You'd think that a game about the trials and tribulations of an underaged miner whose primary concerns are avoiding being crushed by the countless tons of cascading rock above his head and praying, oh sweet baby Jesus, that he's able to find enough pockets of oxygen to extend his relentlessly grim existence would be a little bit more, I dunno, bleak. But Mr. Driller, and by extension, Mr. Driller Online for Xbox Live Arcade, is about as bright and cheery as video games get. Unfortunately, Mr. Driller Online is plagued by a meager selection of gameplay modes and bug-ridden online play that keep it from being worth the $10 price tag.
Mr. Driller is, both philosophically and literally, the child of another subterranean Namco franchise, Dig-Dug. But, rather than hunting down fire-breathing dragons and goggled tomato monsters with a bike pump, your objective is to drill down through a field of odd-shaped, multicolored blocks as fast as you can. As you descend, you'll have to dodge the falling un-drilled blocks left above you, and you've also got a constantly depleting air meter to concern yourself with, which you can replenish with air capsules that you'll happen upon randomly.
There are a few other concerns, such as blocks that take multiple drills to destroy, blocks that disappear on their own accord, and power-ups that can increase your speed, provide you with a protective bubble shield, or automatically replenish all of your air meter. In addition to Mr. Driller himself, you can play as a variety of other characters, including Taizo--Dig-Douglas to you and me--and each comes with unique stats. The pacing is manic, and it's definitely more action than puzzle.
One of the problems with Mr. Driller Online is one that is endemic to the entire franchise. Despite the fact that there have been no less than six ostensibly different Mr. Driller games over the past nine years, Mr. Driller Online isn't terribly different from the 1999 Japanese arcade original. Some franchises can get away with this kind of recycling, but the gameplay in Mr. Driller is a little too thin to justify it. The problem extends beyond the gameplay, though, as Mr. Driller Online employs fuzzy character sprites that look like they date back to the start of the series. The game itself emanates the kind of sharp tones that you only hear in video games, though the background music is surprisingly organic and catchy, with lots of live instruments and some simple vocals. It almost sounds like a b-side from a Katamari soundtrack, though it's not the only reason you'll want to linger at the menu screen.
Perhaps the straightforward gameplay wouldn't be such a problem if there were plenty of levels and modes of play, but in the single-player game there are only two modes, each with five levels that only seem to really differ in background theme. The standard driller mode just has you working your way to the bottom of increasingly deep mines. The quest driller mode does the same, though every hundred meters you're given a new secondary rule that you must abide by, lest the game end automatically. You'll have to drill through sections with a time limit hanging over you, only using a number of air capsules, not using any power-ups, and so on. The quest driller mode provides a nice twist on the standard gameplay, but it's simply not enough.
At this point I'd talk about the online component of Mr. Driller Online, though in the greatest of ironies, it's currently busted beyond use, and nearly a week after its release, there are no apparent signs of a patch. It's kind of heartbreaking for me, because I have extremely fond memories of the original Mr. Driller, which, during an era rich with insane Japanese games, was one of the most charming. I would gladly welcome a Mr. Driller game with sharp, HD-friendly graphics, a robust single-player game, and functional online play with open arms, but this isn't it.