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You should play Namco’s lost arcade-action classic, Mr. Driller DrillLand

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Enlarge / Right about now sounds good for a blast of 2002’s best arcade-puzzle gaming.

Bandai Namco

In recent years, Japanese game makers have tried to revive the 16- and 32-bit era’s beloved niche of arcade-puzzle series, but these nostalgia cash-ins have mostly failed. Capcom’s Puzzle Fighter came back to life on smartphones as a free-to-play gacha mess. Sega’s Chu Chu Rocket returned with too many complications as an Apple Arcade exclusive (and, crucially, zero multiplayer). And Hudson’s Super Bomberman sputtered onto the Switch’s 2017 launch lineup as a mess, though it eventually received some face-saving patches.

As a result, I shudder whenever I see a cult-classic, puzzle-arcade series return on modern, download-only storefronts. The genre that used to thrive on cartridges and CD-ROMs has become ripe for microtransactions and slot-machine mechanics. Which is why I’m taking the unusual step of reviewing such a launch going right.

Mr. Driller DrillLand, out today on Windows PCs and Nintendo Switch, is one of the rarest games from Namco’s early-’00s period, which was otherwise marked by the blistering 3D likes of Ridge Racer and Tekken. The cartoony, 2D game, which launched exclusively in Japan in 2002 for the GameCube, was arguably a swan song for the studio’s legacy as an ’80s arcade juggernaut. Thankfully, today’s updated, translated version leaves well enough alone: its pure gameplay experience returns with 1080p-friendly touches.

$30 may be a bit steep for this classic game, but it’s the best Mr. Driller game ever made, and it’s a remarkable love letter to the Namco of old.

Clearing a path to a flow state

Plus, quite frankly, I’m happy to have this enormously cheery and weird game right now.

Like other puzzle games from its era, DrillLand comes with a silly and largely unnecessary plot, and it includes the same Japanese voice acting found in the 2002 version. Mr. Driller and his friends have been invited to visit a fictional amusement park, and its every attraction twists or modifies the core Mr. Driller gameplay formula with some thematic gimmick. (His friends, if you’re wondering, include his dad—as in, the guy who starred in Dig Dug—and a cheery, talking dog named Puchi.)

One of these attractions is essentially a port of other Mr. Driller games, because it simply asks players to dig, dig, dig. Your primary object is to dig through colorful blocks from the top of the screen as deeply as possible. That may seem simple, but if you dig carelessly, you may leave hanging fragments that fall and crush you, and your digging path is complicated by “solid” blocks and a requirement to pick up oxygen tank refills. This is a high-score chase mode, since you’ll get more points for clearing various depth amounts quickly and efficiently.

Since the first Mr. Driller game launched in 1999, no other puzzle game has copied its formula. Unlike color-matching and piece-fitting classics, Mr. Driller emphasizes the flow state of constant, efficient movement and digging, which benefits from spatial awareness of shapes and colors all around you. Matching other colored blocks factors into your success, and your downward digging can put color-matching combos into motion, so there’s a two-headed thrust to your Mr. Driller DrillLand progress. That this gameplay still feels special and unique makes this 2002 re-release a worthy puzzling option for anyone who may have missed the series before.

But even if you find that puzzle system a bit wanting, the four other modes add clever twists to its formula. The best mode removes the oxygen-filling requirement and converts the whole game to an Indiana Jones spoof, where you’re forced to create digging paths that lead to treasure pickups while avoiding traps and—oh, I love these—giant rolling stones that will smash through your digging path and threaten you, like the chase scene from Raiders. Another mode pays homage to Namco’s classic Tower of Druaga series, as it forces Mr. Driller to take specific paths through a dungeon, collect treasure and keys, and fight bosses. And a haunted-house mode turns you into a ghostbuster of sorts, as it makes you freeze and capture ghosts within the blocks that you’d otherwise dig through.

That’s the Puchi attitude

Between each of these challenges, a fully voiced cut scene will play out with the Driller crew’s personalities clashing in giddy, Saturday morning fashion, and while you can mash buttons to skip these, I’d suggest not. The whole package radiates with DayGlo-bright designs—all handsomely scaled to modern screen resolutions and a 16:9 ratio—and part of the inflated $30 cost is that you’re sometimes expected to sit back and marvel at how weird and elaborate the game’s story gets.

This should particularly delight anyone who still fondly recalls Katamari Damacy, which debuted on PlayStation 2 two years after DrillLand‘s launch. You can see the seeds of Katamari‘s wacky plot and King Of All Cosmos character planted by the Driller family’s saccharine-sweet trials. Meanwhile, DrillLand‘s perky J-Pop soundtrack, presented here at full fidelity, isn’t identical to Katamari‘s classic tunes by any stretch, but the up-tempo charm and vocal-melody components are almost identical.

The weirdness doesn’t end there. At any time, you can load a lengthy, music-driven parade sequence, where various Driller-series characters stomp across your screen, almost-but-not-quite in time with the music. There’s no way to fail this mode; it’s not technically “gameplay,” and you can only modify it by pressing a joystick to change the marchers’ tempo. Why is this in the game? I have no idea. But now I kinda wish every video game had an optional parade sequence as an amusing distraction. (Just think of how TLOU2‘s post-apocalyptic Seattle might look with its mutated monsters stomping to the music while holding batons.)

To finish the package, the game includes a pair of four-player battle modes. One is a parallel race through standard Mr. Driller gameplay, where each player races to dig through identical content, and the other is a ho-hum battle mode where players dig through the same, shared screen in search of a randomly placed treasure. The latter feels unfair as a versus game, while the former is pretty meager with its battling and “garbage” mechanics. Still, as family-friendly four-player modes, they’re better than nothing (but, sadly, don’t work online).

Nitpicks, not dealbreakers

The biggest drawback to the whole package is a $30 pricetag, which is high for a 2002 re-release. As far as “new” content, you’re getting a newly translated script (no new English voice acting), an admittedly smooth upscaling of the original 2D assets to 1080p resolution, and a new “casual” difficulty level—which, I should be blunt, is far from casual. Mr. Driller DrillLand can be pretty unforgiving to new players due to how quickly its falling block fragments fall and harm your character, and entire runs will get wiped out due to a severely limited pool of lives. (Casual mode only adds a single extra life to each mode, which, I have to say, doesn’t suddenly make the package newbie-friendly.)

Worse, the game’s digital download doesn’t include any form of instruction manual, so you’ll go through trial-and-error to answer serious questions about the game. Which levels should I play first? Do shiny blocks, which disappear after a certain amount of time, mean anything in a level? Why don’t each individual mode’s “level 2” and “level 3” sections unlock? Is there a point to spending in-game coins on a shelf of collectibles? And how do all of the items in the item shop work? The last question is crucial, because beginners will rely on that item shop, not the “casual” mode toggle, to survive their earliest sessions. Some in-game guidance to that effect would have been appreciated.

Thus, it’s not a perfect collection. Still, I’ll take a re-release that’s doggedly old-school over the microtransaction alternative. DrillLand is exactly the kind of unique, satisfying, and cutesy puzzle-action game I want right now, and its brand-new appearance on the portable Nintendo Switch is particularly welcome. (And since the series’ iOS $1 version from 2009 is dead, thanks to a lack of 64-bit update, we’ll have to settle on this week’s solid port.)

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How Zelda fans changed the ending to Ocarina of Time on a vanilla N64

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Enlarge / This… isn’t supposed to happen in Ocarina of Time. Here’s the story of how some fans made it happen anyway—all on a stock N64 with an unmodified Ocarina cartridge.

Summer Games Done Quick

Shortly after our guide to Summer Games Done Quick 2022 went live, the event hosted an astounding demonstration of a classic video game—one that has since crowded that Ars article’s replies. If we want to split hairs, this run through the 1998 N64 classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not a “speedrun,” but it’s another example of the “TASBot” concept transforming games in ways we would never have dreamed of 24 years ago.

The team of fans and programmers responsible for this week’s “Triforce-percent” demonstration have since revealed how they achieved the feat with nothing more than a stock N64 and an original Ocarina retail cartridge—though the secret involves controller inputs so fast and precise that they cannot be performed by anything less than a computer.

Nothing stale about this run

An early 2020 video that explains how stale reference manipulation works. You may want to watch this before watching the SGDQ 2022 video, embedded further below.

The 53-minute demonstration (embedded at the end of this article) opens with an exploit previously unearthed in late 2019, which the community dubbed “Stale Reference Manipulation.” This exploit takes advantage of a vulnerability in the game’s original 1.0 version, which allowed players to manipulate numerical values assigned to specific objects in the game’s memory. The breeziest explanation for this complicated technique can be found in a YouTube video from early 2020 (embedded above), as it spells out the various numerical values assigned to each object in the game, such as their X-, Y-, and Z-axes and their rotation.

Savvy players can make values overlap or overwhelm the game’s original code so they can be manipulated as players see fit. The technique we see in this week’s run requires Link to pick up a rock while going through a “loading zone,” a hallway used to disguise loading pauses on N64 hardware, and to do so in a way that the game was not designed to handle.

Initially, this exploit was a speedrunning tool, as it could trick the game into loading the final credits sequence and technically count as a “completion” within only a few minutes. But the Triforce-percent run goes much further.

RAMming new content into a classic game

Hey, wait, that doesn't belong here... but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from <em>Star Fox 64</em> was left in the original <em>Ocarina</em> cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.
Enlarge / Hey, wait, that doesn’t belong here… but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from Star Fox 64 was left in the original Ocarina cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.

Summer Games Done Quick

By picking up and dropping specific items, then making the game’s hero Link move and perform maneuvers in a specific sequence, the TASBot team opens up a Pandora’s box of what’s known as arbitrary code execution—the type of vulnerability used by hackers the world over to make a closed computer system run whatever code they want. What’s more, the TASBot chain of moves and commands begins to tell the N64 to accept button input from all four N64 controllers as if it’s code.

This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.
Enlarge / This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.

Summer Games Done Quick

At this point, a computer takes over all four N64 controller ports and sends a rapid-fire series of button taps, as if it were a zillion-finger superhero equivalent to The Flash. The glitched-out Ocarina cartridge has instructed the N64 to accept each button tap in a way that corresponds to specific code strings. Once enough of this payload has been sent, the team can return normal control to the “player one” port, so that a real person can play through an entirely new sequence of content—all being dumped into the N64’s random-access memory (RAM) by the other three controllers’ incredibly fast input.

These on-the-fly patches can do many incredible things that, combined, resemble a fully blown patch of a cartridge’s read-only memory (ROM), though the TASBot team restricts itself to changes that specifically apply to the console’s RAM: tiny changes to existing code, total file replacements, or commands to tell the game to ignore content that it would normally load from the ROM. As a result, this exploit can glitch or crash if players go outside the expected path that this exploit is optimized for.

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Diablo Immortal is bringing in over $1 million a day in microtransactions

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Use cash to buy orbs.

Despite backlash from some players, Diablo Immortal‘s free-to-play, microtransaction-laden game design seems to be working out just fine for Blizzard’s bottom line. Using data from mobile analysis firm Appmagic, MobileGamer.biz estimates that the iOS and Android versions of the game brought in $49 million in earnings from just over 10 million mobile downloads in the versions’ first 30 days of availability.

Those estimates, which are based on public charts provided by the mobile platforms, don’t include the PC version of the game and, thus, may actually be underselling the scale of its financial success. With PC players included, Blizzard announced that Diablo Immortal hit 10 million installs after just over a week, well ahead of the mobile download pace estimated by Appmagic.

By way of comparison, Diablo III took nearly six months to sell 10 million copies after its troubled launch back in 2012. But that game sold for a $60 MSRP, making it hard to compare directly to a free-to-play game that has so far brought in an estimated average of less than $5 in earnings per download, according to Appmagic.

The long tail

While Diablo III‘s earnings were front-loaded on initial sales, though, Diablo Immortal seems well-positioned to bring in additional revenue from its existing player base for a long while. As of Monday, for instance, the game was still the 34th highest-grossing app on the entire iOS App Store, despite having fallen to 134th in terms of new downloads.

Many of those initial Immortal players (and payers) will eventually fall away from the game, of course. But that process might happen slower than you might think. Estimates of Android app retention from analysis firm Quettra suggest an app that launches in the “top 10” on the Google Play Store (as Diablo Immortal did) can expect to keep close to 60 percent of its initial users after three months. And public data from mobile hits like Pokemon Go, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush Saga suggests that roughly 10 to 20 percent of all players who had downloaded those games were still regular players a full year or two after launch.

That all suggests that Diablo Immortal will have millions of active players well into next year and beyond. And while the vast majority of those players will never spend a single cent on the game, the top-end whales could easily spend enough on the game’s confusing sets of currencies to keep the revenue rolling in for Blizzard for a long time.

Blizzard has already promised that the upcoming Diablo IV will limit microtransactions to optional cosmetics. But the early performance for Diablo Immortal helps show why the free-to-play business model can be so appealing for a publisher like Blizzard, even if it can be annoying for many players.

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The best game-exploiting speedruns of Summer Games Done Quick 2022

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Enlarge / All four of the mascots seen in this SGDQ promo image appear in various speedruns hosted over the past week.

Summer Games Done Quick

The Games Done Quick series of charity events has long been a favorite among the gaming fans and critics at Ars Technica since it combines classic, beloved video games and carefully studied methods to break them apart in search of high-speed exploits.

This year’s summertime installment is particularly special, as it’s the first in 2.5 years to take place at a physical venue—albeit with some of the most stringent masking and distancing requirements we’ve seen in a livestreamed public show in 2022. (GDQ’s organizers appear to read the news, which makes sense for a series that benefits the likes of Doctors Without Borders.) Even with precautions taken, its combination of players, commentators, and crowds in the same room has brought excitement back to its broadcasts, which is why we’re pulling together some of the best runs from the past week, as archived at GDQ’s official YouTube channel.

The event is still ongoing as of this article’s publication, which means you can watch it right now via its Twitch channel. The event’s final runs, dedicated to Elden Ring, will conclude in the late hours on Saturday, July 2.

Tunic speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Tunic, 2022, “true ending” run

If you haven’t yet played Tunic, we recommend you pause before watching this game-breaking, spoiler-filled romp through many of its biggest secrets. (My March review of the game has far fewer spoilers.) But if you’ve already collected the game’s slew of hidden “instruction booklet” pages, consider this a must-watch, because it includes a compelling guest on real-time commentary: Andrew Shouldice, the game’s lead designer, programmer, and artist.

He’s joined by a member of the Power-Up Audio team, which worked on the game’s soundtrack, and they divulge tons of information about how the game was made—including confirmation about how many of the biggest exploits were intentionally left by the devs in the game. At one point, Shouldice watches a trick begin to play out, telling the crowd that he programmed it to be a possibility but could never personally trigger it. Moments later, the speedrunner demonstrated the trick, allowing him to warp through a wall and bypass a ton of tricky content.

Halo Infinite speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Halo Infinite, 2021, “no tank gun” run

Many classic games’ speedruns include multiple categories, and the most broken ones are known as “any-percent” runs, since they allow players to use any tricks and skip any quests that they want. In certain games’ cases, these kinds of runs can be boring to watch, and the infamously glitchy Halo Infinite is no exception.

This speedrun begins with a demonstration of the “tank gun,” which bolts an unlimited-ammo gun to Master Chief’s feet. That’s too much assistance for speedrunners’ tastes, but this SGDQ demonstration still includes a ton of wacky tricks that combine geometry clipping and otherworldly physics exploits—all boosted by Chief’s immediate access to a new grappling hook item. Sure, the hook makes players move much faster through the world, but it also figures into a wild glitch that makes players bounce off explosive barrels in ways that defy gravity.

Thunder in Paradise speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Thunder in Paradise, 1995, all-cutscenes run

We’re not sure whether this is GDQ’s first speedrun dedicated to a full-motion video (FMV) game, but it’s certainly one of the dumber examples of the mid-’90s CD-ROM genre. Thunder in Paradise is based on the short-lived TV series of the same name, which starred Terry “Hulk” Hogan alongside Jack Lemmon’s son as a crime-solving action duo on the beach, and it was as bad as that sounds. The video game version, relegated to the CD-I console, forces players to watch excruciatingly bad live-action footage between light gun shootout sections.

In most video game speedruns, players skip as many cinema scenes as possible, but GDQ elected to show this game’s filmed footage in its entirety while cheesing the gun gameplay parts as quickly as possible. Strap in, brother.

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