When I think of arcades, the first image that comes to mind is games designed to suck quarters out of player pockets. Most games did this by focusing on challenge above all else: the idea was that by making play sessions shorter (and thus worth less money), players would be willing to spend more money to play. While these games also had to be enjoyable (why else would anyone play them?), joy wasn’t as important in the face of challenge.
I guess that’s what separates a cute puzzle game like Mr. Driller apart from the pack. It’s still recognizably an arcade game (despite my having played the Wonderswan Color version for this review), yet it doesn’t concern itself with difficulty. While it tests the player’s skill, the game is always more interested in entertaining the player for whatever amount of time it can. And it’s hard to deny the game its success. As simple a game as Mr. Driller is, it proves to be just as delightful as it sets out to be.
To be fair, some of that delight may arise from the game’s simplicity. It plays a lot like a match-four puzzle game channeled through Dig Dug. Mr. Driller starts you off atop pile of colored bricks, and your goal is to build up your score by digging as far down as you can. You can do this by eliminating bricks individually, but levels progress so much more quickly by eliminating blocks of the same color and building up combos. You also have to watch your air supply, and collect canisters before it runs out.
Already, I can see several areas where the game can take the player’s skills to the limit. It could cut down on the number of air canisters (or make them less effective, à la Pac Man); it could arrange blocks to make combos harder; it could crowd the screen with near-impenetrable chocolate blocks. Admittedly, Mr Driller does each of these things in it later levels, but I never got the sense that skill was priority for the game. For example, I noticed that the better I played one level, the harder later levels became, meaning that the worse I played, the easier later levels became. The game isn’t the center of attention, and the player isn’t expected to adjust themselves to the game’s expectations. If anything, the opposite holds true, and the game ends up all the better for it. Skilled players get the challenge they demand, while less skilled players still find something to enjoy while playing.
And as far as I can tell, this appears to be the game’s central design philosophy: invite players of all skill levels in and make them feel welcome. It’s apparent from the moment game drops you into world, when the level design is already silently leading you through the mechanics. Here’s what things do, here’s what strategies work, etc. I assume this would bode well for competitive play, where the skill gap between players would become more apparent. However, I was playing single player, and even there, its effects on the experience were palpable. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was playing the game wrong, because the game was handling that for me behind the scenes. My time with the game was significantly more approachable, and I wanted to engage with the game so much more than I would have otherwise.
Of course, this would mean very little if the game didn’t have solid mechanics to work with. Fortunately, the game’s mechanical base seems solid. Even the basic act of drilling through a single block proves to be fun. Some of that fun comes from the soft, squishy art style; some more comes from each move guaranteeing you progress. In any case, Mr. Driller has a solid foundation to work from. From here, the game can add the layers of depth and mental challenge it needs to make the experience fuller and rounder.
Yet neither depth nor challenge are the game’s main draw. Although they’re nice to have, they both pale in comparison to the respect the game shows the player. Not being a game designer myself, I can only imagine how difficult it must designing a game that everyone can enjoy. Somehow, Namco managed to do exactly that when they made Mr. Driller. It’s like they knew which parts of the arcade spirit to keep (simplicity, approachability) and which parts to ignore (prohibitive difficulty, emphasis on skill). I believe the results speak for themselves.