With all the rumblings made with a third generation in the Pokémon franchise, one would consider that even a side-project from Game Freak would have generated a greater impact in sales on the same portable system their cash cow dominated upon. After all, a GameCube title consisting of essentially nothing but watching short TV programs about the cuddly marketable creatures was able to sell a decent bundle of copies on brand recognition alone. Maybe it was due a dearth of advertising, a release window on a device growing more outdated in wake of a superior dual-screen offshoot, or just the lack of “From the makers of…” sticker or headline that sealed Drill Dozer‘s fate. Regardless of the reason, like being snatched by a thief in the shadows, this little gem snuck away from the show floor with nary the public aware it was around.
The Red Dozers is a team of lovable bandits within the game’s world that tend to lock horns with other less-than-admirable rogues within and around Metal City. One day their rivals, the Skulkers, ambushed and pummeled the leader of the Red Dozers, Doug, leaving him in traction and taking off with the prized Red Diamond, a gift bestowed by his late wife. It is up to his young tomboy daughter Jill (“Dori Kururi” in Japan, an equally punny name in its original language) to hop into the gang’s mech suit and go after to get that diamond back, even if it means having to overthrow a maniacal villain out to seize ultimate power. Anything valuable and not bolted down along the way can be “salvaged” as a bonus.
The eponymous Drill Dozer is exactly as it sounds: a walking tank with arms that form a huge screw bit. While far from a stealthy vehicle, the simple straightforwardness of its design and mechanics finds a plethora of uses. Sure, it serves as your sole means of offense as well as a great way to reek destruction of walls, but the heavy drill proves its versatility as a means to deflect projectiles, turn cranks, bore through tunnels, and even twist the tumblers in safe locks. The drill arms can spin clockwise or counter-clockwise with the press of the L or R buttons, with many puzzles based on the “righty tighty, lefty loosey” mnemonic; they’re even color-coded with blue/red for L/R respectively. This leaves the game rather unique as the B button is placed as a secondary passive role like entering doors or answering messages from your crew. Those shoulder triggers will get quite the workout as every obstacle Jill faces is solved with either jumping, drilling, or the combination of both.
Naturally, being a kindergarten burglar is not without opposition. Between the cops and Skulker minions, there are also ghosts and reanimated mummies to contend with inside ancient ruins alongside robotic defense canines and electrical tunnel munchers guarding art museums. Each stop contains traps, puzzles, and a boss powered or manipulated by the energy contained with one of several various colored diamonds — much like the red one Jill is seeking. If it’s not the masked Skullker leader Croog using the power of the Black Diamond, it’s the ever-vigilant Detective Noriko Carrie out to lock Jill up, the crooked police commissioner John Fitzgerald and his tinkering Skullker Professor Hunchback von Katamari hatching a dastardly ploy, or local fauna and ancient robots given a diamond boost that are all being a threat to the Dozers. Considering that one stage centers around reversing a giant missile aimed to blow up Jill’s pop personally, it’s no surprise that the gal and her mobile machine walker have to be built tough.
Despite the occasional ambush of enemy waves, most of the challenge is dictated with each level’s layout of block and stage hazard gimmicks. Almost every block, hazard, or means of transportation involves getting plenty of mileage out of that massive drill bit — almost as if the stages were built for Jill. Timer blocks, gelatin blocks, conveyer bits to hang from, bolts to tighten, screw-shaped tunnel — all means to progress before running into an animated threat. Outside of brute force drilling, the game has a handful of simple puzzles to solve, such as swapping framed art and flipping switches. The biggest hurdle within each level are shutters that are only breakable whenever a new gear is picked up. The Drill Dozer starts with only one gear at the start of every stage, with two extra sprockets to collect within the level layout. The drill can then be shifted up to the next gear for added speed and power to make quicker work of tougher blocks and enemies as well as screwy obstacles. Obtaining the third and final third shift also has the benefit of nonstop spinning for puzzles and tunnels that need persistent drilling.
Since these added gears are mandatory to complete each mission, the design of the stages is doled out to ramp up with each increase in power to put that gear-shifting to work. However, the tightly-knit linear structure of the game design comes with a drawback, as the second and third gears are taken away at the start of each and every level and need to be re-acquired. There is an in-game explanation for the lost of the souped-up gears (they overheat and break after each mission), but it leaves the pace grinding back to a pokier prattle having to slowly bore through simple brick obstacles that were sliced through like butter just moments prior. Of course, starting each stage fully powered up would the potential to sequence break level segments, but it does feel like a drag to replay earlier beaten levels for hidden goodies and have to start back at square one. This isn’t as huge of a deal with each new stage, as the slower beginning sections leave time to acclimate with each new spin on the latest new block type or enemy introduced.
And what bandits don’t love cold hard cash? Enemies and walls shower with the Drill Dozer world’s money: credit card/microprocessor-like chips for Jill and her crew to make bank and spend, spend, spend. The friendly geezer shopkeeper arrives onto the main menu a few missions in to sell Jill energy tanks, special drill bits, and maps to secret areas; all for a few hundred chips apiece. Fortunately, hidden stashes of this byte-sized currency is rampart within levels, so it shouldn’t take but a second round through a couple of the stages to nab enough chips to buy every upgrade and map in the shop. The energy tanks are self-explanatory, adding another bar of health per increasingly-price-inflated tank. The new drill bits are rather situational, but helpful, nonetheless. Within almost every mission (even the tutorial level) lies special blue and silver blocks that no pumped-up gear speed can damage. These stronger bits are needed to break through these peskier obstructions blockading shortcuts and goodies. The coveted Mega Bit to rip through the silver blocks is only available after the main story quest, though. The upgradable drill bits come with a new paint job to the Dozer, so you know you’re packing the strength to bore through those special barricades. Despite the boost in tech, these new powers only serve their purpose on the unique fortified barriers alone and add no perk to the standard obstacles. They may rip through those solid steel blocks in a flash, but plain bricks still take their sweet time to crumble on the first gear.
Drill Dozer turns twists on the standard drill sessions with a couple of attachments to the screw bit. These power-ups aren’t obtainable without a fight with the goofy Magnet Sisters, a duo of wrinkly grandmas seeking the diamonds’ power for youth. Their defeat earns a propeller to power Jill to the skies or seas for the rest of the stage. These change-ups to the standard clanking trek come with their own hang-ups, notwithstanding, particularly involving inertia. Transforming into a makeshift submarine doesn’t alleviate the mass of the Dozer, leading to big turbine windups to get moving and reversing to assist in slowing down or to even brake. All too often it’s easy to build up too much speed trying to get a move on then struggle frantically to stop before colliding with walls or, worse, an aquatic enemy or spike trap.
Flying also demonstrates the harshness of gravity’s pull in the pathway to drill towards the heavens. A straight launch upwards proves a cinch once kicked into the third gear, but that acceleration doesn’t transfer so well in lateral flights as Jill is railroaded to maneuver through prickly horizontal gauntlets with enough flutter speed necessary. Holding both L and R keeps the Dozer at a consistent hover, but it’s still a slow drift and finicky at times. These are the only major deviations from the normal spins on platforming, as the only other Dozer gimmick is a short tank-only “stealth” mission to save an imprisoned Jill, where the only drawback is a reduced jump height.
Considering the plethora of hits Jill can take in relation to the plentiful health pickups hiding within drillable debris, on top of the relatively cheap energy tanks, there is little chance of your Dozer failing during the main story missions. In the event of the health bar dropping to zero, continuing is only a minor blow to your pocket change, sacrificing only 50 chips. Reaching the end credits may prove a mild breeze for some platformer pros, but the real challenge is finishing with a worthy rank as a bandit. Sure, Jill might have saved the day and recovered her family Red Diamond, but without swiping enough valuable loot along the way, she might be deemed a mere pickpocket. Similar to countless Nintendo titles, obtaining that coveted 100% completion is a true accomplishment to overcome. While many of the treasures that boost your rank reside in the standard set of stages, those seeking to find them all have to plow through the bonus levels unlocked by buying the maps at the shop. These areas are where the true test of mettle is performed and know-how of prior stage gimmicks is measured, as precise drilling and release is needed to push through these obstacle courses on steroids. Completing these bonus stages and acquiring every optional bit of treasure ends with little fanfare, only the sense of satisfaction of besting the game. If that wasn’t enough, Drill Dozer has an unlockable Hard mode that make Jill and the dozer one-hit wonders.
There are roughly only a dozen stages to complete to reach the game’s ending, making for a fairly short game. However, each main level itself is lengthy for a portable outing, taking about 15 minutes to over a half-hour, depending on your skills. The amount of unlockable content is also sparse, allocated into a secret room to input passcodes for dress-up costumes for Jill on the menu screen and alternate borders for dialogue boxes (that also change the design of the Dozer launching room; fluffy cloud border = preschool wallpapers, et al.). The plot itself is light, as well, not taking itself too seriously with dopey minions and easily dispatched forces that merely fly away from a drill to the face. Many scripts and set pieces mirror this cartoonish story, with a mech battle on a stage; signs to remind baddies to smile; toilets to demolish; and the chief of police bringing up the Red Dozer’s multiple dine-and-ditches among other crimes of theft and vandalism.
Speaking of cartoonishness, the animation and expressions given to the sprites is admirable for the portable system. While not the most fluid sprite work, every character pops, grimacing in comical ways from attacks. Naturally, as the main character, Jill is given the lion’s share of poses and reactions. Little touches are given to her, such as looking back as she walks in reverse, the many directions she can look to pan the screen, the bounciness of her pigtails in motion, and more. The localization team at Nintendo of America mentioned how emotive the girl was without any dialogue from her at all.
The art style certainly skews from the norm of Ken Sugimori’s work. While Sugimori would fill as director and create the prologue comic and some added artwork outside of the game, the character and graphic designs were provided by Hironobu Yoshida, another fellow artist from Game Freak whom created the look of such Pokémon as Celebi, Deoxys, and Wobbuffet. On top of that, Yoshida also lent his voice to a few of the male grunts in the game.
The soundtrack of the game certainly matches the style of third Gen Pokémon titles on the GBA, reusing many samples, though in a more bombastic manner fitting for an action game. A lot of the similarities is attributed to having Go Ichinose as the main composer, whom has served as Junichi Masuda’s assistant since Gold & Silver. In spite of that, the music in Drill Dozer shines best in the guitar-twanging tracks, particularly the heroic theme that takes over once the third Gear is obtained. Despite little chatter, Jill is accented with cute squeaky noises and the occasional shout or exclamation (vocalized by Sachiko Hamano).
Late-generation releases for the Game Boy Advance carried with it more gimmicky additions built-in from Nintendo. While it didn’t sport gyro controls in its casing, Drill Dozer is one of the few carts with a vibrating oscillator inside. The built-in rumble feature housed inside the oversized red cart gives positive tactical feedback, bursting with a jolt to signify each ratchet up a more powerful gear speed.
Drill Dozer does fall into two pitfalls that litter modern game design. Cutscenes that are spliced within the middle of stages are unskippable, resulting in a mash-fest of the A button to power through the text boxes. Worse yet are your Red Dozer pals Grutch and Gearmo calling in to narrate the hazards and puzzles you are currently in for silent protagonist Jill’s sake along with spouting their blatant tips. Having these intrusive breaks the first go through a level is one thing, but barely a handful of these tutorials are removed from subsequent retries of missions, meaning a near repeat of the same info given each and every time. Another issue is the gear overlay to visualize when to shift. The white gear and grooves cover a significantly large portion of the tiny screen, and given how it is the quintessential aspect of the game, prepare to have it obscure the game 90% of the run.
The release of Drill Dozer outside of Japan is hardly altered. Revealed at E3 2005, the game’s English title was originally “Screw Breaker”, a shorted variant of the Japanese one. The “RED.D” logo on the Red Dozer’s team trailer van was removed, but otherwise the script was left intact aside from some wordplay and pun alterations among the languages. One of the major changes with the American localization is the design of a handful of the unlockable costumes for Jill. Five outfits were altered to become references to older Game Freak titles. Three of these clothing options had only mild changes; the overalls adding white gloves and mushroom hair clips to look more Mario-like, the nurse uniform tweaked to match Misaki’s attire from Click Medic, and a Quinty cap to finish off the red dress for the Mimi from Mendel Palace cosplay. The two drastic changes were swapping the swirly-glasses schoolgirl look to Leaf’s dress from Pokémon FireRed & LeafGreen and the pink Mr. Driller-esque future suit to a Pulseman-inspired getup.
A European build was finalized in early 2006, yet a physical cart would not be produced for undisclosed reasons. (Rumors persisted of EU laws about the mercury within the rumble motor, but this was never proven to be the cause). The continents of Australia and Europe would finally receive a non-import means of the game via the Virtual Console service ten years later, using the previously discarded build. It mirrors the North American version, but has five language options and opts for the Japanese variants of the outfits. The Virtual Console digital release on Wii U even implements Game Boy Player functionality, allowing all compatible controllers to rumble just like they did on the GameCube.
Like the majority of non-Pokémon-related IPs from Game Freak, Drill Dozer as of yet has not received a follow-up. Jill and the Dozer would appear as an Assist Trophy only in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, where she does what she does best: drilling away the competition. As a one-off, it certainly brings a change of pace with some impeccable level design. Whether you go for one swift playthough or scour to unearth every treasure, the game is indeed worth a spin.