Drill Dozer’s plan to replace the platforming centerpiece of jumping with the thrill and might of drilling like an angry girl inside a mean machine is a success
Game Freak is, understandably so, known as the company that churns out Pokémon installments at an uncanny pace. However, while the projects of the lucrative pocket monster saga are certainly constant, the developer has also found enough time and resources to devote to endeavors that give its teams room to stretch their creativity. Drill Dozer, released in 2006 for the Game Boy Advance, is one of those games; a title embedded with the kind of wacky charming creativity that could only come out of Japan, and an adventure that, despite its occasional missteps, manages to be one of the system’s most unique and universally appealing efforts.
The Red Dozers are a band of thieves led by Doug. One day, he is attacked by a rival gang, the Skullkers. Doug is left temporarily incapacitated in bed and his precious Red Diamond, a treasured and powerful relic that was a gift from his deceased wife, is taken away. Determined to recover it, his daughter – the young and spirited Jill – steps in as the gang’s boss and mounts the vehicle that supports their thefts: the titular Drill Dozer, which serves as the basis for all of the game’s clever and refreshing mechanics.
The simple plot, surprisingly, ends up revealing a couple of intriguing layers of deception and a handful of memorable characters. That happens because Drill Dozer, unlike most platformers of its kind, gives a good degree of attention to its story. Those who want to quickly tackle the action instead of being bombarded by cutscenes and dialogues will be happy to know, though, that everything is done quite soberly. All the stages of the game’s quest are preceded by introductions that mix both elements, but not only are they pleasant and give some background to the levels, hence setting the table for what is to come, they are also ideally brief.
Drill Dozer is broken up into eleven stages, a number that certainly seems to be on the small side, and – as it can be beaten within seven hours – the game could have indeed used a little more content. However, that issue is alleviated by the seven secret levels – which are cleverly designed and quite challenging – to be unlocked by acquiring maps in the game’s shop, the thirty one treasures hidden throughout the locations, and the considerable length and intricacy of the eleven courses that comprise the title’s main quest. Although their individual sizes might go against the game’s nature as a portable software, that problem is nullified by the fact that players can save their progress at any time and the abundance of well-positioned checkpoints.
Aboard the Drill Dozer, Jill tackles platforming challenges that are pleasantly original. The machine’s powers are limited, as it can only jump and spin its drill either clockwise or counterclockwise, but Game Freak takes that last element and explores it beautifully. Enemies and bosses, then, instead of being eliminated by the traditional blows to the head, need to be taken down with the drill; while the obstacles that populate the stages usually require the timely pairing up of jumps and drill usage.
Some of those enemies and obstacles are straightforward: a simple spinning of the drill will kill the former and overcome the latter, as it frequently happens with fragile walls and other objects that are lying around. As it is the case with most platformers, regular enemies never rise considerably in complexity, which is far from a sin: at most, Drill Dozer summons members of the police force that are only vulnerable at certain places or occasions, such as a strong robot guarded by electric fields that has a loose screw over its head as its only weaknesses, therefore forcing Jill to land a precise drilling move from above. When it comes to combat, the game’s creative energy is highlighted by its great and numerous boss encounters, some of which brilliantly stray away from the one-on-one physical confrontations that such meetings tend to entail.
Where Drill Dozer truly shines, though, is in its exploration and level design. The first one is excellent because the game’s levels are usually complex in their construction, allowing players to go back and forth between areas and occasionally featuring a dash of backtracking. The second item soars because of the amount of cool devices with which Jill’s drill can interact. There are catapults that launch her into the air at heights that depend on the speed of the drill, tunnels – ideal for thieves – that need to be traversed by spinning the drill in a specific orientation and at a specific gear, moving sockets that need to be latched onto with the drill, and more. Game Freak even takes some chances by, on two specific stages, transforming the Drill Dozer into aquatic and flying vehicles. Sadly, those experiments end up with mixed results given how the controls and physics of these two contraptions are more bothersome than they are practical.
The game’s cleverest design choice is the fact that although the Drill Dozer has three gears, it – due to the weariness of usage – reverts back to only one at the beginning of each level. Therefore all of them progress naturally from simpler challenges that have to be surpassed with a weak drill to situations in which the unstoppable menace that is the Drill Dozer at full speed is required. Additionally, it allows developers to create backtracking scenarios that force players to, after acquiring the extra two gears, go back to a certain portion of the course to gain entrance to a new area.
Speaking of returning to previously visited areas, Drill Dozer’s biggest problem may be how it does not let players collect all of its hidden treasures on their first way through the stages. Besides extra energy tanks and maps that unlock extra levels, the shop players can access whenever they are back at the Red Dozers’ headquarters also carries super resistant drills that only become available late into the adventure. Those drills are able to break through steel blocks that are strategically placed throughout all of the levels, and they are often hiding areas with rewards such as the elusive treasures or some cash. Due to that, collecting everything the game hides can only be done if all stages are played more than once, something that comes off as a cheap measure to extend gameplay time.
That problem, along with a soundtrack that is sometimes way too busy, a few scenarios that are slightly dull, and the control shortcomings that exist when the Drill Dozer is in the water or airborne (two scenarios that are limited to two stages), do not – in the very least – undermine the game’s value as a platformer that is charming and clever. Drill Dozer’s plan to replace the commonplace platforming centerpiece of jumping with the thrill and might of drilling like an angry girl inside a mean machine succeeds through very good level design and spectacular boss battles. It is an overlooked Game Boy Advance gem that sparkles amidst the shining constellation of fantastic titles the system had.