Version tested: Xbox 360
After several weeks of defending the besieged portcullis of casual gaming with precious little assistance from the parade of lazy mindless tat on Live Arcade, I've finally found a brave knight who can help me slay the dragon of Kneejerk Hardcore Gamers Who Are Scared Of Fun. And he's got a drill.
Mr Driller was last seen in Drill Spirits on the Nintendo DS back in 2004. That game made Tom use the words "you'll love it" and the numbers "8/10". Having been rejigged, reworked and redeployed to the 360, Mr Driller remains the sort of fast-paced puzzle gem all "casual" efforts should aspire to.
The concept, as with all great things, is dead simple. Superficially similar to Tetris, if only because you need to have a quick eye for shapes and how they'll interact when one is removed, the closest comparison would be a fusion of Boulderdash and Dig Dug. Hardly surprising, since the game began life as a continuation of Namco's underground monster-inflating classic. Mr Driller, should you care, is supposed to be the son of Dig Dug star Taizou Hori.
You have a drill. You have a level made up of big colourful blocks. Drill down through the blocks through levels of 100 metres each, making sure falling debris from above doesn't squash you. If four squares of the same colour collide, they'll be destroyed - giving you a score boost, but also potentially creating a landslide of blocks above or below. You have limited air for your subterranean mission, and making your way to the sporadic air tanks without drilling yourself into a corner is a large part of the gameplay.
The nasty brown squares return, blocking your path and taking several drill hits to destroy. Take this option, rather than drilling around them, and you'll immediately lose 20 per cent of your air. As brown blocks are often used to keep air tanks and other desirable items from your reach, it becomes a question of making snap decisions - risk using up more air than you'll gain, or continue downwards and hope there's an easier option somewhere below?
The instinctive response is to keep moving ever downwards, trying to out run any block avalanches and hoping for air tanks, but the best way to play is at a carefully measured clip - keeping mobile, but taking the time to stop and think about the consequences of removing certain blocks. It really hits the sweet spot between the edge of delicious panic and the rewards of making the right choice in the blink of an eye.
There have been changes from the DS to 360, though. For one thing, you can now choose from the various characters at the start - no need to unlock them. As they include faster drillers, characters with more air, a dog that can climb up two blocks rather than the standard one, and a robot that can withstand one collision with falling blocks, this opens up plenty of gameplay choices straight away.
There are also power-ups to be found inside treasure chests, and these can be used at your leisure by hitting X. Beneficial effects include complete air refills, shields and speed increases. Having the right one to hand in a pinch can be the difference between life and death.
As well as Standard Driller, in which you hop from country to country digging to ever-increasing depths, there's also Quest Driller, which replaces the Pressure Driller mode from the DS. Gameplay is much the same, except now you must also drill within certain restrictions. A time limit is the most obvious, but completing a section with limited air tanks is another, as is a specified number of blocks destroyed. It's not much of a quest, to be honest, and while the requirements do shake up the way you play, it feels a bit thin as a standalone game mode.
Online multiplayer is the big addition, with two ways of playing with pals. Solo Battle finds you digging down through the same level against up to three other players. It's no different to the Standard Driller game, except you can see the ghosts of where the others are up to, adding an extra reason to keep moving.
Tag Battle is rather more interesting, pairing you up into teams of two. This mode introduces dual power-ups, that require both players to find one half of a fragmented stone tablet. And if that doesn't inspire teamwork, there's also a rescue option. Should your partner start running out of air, you can hit Y to instantly send half of your remaining supply to their tank. From those simple rules, there are oodles of ways to strategise with your friend, from one player drilling and the other collecting, to sticking together and working in tandem for speedy progress.
So, conceptually at least, the multiplayer modes are basic but overwhelmingly effective. It's incredibly easy to grasp what needs to be done, and with only the directions and face buttons to worry about, it remains firmly in the casual realm without sacrificing gameplay depth.
Sadly, it's also the sort of game that can be absolutely ruined by a laggy connection, and many of the games I played were hampered by this to some extent. Most of the time it's just an occasional stickiness, the odd movement glitch, and can be pretty much eradicated when playing against regular friends provided their connection is stable.
Playing against strangers can be pot luck though, and as there are several Achievements for winning 10 consecutive matches, having to keep abandoning play because of shoddy networking is an unfortunate upset. It certainly makes the addition of "online" to the title a rather unfortunate decision.
But, quibbles aside, the core Mr Driller experience on the 360 is every bit as wonderful as it was on the DS, and on all the formats before it. The single-player modes may not look all that generous but it'll take many hours to work through the five Standard stages and five Quests, even for an experienced player.
It's a shame that the additional modes and multiplayer aren't quite as innovative as they might have been, but that's a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things. Cheerful, perfectly pitched and instantly addictive, Mr Driller is the sort of thing that makes you want to grab those tiresome moaners and say "Look! This is casual gaming! It's what games are all about! And it's brilliant!"
8 / 10