's other, more technical game -- Ridge Racer DS supports single cartridge multiplayer mode, its absence in Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits is just a little suspicious.
Pressure Driller is perhaps the most enjoyable, if only because it mixes up the action more than the others. You'll still drill the same way as before, only this time you'll have a spider-like monster drill called the Destroyer Drill trying to pulverize you. Players need to stay several steps ahead of it while collecting special capsules to power a charge attack. Once charged, Mr. Driller can shoot a fireball upwards at Destroyer Drill, but only during specific times. It's pretty fun and challenging; definitely the coolest aspect of the game.
Graphically and visually, Drill Spirits gets the job done without adding too much razzle dazzle. It reflects the same cutesy look as it always has, with bright colors and simple, yet reasonably snazzy animation sprinkled here and there. Same goes for the music and sound in the game. It's simple and serviceable, without blowing your ears open in aural ecstasy or sucking so bad it hurts. Still, the overall presentation isn't bad, but it could have used more animation and a bit more graphical variety.
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