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Pepper Grinder review – killer driller

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Pepper Grinder review – killer driller

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Pepper Grinder – seasoned to perfection (Picture: Devolver Digital)

A cross between lost GBA classic Drill Dozer and Mega Drive favourite Ecco The Dolphin turns out to be one of the best indie games of 2024.

Despite what it may seem, developer Game Freak does make games other than Pokémon. Every now and then it takes time out to release a smaller, indie style game, like Giga Wrecker or Tembo The Badass Elephant. And while they never seem to sell, and few are particularly good, that never seems to put them off. By far their best diversion is Drill Dozer: a clever little platformer for the Game Boy Advance that, for some reason, was never released in Europe. It never got a sequel either, but now it has a spiritual successor.

Pepper Grinder is similar to Game Freak’s game in that your main character is a girl using a giant drill to destroy enemies and activate lifts and equipment, but it’s by no means a clone. Underneath it all, Drill Dozer had the structure of a relatively normal platformer, but Pepper Grinder takes its drilling gimmick in a different direction by having you constantly tunnelling through the earth and popping out to arc through the air like Ecco The Dolphin.

Indie games love to pay homage to older 2D titles, but Pepper Grinder is different in that the influences are balanced equally by its own unique ideas, with none of the cloying references common in other pseudo-retro titles. Pepper Grinder is very much its own game and the only real complaint to hold against it, is that it’s all over far too quickly.

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The game’s setting is very loosely sketched, but it begins with a pirate named Pepper being shipwrecked and all her treasure stolen by weird goblin-like creatures and an evil nemesis. Her only spot of luck is immediately coming across a gigantic drill, which she can use to defend herself (there’s no gore) and dig through soft surfaces.

It’s an odd set-up but one of the pleasures of older games was the frequent need to learn new skills and get your head around strange new gameplay ideas. That’s rare nowadays but learning to control Pepper, as she tunnels through the ground, and using a turbo boost to launch her through the air as she breaches the soil like a leaping dolphin, is a real pleasure.

The learning curve is perfectly smooth, but it does mean the first several levels are rather plain, and somewhat unexciting, which is not only a relatively poor introduction but doesn’t prepare you for the wonderful strangeness that occurs later on.

There’s a Nintendo-esque sense of innovation between later levels, as new concepts and elements are constantly introduced, from obstacles like lava, that can leak through the holes you drill (and solidify in water), to Donkey Kong Country style barrels that shoot you out at 90° angles and a grappling hook that allows you to swing round in a perfect arc.

Your drill is also used to power lifts and other equipment (including raising the flag that ends every level) as well as skimobile and an amusingly percussive machinegun attachment, that for a short time turns the game into a straight-up action platformer. Meanwhile, the level design itself constantly finds new and interesting ways to challenge you, from jumping on balloons you dare not burst to drilling holes in ship hulls to sink them.

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Pepper Grinder – the machinegun attachment is great (Picture: Devolver Digital)

Although they might not look that alluring in screenshots the low resolution pixel graphics are excellent, with some particularly good animation on the giant-sized bosses. The music is great too even if, like the level design, it also takes a little while to get into top gear.

The slow escalation is only really a problem because the game is upsettingly short. What’s there is almost perfectly formed, and the price is appropriately low, but there’s no way you’re going to finish Pepper Grinder and not wish it was twice as long as it is.

Such brevity is rare in these days of bloated open world games and endless live service titles. Pepper Grinder is an enjoyable alternative to those excesses and no matter how much we wish there was more of it, it would’ve been much worse if it had overstayed its welcome.

Its nods to other retro classics are all part of the fun but this is a marvellously imaginative game in its own right and the perfect palette cleanser to play between other, bigger games.



Pepper Grinder review summary

In Short: The epitome of short but sweet, that is both a clever tribute to Drill Dozer and Ecco The Dolphin and a welcome alternative to bloated and overlong modern epics.

Pros: The drill is fun to use and impressively versatile, with some great gimmicks and imaginative set pieces. Excellent pixel graphics and some fantastic boss battles.

Cons: A fairly slow start, that doesn’t really get its teeth into you until around a quarter of the way through the game’s short running time.

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Score: 8/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC
Price: £13.49
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Ahr Ech
Release Date: 28th March 2024
Age Rating: 7

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