aka Drill Dozer in the USA.
Pokémon. A game needs no introduction when even my spellchecker knows what it is, and when you consider that just about any other Japanese-ism would trigger a friendly red squiggle, that is a rare game indeed. Rare, but at the same time, not rare at all – with the phenomenal success of the franchise in Japan, where this year marked the decennial of the game line, and abroad, where it began locking horns with virtual pets like Tamagotchi in 1998, the pocket-monster-collecting, breeding, and battling RPG has become synonymous with toys, cards, kids’ movies, Game Boy, and the video game, and possibly most of all, Nintendo. For better or for worse, it has outlived many a fad thanks to the Nintendo brand name and unrelenting support from the publisher, but the real efforts behind the game go back to a little developer who is now, by and large, overshadowed by its own creation. That developer is GameFreak, who, before hitting it big with their pint-sized portable critters, dabbled in NES and SNES games, and little else… until now.
Enter Screw Breaker, an action-platformer centered, quite smashingly, on property destruction you can feel in your hands, thanks to the oversized cart with built-in rumble for the GBA, which also works on the Gamecube controller with the Gameboy Player. Already out in Japan since the end of September, Screw Breaker looks to be one of the final must-have GBA games by the time it arrives on our shores in early February, when it will have undergone Americanization and been renamed Drill Dozer. While the new name is every bit as nonsensical, no one need question the reason for the change – and while there’s nothing truly suggestive about ‘screw’ in this sense, Drill Dozer is probably the more apt title. Whatever you call it, Screw Breaker is quite a lot of old-school cool.
Each stage opens with an anime-inspired intro depicting the search for the Gems, now held by the bosses. That’s about as much of the story as is clear in the Japanese import, but, much to the writers’ chagrin I’m sure, it matters little. The members of the pink-haired heroine’s team – an old advisor-type fellow who keeps track of the secrets you’ve found and a tutorial on moves, a mechanic who repairs you after each stage, saves your game, or turns on Sleep Mode, and later, a scary old shopkeeper who sells you upgrades – are at your service, then it’s time to pile into the Red D. truck and shove off to the next stage.
Every stage presents new challenges relating to the locale, which range from an office to a museum, to a child’s bedroom and a jungle. Tucked away amongst the regular blocks, walls and stage furnishings are big red power-up boxes that, when busted, yield money for the shop, a health recharge, or a drill upgrade, depending on their markings. The movement and mobility of Racenda 8, the heroine’s spherical walker-bot, depend largely on the titular, multi-purpose attachment that looks and acts a lot like a drill bit – breaking through those boxes, drilling tunnels in those walls, and interacting with a whole lot of clever, inventive devices. With each of the three level-ups per stage, the drill becomes more powerful, longer-lasting, and able to propel Racenda 8 higher or farther when used on the several different kinds of receptacles.
When you whip out the drill, a semi-transparent meter appears telling you how long it will last, and, if you’ve raised that baby’s level, it’ll give the signal to shift it into a higher gear till you hit overdrive at level 3. Wielded with the shoulder buttons, the rotation depends on which one is used – R button turns it away from you, while L turns it towards you. This gameplay mechanic forms the backbone of the puzzles, where you’ll need to spin everything from combination locks to color-coded missiles back and forth. The rest of the time, you’ll have to navigate the obstacles by jumping, ducking, dashing swimming and flying (yes, you get a propeller), and, of course, drilling through the clever level designs. Not only do boxes crumble and enemies cower in fright at a Level 3 drill, it’s necessary to complete the stage, most often to drill through big security doors to new areas.
After the stage, it’s back to the HQ, where you can shop for a new color of drill that breaks boxes of a like color, or batteries for the health gauge, or whatever you can afford (not always a lot), as well as check out any secrets from the treasure chests you might have come across. No need to save here, since you can save at any time during a stage to begin again in that area – which is advisable, since a few of the bosses, especially the later ones, will give you a few continues’ worth of trouble. Even some of the regular enemies will soften you up a little, so learn where and when to drill, and learn it well.
In this twilight hour of the Gameboy line, as with all hardware, inflated expectations are held of the final software – expectations like killer graphics. While they are passably detailed and colourful enough, the visuals aren’t Screw Breaker’s strong suit for a number of reasons. To differentiate what you can work with and what’s just the backdrop, GameFreak decided to keep foreground objects bright and fade the colors of the environments – keeping visibility at a maximum, but creating a fairly washed-out look no matter what you play it on (although GB Player makes it the brightest). While the player is smoothly-animated for all the many occasions, with a bit of sprite manipulation here and there, the stiff enemy movements and static levels aren’t going to work the GBA. It doesn’t look bad, but this is a throwback to 16-bit when a life double that size should be passing before our eyes, a madly colourful, scaling, rotating life of epic 2-D proportions.
Next, the sound – seems like the 16-bit motif didn’t stop at the graphics, because the music, voices and sound effects are about what you’d expect out of a good ol’ Megaman X game. The same way they created memorable music for Pokémon, GameFreak strikes our ears again with catchy, motivating little tunes and upbeat, SNES-quality guitar renditions. The screw sound effect itself, best described as a whirring whistle, is neither too soft nor too loud – a very good thing, since you’ll be hearing it so often that the mastering levels make all the difference between irritation and excitation.
Import Friendly? Literacy Level: 2
Seeing as there are no existing FAQs out there to help with the puzzles, this reviewer found herself quite perplexed by some of the more cryptic ones. It’s nothing impassable with a little imagination, but remember this – the last lock in Level 3 is 6 left, 1 right, 12 left. That will save you the hour or so it took me to figure out. A menu translation, on the other hand, is readily available with a little searching.
Screw Breaker will be released under the name Drill Dozer and is set for a 2.06.2006 release date.
+ Pros: The feel of the game is fun, free, and focused on putting the drill to clever uses. Sometimes a challenge but rarely truly frustrating, Screw Breaker strikes a nice balance of action and adventure. The save-anywhere feature is especially appreciated.
- Cons: Short, but not too much so for a portable. Some parts are unreasonably hard due to hit detection issues. The frame rate seems sluggish at all times, but in actuality it’s the stilted enemy animations. Some of the sprites themselves are also lacking 32-bit color and definition.
Overall: In every way, Screw Breaker harkens back to the oldies – the days of make-you-think design, fun times jumping for platforms, missing them, and trying again, timing boss patterns and testing your reflexes. Though the game is a tad short in the length, you can always go back with a new drill to break open parts of levels left unexplored, search for missed treasures, and rack up more cash to make Racenda 8 the best friend a mecha can be. So try Screwbreaker – it’s a fittingly fond farewell for the most fondly-remembered of gaming eras.
Written by Katie Montminy.
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