Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 88, Drill Dozer

[banging my clipboard] DRILL DRILL DRILL

I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Did you know: Game Freak, the creator of the Pokémon franchise, develops games that don’t even have Pokémon in them? It’s not necessarily a thing they do very often — back in the day, pre-Pokémon, they developed a number of games for multiple platforms like NES and Game Boy puzzler Yoshi, and a Japan-only Sega Mega Drive title, Pulseman — but since those pocket monsters came into being, Game Freak has almost exclusively focused on them.

That’s been changing in recent years, as Game Freak has an internal plan to create original games in order to gain experience in areas other than Pokémon development, which has resulted in the Nintendo-published Harmoknight for the 3DS, Tembo the Badass Elephant for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Windows, and Giga Wrecker, which was a PC exclusive but is now available on other platforms, including the Nintendo Switch, as Giga Wrecker Alt.

Before this initiative, though, back in 2006 on the Game Boy Advance, there was Drill Dozer. Game Freak loves an action-oriented platformer, as you can tell if you’re familiar with any of that non-Pokémon output listed above, and Drill Dozer is just that. You play as Jill, the new boss of a gang of thieves, who has taken over in that role since the death of her mother and hospitalization of her father, the latter of which came at the hands of an evil criminal syndicate, the Skulkers. Jill and her gang just work out of a van that serves as a mobile mechanic as well: the Skulkers have a big ole skyscraper hideout with a corporate office, and they collaborate with the police to try to stop Jill’s Red Dozers from retrieving a red diamond they stole from her, that was left to Jill by her mother.

A dead mom, a crime syndicate, and a dad beaten so badly by them that he’s hospitalized might sound relatively dark as a setup for a Game Freak platformer, but don’t worry. It is, as their games tend to be, cute as h*ck:

Jill combats the police and the Skulkers by piloting her Drill Dozer, which as you can see in the above video is an anthropomorphized vehicle featuring drills for arms. You control the left “arm” and the right “arm” separately, using the L and R buttons on your Game Boy Advance/Wii U controller of choice: the right drill is the one you’ll use most often, to drill in and through blocks, walls, screws, air conditioning vents, conspicuous holes in enemy vehicles and faces, but the left drill ends up getting use, too, if you need to pull out a screw in a police robot’s back to make the entire thing fall apart, for instance, or to help propel you through the air by reversing the direction you’re drilling.

The drill itself goes through an upgrade cycle during each level: you collect additional gears so that you can drill longer and faster, allowing you to get through more difficult walls, barricades, and opponents. At the end of each level, you’ve worn out those additional gears, so the process begin anew, but this isn’t an annoyance. The levels are designed so that the additional gears are needed to fully explore each one: having to navigate the museum or ancient ruins or a city made almost entirely out of metal to find them and open up further exploration is half the fun.

The first couple of stages aren’t difficult at all, as they serve mostly to teach you the game’s mechanics: how to make your way through walls, vents, enemies, how to employ some of the more advanced platforming-via-drill techniques in relatively solitude. Beginning with stage three, though — the stages are generally broken into two sub-levels each — the length, difficulty, and sheer volume of things to break and do ramp up. You’ll quickly understand why you can spend the game’s currency on health upgrades, even if you were never in any danger early of needing that kind of boost.

The platforming is extremely satisfying, as you use the drill for everything, and in multiple ways. Drill Dozer has non-annoying force feedback — this was one of the only GBA games with vibration — because it’s meant to replicate the feel of drilling. In that it succeeds, and ends up making for an oddly immersive feedback loop that helps you passively gauge the intensity of your drilling. Depending on where you stick the drill, you can use it to repel yourself backwards onto a faraway ledge or platform, or you can fling yourself higher and higher into the air in order to try to move vertically through a level. You can push the the direction you’d like the Dozer to go in once you finish drilling through a block, and in this way chain yourself from one block to the next to traverse what might be an otherwise non-traversable area.

Let me put it this way: the platforming works so well that the underwater level, where you are propelled entirely by drilling, is great and not a massive annoyance you can’t wait for the end of. A not terrible underwater level? No wonder this game made the list.

The music is another standout, which shouldn’t be a surprise from the company that’s written as many killer gym battle themes as Game Freak. Spiritually, it reminds me of Mega Man’s classic soundtracks, in that there is a whole lot going on with the songs, and at a rapid pace. The sound itself is still very Game Freak, though, especially when the music changes after you collect the third gear in each stage: it’s the fastest-paced triumphant music you’ve ever heard, and your walls and enemies both fall to you with ease to that soundtrack.

If you open that YouTube video up, you can access the entire high-energy soundtrack to the game

The main game itself is relatively short by modern standards, as 2D platformers tend to be. It’ll take you about six hours to finish Drill Dozer if you’re just going to play it straight, but if you want to wring as much out of the experience as you can — and you very well might want to do that, given how satisfying its systems are — then there is a whole lot else for you to do.

There are a few dozen treasures hidden throughout the game, many of which you can’t access when you first see them, or you can’t even access the areas in which you could see them. As you upgrade your drill bit and the type of drill you’re using, though, you can start to break down tougher and tougher blocks, ones reinforced by metal or made entirely out of metal. And that in turn lets you find these hidden treasures. Since you’ll be upgrading your Dozer and replaying the levels to find these, you’ll, at the least, double the length of your play time by going for the treasures. Every now and again, you find a game worth logging 100 percent in just for the sake of feeling whatever chemicals in your brain release when you successfully manage something, and Drill Dozer is one of those.

It should be noted, though, that the game is still a great experience even if you just want to get through the campaign and call it a day. As I’ve said before and will say again, games don’t need to be dozens of hours or even as single dozen hours long to be worth playing.

This franchise has mostly lain dormant since its initial release — “mostly,” because Jill did eventually end up as an assist trophy in Smash Bros., and that might be the only point of recognition some people have with the actual game. Hell, when Drill Dozer first came out, the DS had already supplanted the Game Boy Advance, so it’s a very late-life GBA title, and it never even got a European or Australian release until the Wii U came along and brought with it a GBA Virtual Console. Game Freak doesn’t really do sequels outside of Pokémon, so you might never see one for the Switch or whatever comes after, but that’s okay. The original Drill Dozer still exists, whether you want to find a copy for your GBA or your old GBA-capable DS, or just download it on the Wii U if you’re able.

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