Latchkey Games is a (sort of) weekly article that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on it’s initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This week’s game is Drill Dozer, an old school 2D action platformer that’s one of the GBA’s most unfortunately overlooked hidden gems.Japanese developer Game Freak is best known for the Pokemon series, but few people know that before they created Nintendo’s billion-dollar monster collecting franchise, they were probably best known for Pulseman, a Japan-only Mega Drive platformer that unfortunately didn’t make it over to Western shores until it was re-released for the Wii’s Virtual Console download service.
Pulseman is very well regarded among the few that have played it (seriously, grab on Wii if you have any love for 2D action games,) and playing the game almost makes you wish Pokemon hadn’t succeeded: as much as I love Pokemon, developing new games in the series has taken up most of Game Freak’s time and resources for the last decade and a half, and I kind of wish they’d get back to making more action games in the vein of Pulseman.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem like it’ll happen again anytime soon, and that’s mostly because of the game I’m going to talk about today: Drill Dozer for the Game Boy Advance. Released in 2006, Drill Dozer marked Game Freak’s triumphant return to the action genre. Despite coming out almost ten years after Pulseman, it quickly becomes apparent within a few minutes of playing Drill Dozer that Game Freak’s talent for creating fast, challenging action games hasn’t faded one bit: Drill Dozer isn’t just one of the best original titles released for the GBA, it’s one of the best 2D action games ever made, period.
Like a lot of classic 2D games, Drill Dozer features some deceptively simple controls: protagonist Jill rides around in a small, drill equipped mecha (which bares more than a passing resemblance to Simon’s personal Lagann robot from the anime Gurren Lagann,) which can only do two things: jump and drill. The game starts off simple enough; the platforming is basic and the only times you really use the drill are to stab enemies and to break the occasional block that’s in your way. But the game gradually adds more and more complex uses for the drill, such as executing the equivalent of wall jumps with it, or using it to boost through underground tunnels at speeds that would make Sonic the Hedgehog dizzy. The game starts off easy and shallow, but the final stages of the game feature some of the most frantic and complex platforming that I’ve ever seen. The first couple of stages are pretty forgiving, but only genre veterans should attempt some of the later challenges, as they require precision timing and reflexes.
While there are a few points where the game gets frustrating, it’s hard to complain about the overall experience when there are just so many moments in Drill Dozer that are just simply amazing to play through. One boss fight, for instance, has you dismantling a giant enemy robot piece by piece by drilling into it’s body, navigating your way through its maze like interior, and destroying it from the inside-out.
The game’s got style to match its substance as well. As anyone who played Pokemon Black and White or their recently released sequels will tell you, Game Freak employs some very talented sprite artists and animators, and they went all out with Drill Dozer: despite the simple character designs, each and every sprite in the game displays unique, smooth animation that’s full of personality and charm. Everything, from the massive boss robots to the little things, like the way Jill pops her head out of the Drill Dozer when it’s not drilling through something, show off an attention to detail that most games don’t even bother with.
So what went wrong with Drill Dozer? It’s a game with deep, addictive gameplay and lots of charm, so you may be asking why I cite it as the reason why we’ll never get another Game Freak developed action game. Well, the reason is simple: nobody bought Drill Dozer. The game completely bombed at retail.
It wasn’t the game’s fault — like I said, the game is amazing — rather, Drill Dozer’s lack success is due to bad timing. By the time the game hit the GBA in 2006, the original DS was already a mainstream hit and was already on the path to becoming one of the best selling systems of all time, and Sony’s PSP was already wowing audiences with near-PS2 quality graphics and console-like gameplay. Nobody was paying much attention to the poor Game Boy Advance anymore, and Drill Dozer was quickly overshadowed by flashier releases for the newer handhelds. To put it simply, Drill Dozer was the right game at the wrong time.
It’s a shame too, because I simply can’t praise this game enough. If Drill Dozer had come out during the 16-bit era, or even earlier in the GBA’s lifespan, it probably would’ve been regarded as a classic on par with timeless favorites like Gunstar Heroes or Mega Man X. That statement may sound like hyperbole if you’ve never played Drill Dozer before, but I honestly feel that DD is just as good as any of the great 16-bit action games that retro gamers revere nowadays.
At the very least, Drill Dozer’s lack of commercial success has at least helped to keep it affordable: Amazon still has new copies of the game in stock for about twenty dollars, and you can usually find used copies of the game for only a few bucks. The game is definitely worth it at any price, and if you bare any sort of love for 2D platformers/action games or simply want an old-school challenge, do yourself a favor and give Drill Dozer a chance. Enjoy it while it lasts too, because it might be awhile before we get another game like it.