Format: GC Publisher: Namco Developer: In-house Reviewed: E120

Mr Driller is an upside-down sort of a videogame. Traditionally, protagonists are thrown into the belly of a deadly problem and the player made to save them. In this way our games mimic our dramas: a miner becomes trapped in a mineshaft and must dig his way out to sunlight and freedom; a submarine sinks to the seabed and its inhabitants must find a way to the surface before the air depletes; a mountaineer tumbles down a crevasse and must inch his way back to base camp and paramedics. Weíre used to working our way up and out of problems.
By contrast, Mr Drillerís pink-suited lead character, Susumu Hori begins each level perfectly safe, stood atop the Earthís crust without any need of salvation or deliverance. Itís only when the timer starts ticking that he springs to life, burrowing a crazed and furious path down through the rock below, racing metre by metre deeper, air rapidly expiring while labouring under the constant threat of being crushed by falling debris.
Itís hard to quantify, but thereís something liberating and exhilarating about tunnelling your way into a problem Ė and Mr Driller is a series that delights in the visceral thrill of tearing deep and irresponsibly into the earth. To interact with it is wonderfully simple: Susumu, or any one of this teammates, pets or friends who make up the playable cast, must be directed left and right with the control stick and commanded to dig with one solitary button. Thereís no jump or climb ability: the only way is down.
Mr Drillerís conception was an unusual one. A team of designers at Namco decided to start work on a sequel to the companyís discarded Dig Dug series. Originally developed using hexagonal blocks (changed to squares later as they made combos more workable) the project was left by the wayside when the small team was moved onto the PlayStationís Ridge Racer 4. However, managerial staff were so impressed by the demo that a full game was commissioned with its own original name (albeit within the back-story that Susumu is the son of Dig Dugís protagonist). The first three games in
the Mr Driller series were all big arcade successes, but it wasnít until the GameCubeís Mr Driller Drill Land that the concept really blossomed to capture the imagination of a console audience.

For the most part, Drill Landís mechanics are identical to those of its forbears. Digging down through an area 11 blocks wide you must clear a path of descent as quickly as possible. Blocks are colour-coded, and like-coloured blocks stick together in groups which can be cleared in one hit of the drill button. As you dislodge surrounding blocks with each move there is a constant danger from above in the possibility of being squished under falling debris. There is little time for care, however: the emphasis here is on speed puzzling and, so as to ensure a player doesnít spend too long thinking about the best way through the puzzle, urgency is applied via an oxygen meter. This must be constantly refilled by collecting air capsules (interspersed with rocks as you descend) and, should your oxygen bar deplete you suffocate in a claustrophobeís darkest nightmare.
Mr Driller Drill Land takes this basic concept and spins it out into a number of additional altered formats, each taking the form of a different attraction within a theme park. This ingenious way of handling the world map allows for themed levels with different emphases and added inventions. An Indiana Jones-themed level (the wonderfully named Drindy Adventure) sees you collecting golden statuettes while avoiding spikes and rolling boulders. The Horror Night House stage adds in a Ďholy waterí button to scare off any ghouls looking to interrupt your excavation. Likewise the Hole of Durga approach presents a Mr Driller RPG with items, keys to open doors and huge dragon bosses which must be defeated.
These additional conceits help provide much-needed variation to Mr Drillerís compelling but otherwise repetitive approach. The gameís multiplayer modes are also a triumph, the best of which sees up to four players searching for a hidden item within a fixed screen stuffed full of boulders. The GameCube pad pulses with increasing frequency the closer you are to the hidden prize and, as every player races to find the boulder in which itís hidden, the games are as frantic and hysterical as anywhere else.
The pin-sharp visuals and expert Chibi graphic design style make Mr Driller Drill Land stand out from its contemporaries. Infuriatingly for westerners the game was never released outside of Japan, and when played on a PAL machine via a Freeloader will not create a save game. As such, the gameís long-term enjoyment is limited to those with a Japanese machine, but itís testament to the gameís bright excellence that it remains one of the systemís most enduring, revered and sought-after titles.
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