Sometimes, a game doesn’t really make sense to you until years later. Such is the case with Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits, an early third-party release for Nintendo DS.
I mean, I got the game back then, sure. Namco had a pretty steady assembly line going for Driller games, having produced… what, two? Three? on Game Boy Advance, and DS made a logical home for the next entry. Better than logical — ostensibly perfect. You don’t see it in this image, because a full view would have been so tall as to be disruptive to the reading experience, but the action in Drill Spirits spanned both screens. That’s a totally fantastic design choice for a game where you’re moving downward constantly through a vertical well, even if it was mostly for show; the real action took place on the bottom screen, so the extra info on the upper screen mainly served to clue you in to imminent danger when you drilled too enthusiastically and caused a chain reaction of falling blocks. In other Driller games, those blocks often begin to plummet well out of sight, but here you have extra warning.
That’s not a bad feature, but it only goes so far, and it couldn’t make up for the fact that Drill Spirits, content-wise, was horribly anemic. I couldn’t help but compare the game to Mr. Driller: Drill Land, the amazing 2002 GameCube release and still the absolute high point of the series which — because life isn’t fair — never came to the U.S. Drill Land became a minor fixture when I first moved to San Francisco to work at 1UP. We’d play it both at home and at the office, and it was brilliant, with a ton of extra modes that expanded the series’ core gameplay well beyond its standard bounds.
Drill Spirits pared the design down to the basic arcade mode, reminiscent of the original Mr. Driller but with more characters to choose from. Compared to Drill Land and even Mr. Driller Ace — another Japan-exclusive title, maddeningly — it just came off as regressive. It felt almost like we were being taunted here in the U.S.: The really good Driller games remained stranded in Japan for no clear reason, while we got the good-but-not-awesome ones. Of course, that’s not how corporations do business, but I’m speaking from the heart here.
Anyway, I don’t remember how I scored Drill Spirits on 1UP. Probably harshly. I vaguely recall reviewing it for GMR, too, but maybe not. If I did, I probably came off as being pretty pissy in that review, too.
It wasn’t until years later that I finally got what Drill Spirits was all about. I downloaded Mr. Driller for iPhone and tapped my way through the conversion, and suddenly it dawned on me: Drill Spirits was a practice run for the touchscreen future. It included an optional control scheme that allowed you to control Susumu (or whichever protagonist you settled on) with the stylus, though it also offered the D-pad as a fallback. That knowledge and experience eventually allowed Namco’s designers to roll right on into converting the game to iPhone. This was future-proofing, basically.
Or not. The series is long dead at this point, and the final entry in the series — Mr. Driller: Drill ‘Til You Drop for DSiWare — not only completely obviates the need to ever play Drill Spirits, it was also cited by producer Hideo Yoshizawa as the definitive Driller adventure when I interviewed him a few years ago. So, basically, this game is completely pointless. Not terrible or anything… just utterly moot.