Digging into the Mr. Driller DrillLand Remake

An interview with producer Maya Ito as the cutest little GameCube masterpiece makes its way to modern platforms.

A few months back, Bandai Namco shocked the world—or maybe just me—by announcing a Switch conversion of Mr. Driller DrillLand. And not just for Japan, where the original game had shipped on GameCube back in 2002; this time, DrillLand would be making its way into global market with an international release. 

A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. The Mr. Driller series never really seemed to find the audience it deserved in the U.S. in particularly. Spun out of the classic Dig Dug franchise, Mr. Driller matched whimsical cartoon visuals to frantic, challenging gameplay... something the international market tended to be less accepting of 20 years ago. 

But then, maybe the problem was that we never saw DrillLand, the pinnacle of the series. Where the original Mr. Driller had a fairly limited scope to its gameplay—dig downward through an unstable shaft of colorful blocks to reach a certain depth before air ran out—DrillLand added tremendous depth to the concept. Besides bringing in the full stable of playable characters introduced in earlier Driller sequels, each of whom had different strengths and weaknesses from main protagonist Susumu Hori, DrillLand introduced a variety of alternate modes that explored new applications for the series' core gameplay mechanics. If the original Mr. Driller could be said to have been exciting but shallow, DrillLand demonstrated the full depth inherent in the concept.

Many of the alternate modes abandoned the stressful timed play mechanics of the standard Driller mode by changing the workings of the Air meter or dropping it altogether. In the Horror Night House mode, for example, you could only lose Air when attacked by ghosts trapped in the block you broke; only by injecting a region of blocks with Holy Water to stun spirits could you safely break blocks and collect the crystals left behind by the monsters. Hole of Druaga turned Driller into an RPG inspired by arcade classic The Tower of Druaga, where the Air meter became hit points that diminished only when you dug through a block or were attacked by foes, and could be replenished by using items ("Dristones") that recharged health, among other effects. And Drindy Adventure saw the original Dig Dug himself, Taizo Hori, gathering golden idols in fields of spike traps and rolling boulders, his journey hindered not by air but by the number of times he could succumb to a hazard.

It's this game, complete with a goofy story about a theme park built to lure the Driller teams to their doom by the nefarious "Dr. Manhole", that will be arriving on Switch and Steam next week. Curious to know more about how this lost masterpiece made its way back into the world (and into the world at large for the first time), I connected with Bandai Namco and producer Maya Ito to learn more about this new release: How it was selected for a remake, how it's changing, and if this will be one of the few Mr. Driller releases not to suffer from cut content in its U.S. version.

Retronauts: First, can you introduce yourself? How have you been involved previously with the Mr. Driller series?

Maya Ito: I am Maya Ito, producer of Mr. Driller DrillLand. I have been working as producer at Bandai Namco for more than 10 years and have worked on over 30 titles so far. Quite some time ago, I was in charge of We Ski and Active Life on Wii, and in more recent years, Katamari Damacy REROLL on Nintendo Switch, which was released in December 2018. I wasn’t previously involved in the Driller series, but when I was working on the port of Katamari, I thought I wanted to port Mr. Driller too, since it had been so popular in the past! 

R. Mr. Driller DrillLand is a pretty deep cut. Why bring it back now, and specifically, why bring back this particular Driller game?

MI: When we were thinking about porting Mr. Driller, I was very uncertain about which one to port from the numerous titles in the series. I consulted with [original series producer Hideo] Yoshizawa, and he told me that it should definitely be DrillLand! Although it was released only in Japan, it received high ratings and won an award from Edge, the British video game magazine. We had also seen questions asking why it was not released overseas, so I decided to revive DrillLand and make a port available not only in Japan, but also overseas. 

R: In terms of content, will anything be added? And for that matter, will everything be carried over? For example, on GameCube, DrillLand could link with Mr. Driller Ace on Game Boy Advance—something that's obviously not an option here. 

MI: As you mentioned, it’s physically impossible to link with the GBA. However, we implemented the parades, other modes and almost all the features that existed at that time. All graphics are in full HD, whereas voices of Drillers and movies are from the original game. 

There is also an additional element in this release, the “Casual Course” with adjusted difficulty. As fans of Mr. Driller may know, it can be challenging. Mr. Driller was a game design reflective of that era—back then, players would need to play a lot to get powerful items to clear the game, and I thought it may be seen as too difficult for some modern gamers. So I consulted with Mr. Yoshizawa about adjusting the difficulty level, and he had same opinion, the “Casual Course” mode was added to allow beginners to also enjoy the game. However, some players who have played the game before or advanced players looking for a challenge can enjoy the “Classic Course” with same level of difficulty as the original game.

R: One thing that DrillLand didn't have an option for was online connectivity. Will you be adding any online elements, such as leaderboards, or even a showcase for players' redemption prizes?

MI: Although the original didn’t have it, we are implementing player rankings in this version. 

There is a ranking for each level of each attraction in both the aforementioned Casual and Classic Courses. Although it’s separate for each platform, there is a worldwide ranking for the top 100 players, which shows the 10 players above and the 10 players below one’s score. If you are confident in your skills and up for a challenge, you can aim for higher rankings!

R: Can we expect to see any gameplay refinements? For example, new playable characters? Or maybe balancing fixes? As much as I love "Hole of Druaga", the boss battle can be incredible drawn out if the Dristone RNG doesn't go your way...

"Hole of Druaga" is fun because it’s a mode with lots of different playing methods, such as boss battle, but it’s particularly difficult…I understand you.

As mentioned earlier, the difficulty is adjusted in Casual Course. To be more specific, Dristones appear randomly, and there are other things like healing Dristones having only a 20% healing effect, etc., but it’s much easier to play. I don’t think it will feel too long like the original game. 

R: Can we expect to see the full content of the Japanese version in international releases? American releases of Driller games have historical suffered from severe content cuts.

MI: The game will have almost the same specifications as the original and will be available not only in Japanese, but also in English and 13 other languages and will have shared game content across the versions. Everyone around the world can enjoy the same Mr. Driller! (Note: The voices are Japanese only.)

R: When I spoke to Mr. Yoshizawa in 2012, he said he saw Mr. Driller: Drill 'Til You Drop as the final statement on the series. Do you think that's still true? Can we expect to see new Driller titles in the future, or simply archival reissues like this?

MI: Who knows… Regarding future projects, nothing has been decided at this moment. But after all this time, if this work and is received very well worldwide, I may consider what to do for our next project. Next time when I go out drinking with Mr. Yoshizawa, I will try talking to him about it. (laughs)