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!)