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Mr. Driller

Klatrymadon

Twilight Rascal
(he/him)

I reckon some of you must be playing the brilliant remastering of Drill Land at the moment, so I thought I’d start a thread about all things Hori Susumu.

Mr. Driller’s a wildly inventive and infectiously passionate series that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough considering its vast contribution to the puzzle genre, and I can’t claim to be a rare champion for it. My background with the series is non-existent owing to an almost instant dismissal - I played the Dreamcast port of the original very briefly about 15 years ago, and liked it enough but clearly failed to identify any particular 'hook' to it; it felt like playing aimlessly in a sandpit. Undoubtedly I fell into the beginner’s trap of thinking the game was simply a race to the bottom. I didn't explore the series any further until recently, when I bought a cheap copy of Drill Spirits for the DS on a whim, and decided to revisit the original on the PS2 NamCollection while I was at it. All it took to dispel my old misconceptions was quickly noticing the point increases for 'chained' blocks, and that every air capsule is worth 100 points more than the last (all the hook I need, really), but once I started learning to (partially) control the playfield rather than merely react to falling blocks, the game became deeply compelling.

The potential for rewarding strategy opens up enormously once you realise how you should be handling those air capsules which are surrounded by four oxygen-stealing ‘X’ blocks – not as cruel teases to be quickly dug past in search of the next, hopefully more available air capsule, but as puzzles. Remembering that falling blocks of the same colour disappear when they create a chain of four, the first thing you ought to do when you encounter this particular formation is stop. Ignore your dwindling air supply for a second and assess the surrounding blocks. See if there’s any chance of moving the left or right X out of the way, or collapsing a few Xs onto the group, or bringing the entire formation down with you to meet some other Xs. In fact, the game becomes vastly more manageable when you treat every air capsule in a similar manner, breaking each 100m stage of the well up into a series of mini-puzzles: stop, figure out a route to this one air capsule, and forget about further descent until you’ve got it, or are at least bringing it down with you. (In the earlier/easier stages you can usually afford to skip a couple and just race downward, but it’s good practice – especially in terms of scoring – to get into the habit of aiming for all of them, anyway.) Getting slightly better at this process – reducing the time it takes to read a situation and execute a plan by fractions of a second each time – has been incredibly rewarding, and I’d urge anyone else who may have previously regarded the game as shallow to give it another go with this approach in mind. As soon as you begin to manipulate the interactions of the blocks with each other to your own ends it becomes a much richer experience.


This eureka moment has kicked off something of an obsession with the series. I haven't seen any PCBs for sale yet but I've been foolishly splashing out on every home port and original game I can get my hands on (currently I'm missing the Wonderswan game and the PC versions of 1 and 2, but I don't need the PC ones and they'd be pretty frivolous purchases at this point). I’m quite taken with the GameBoy Color port at the moment, which is pared down and straight to the point in the ways you’d expect (there are only 500m, 1000m and Endless modes on offer, at least on my Japanese cart), but the narrower well, more subdued palette and relatively sparse soundtrack lend the game a surprisingly different atmosphere – even more tense and pressured, almost lonely. What’s impressive about the series is that nearly every iteration manages to bring something new and interesting to the table, adds some wrinkle to formula that makes it worth playing even if you’ve played several others – sometimes it’s mere portability or a tacked-on multiplayer mode, of course, but then there’s Ace's Wondeful Pacteria mode, the various Dristone modes and the entirety of Drill Land, which all make really robust and creative revisions to the original formula without ever losing its core appeal in all the gimmickry.

What’s everyone else’s history with the series? What are your favourite versions? If you’re playing the Drill Land re-release at the moment, how are you getting on with it? (All Level 2s done but no Level 3s, here!)
 

spines

behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
i have releases on a few consoles-dreamcast, ds, and now the switch drill land, as well as sitting down pretty often when i see cabinets, which is honestly my main impetus for learning it. gotta show off

drill land's been quite a boon nonetheless, even if i feel lukewarm on most of the more gimmicky modes. i'm in about the same spot, no level 3's finished, although at the moment my favorite mode is just star driller level 2 anyway (given the combination of mechanics and pacing, with the music, which is one of my favorite track combos in the game so far and really plays to the game's strengths, i feel). but overall the amazing presentation and the variety is a great hook to get over that first hurdle of feeling like i'm just stuck and not getting better. the 20-some hours i've spent on it so far have really pushed me a lot, and one day i'm sure i'll be able to get a nice 1cc live if i keep sticking with it and practicing over time, hahaha. like i mentioned in the tt2 thread after drill land released, i've really looked forward to playing that game especially for such a long time, and i've been pretty much nothing but impressed.

i've also definitely been impressed by the subtle cleverness of the game as i've invested more into it, and i think even more than other puzzle games there's a sense that amazing players make it "look easy". but i also really love the visceral satisfaction of hearing the reverberation of chains upward and downward through the stage as i go forward or wait for things to happen. it's such a cool feeling and a really great execution of a concept that does make the game feel a bit more "high-tech" than an older, non-scrolling game like tetris or puyo.
 

Klatrymadon

Twilight Rascal
(he/him)
but i also really love the visceral satisfaction of hearing the reverberation of chains upward and downward through the stage as i go forward or wait for things to happen. it's such a cool feeling and a really great execution of a concept that does make the game feel a bit more "high-tech" than an older, non-scrolling game like tetris or puyo.

Definitely! Those "breather" stages that are made up of huge chunks of same-coloured blocks (which cascade down and set off big chain reactions) are like popping bubble wrap and I'm certain they're only there to help form an addiction. Another big (and maybe too obvious) differentiation from Tetris that draws me in is the very fact of controlling a character within the well - I like the feeling that success or failure hinges on my specific movements and block-removal choices rather than whether or not I can make the best of the 'hand' I've been dealt. (I'm not entirely sure this distinction holds water - your own movements are still the biggest deciding factor in Tetris and you're still being dealt a 'hand' in Mr. Driller, in the form of the partially randomised level layout itself, but it's somehow a much less visible or tangible obstacle here.)

I know what you mean about the serious Drillerheads making it "look easy", too! I've been watching this perfect-air 2000m run in G and trying to copy some of the basic strategies on the PS1 version, but it's clear that a lot of what we're witnessing there boils down to the player's vast store of built-up knowledge, muscle memory and sheer practicing hours - the stuff I talked about in the OP being the absolute tip of the iceberg.
 
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spines

behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
Definitely! Those "breather" stages that are made up of huge chunks of same-coloured blocks are like popping bubble wrap and I'm certain they're only there to help form an addiction.
hahaha, yes. they're almost better than winning!
Another big (and maybe too obvious) differentiation from Tetris that draws me in is the very fact of controlling a character within the well - I like the feeling that success or failure hinges on my specific movements and block choices rather than whether or not I can make the best of the 'hand' I've been dealt. (I'm not entirely sure this distinction holds water - your own movements are still the biggest deciding factor in Tetris and you're still being dealt a 'hand' in Mr. Driller, in the form of the partially randomised level layout itself, but it's somehow a much less visible or tangible obstacle.)
i definitely get where you're going with that. having characters in puzzle games is something i tend to like a lot, because the concrete physical challenge of managing it can be a very intricate part of the puzzle. i think that's a bit less clear in this game than in something like sokoban or stephen's sausage roll with more of a "pushing" type focus (because in those cases you might come up with a process which manipulates the game objects correctly to some extent but leaves your character in the wrong spot), but the limitations on your movement are definitely pretty consequential when it comes to solving the air puzzles. there's definitely times where i feel i got a bit unlucky, but, again, to connect to the "looking easy" thing, there's a large element of getting better and realizing how to deal with the situations which at first seem too difficult or overwhelming. it's more of a general sense of "it's not usually that difficult" than trying to convince myself that the situation was impossible.
 
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I started with the DS launch window Mr Driller game and immediately fell down a suffocating candy-colored well of obsession with it for a few years, eventually importing the Japanese version with the Dristone mode, followed by Mr Driller 2, Ace, and Drill Land.

Drill Land felt like the definitive release at the time, but the hassles of booting the import copy on a North American Gamecube led me to neglect it in favor of Ace for most of the ‘00s.

I eventually returned to Drill Land on a whim around 2015 while ripping my Gamecube discs and testing them on Dolphin and Wii, experiencing the same baffling phenomenon I sometimes get with rhythm games, picross, or Tetris-likes after a very long break, where it takes just minutes to fall back into muscle memory that hasn’t been exercised in years, and then I almost immediately start effortlessly completing challenges that I found impossible at the peak of my previous obsession. I ended up clearing all the level three challenges and getting the clear stamp on a couple of the endless modes within a week before moving on.

Digging back into it in 2020 with the Switch port, I feel like I have more confidence than ever in my ability to quickly identify the puzzles and dismantle all the various block configurations guarding air capsules, but I have a much harder time achieving the “flow state” proficiency that I once had in my earlier runs. It took a lot more struggle and dozens of runs ended by unforced errors and careless deaths before I could clear any of the level 3s outside of Druaga this time around. It’s still the perfect kind of relaxing-stressful game to unwind with an hour before bed every night, though, so I’m hoping I can eventually stamp all the endless modes and get back to trying for 2000m 1CCs this time around.
 

Klatrymadon

Twilight Rascal
(he/him)
That's awesome, mike. I find it fascinating that your level of experience with the game survived a long hiatus, like riding a bike - it takes about a month for me to lose any specific chops I had with a shmup, apart from some fundamental skills like reading attacks and controlling space, etc. (I'm playing Kamui for the Calice Cup at the moment and making dumb mistakes all over the place, despite working on a clear not long ago.) I hope I can develop some for-keeps skill with this series, even if it's purely at the level of 'reading' situations. Perhaps it's for the best that you gravitated towards Ace back then, btw. I'm finding the GameCube version of Drill Land performs region checks before saving a game, and using a Freeloader or region-switched Cube and a Japan-formatted memory card isn't enough to keep it happy.

spines: that's a great point about character-based puzzlers, and Mr. Driller is definitely full of situations in which you can technically solve a problem but leave yourself in a really crummy position in doing so. I suppose the most obvious example of this is all the near-misses I have where Susumu stumbles for a second, often being crushed by the next block along due to the lateness this causes. :oops:
 
As far as I recall, the Gamecube version of Drill Land directly accessed the memory card with its own save file formatting routines instead of using any system level functions to manage save files, and it assumed any non-Japanese filesysten was simply an unformatted memory card, which it would helpfully erase for you. After several close calls and the loss of a secondary Animal Crossing village, I just became wary about ever booting it up again.

And yeah, Klatrymadon, I’m equally fascinated at how much games like Mr Driller, Tetris, and beatmania form durable “riding a bike” skills that don’t atrophy, while I always feel like I’m completely starting over again if I take just a few weeks away from a shmup, fighting game, competitive FPS, or MMO. Maybe these genres just map to the kinds of games and skills I absorbed when I was a kid, and everything else is hard won and quickly lost, like language skills in adulthood.
 
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