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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Pepper Grinder is a drillin' platformer that's smooth as butter

An in-game screenshot of Pepper Grinder. The main character, a blue haired and caped girl, has just shot out of a chunk of dirt and is now swinging on a grapple hook up toward another patch of dirt. She's narrowly avoiding dangerous spikes and floating gems are waiting on the other end of the dirt she's headed toward. An active volcano waits in the background.

I'm always trying to sell people on my Pacific Rim bitthe idea that there are games we're each "drift compatible" with, the synchronous state achieved by the dual pilots of the giant mechs in Pacific Rim and the synchronous state gamers achieve with their controllers when playing a truly special game.

A GIF of our view at the Pepper Grinder booth at PAX West 2023, with about a dozen people either playing or in line to play at the three game demo stations.
Pepper Grinder at PAX West 2023

We're always chasing that complete harmony and flow state you experience when a developer's vision for their game comes together on all fronts.


When we saw it at PAX West in 2023, Pepper Grinder felt like it had a shot to be one of those games. And after drilling into it, mining all of its platforming gems, and grinding it out... we can confirm this Pepper Grinder is drift compatible.


​Just the Facts

Developer: Ahr Ech

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Platform(s): PC*, Nintendo Switch *denotes platform reviewed on

Price: $14.99

Release Date: March 28, 2024

Review key provided by publisher via Tinsley PR.

Old school, no frills, in all the right ways


Pepper Grinder is the brainchild of solo developer Ahr Ech, the development name of Riv Hester, an all-in-one game dev extraordinaire based out of the Pacific Northwest. Besides the help of XEECEE's incredible high adrenaline drum n' bass soundtrack, Ahr Ech does everything else on the project. Solo developers always blow our minds, and when you pair jack-of-all-trades talents like that with publishers like Devolver Digital, there are tons of reasons to be excited.

This drill-focused offering is a fairly no frills platformer. It's focused more on keeping an incredible pace with its easy to learn and hard to master simple mechanics than on flaunting any kinds of trendy genre-blending bloat. Pepper Grinder is a classic, level-based platformer where you gather up gems (coins) and blast through level after level, going from Point A to Point B over and over, having fun the whole time you're doing it. It reminded me of Super Meat Boy at times, the kind of game that's at its best when you're stuck in perpetual motion, screaming internally thinking everything's on the brink of falling apart, and feeling amazed at yourself when you make it out the other end okay. Pepper Grinder's no frills approach means a throwback approach to narrative too. Some fun environmental storytelling aside, most of the actual narrative is mined out of the SNES-style manual that comes with the game. You wouldn't know half of these things by simply playing the game, not unlike how you probably would never know the names of half of the Mario enemies if you didn't crack open the manual or, even rarer still for kids back in the day, you managed to roll credits on the game to see them finally named for you.


It's nostalgic, and not everything needs to be a narrative masterpiece. What's there is fun and stylish enough, but it's secondary to what you're really here for.


You play as Pepper, a pirate whose horde has been stolen by a rogue pack of Narlings (stout little narwhal-like creatures) and brought back to their kingdom. She stumbles on a handy drill, the eponymous Grinder, and puts it to work on a quest for revenge. As you chase down their mothership, you'll get acclimated to your drill in a forested canyon, be put to the test in magma-ridden caves, and end up spit out in the icy mountaintops where a friendly cyclops lives, all before taking the fight straight to the Narlings in their decrepit city run by an evil king.


That's it in terms of narrative. It's simple. It's expected. And it keeps the focus where it should be: the drill. I mean... the gameplay.


It reminded me of Super Meat Boy at times, the kind of game that's at its best when you're stuck in perpetual motion, screaming internally thinking everything's on the brink of falling apart, and feeling amazed at yourself when you make it out the other end okay.

An in-game screenshot of Pepper Grinder. Pepper, a blue-haired and caped hero with a drill, stands at the edge of a cliff staring at a cyclops who is passing by.

Mr. Driller wishes he was this cool


Let's start with the Grinder; the drill, your main tool, and the most important piece of the satisfying puzzle that Ahr Ech has put together here. We've talked about our love for drill-based gameplay on the site before, but Pepper Grinder's may take the cake when it's all said and done. Pepper uses her drill for traversal, shooting through packed dirt like a dolphin through water; for combat, equipping it with various weapons through each new world and simply drilling through folks when needed; and to access tools to help her along the way, such as Donkey Kong-like cannons that shoot you around levels and vehicles that allow you to fly through stages.


There's a surprising disparity between the Pepper wielding the drill and the Pepper waddling around and jumping like your usual platforming hero. Without the drill, Pepper feels vulnerable, dinky even, with tiny jumps and a running speed that barely registers. With it, she feels unstoppable: shooting into and out of pockets of land, constantly moving forward and gathering up gemstones, and revving up the drill to boost through it all as fast as you can. It all feels so good and is shockingly intuitive. The drilling system was inspired by Ecco the Dolphin, and taking that flowy movement out of an exploration-focused underwater adventure game and injecting it into a fast-paced platformer was a stroke of genius.

Pepper Grinder never lets you settle, constantly introducing new gimmicks into level design, new tools for your drill, and changes to the way you approach that core drilling mechanic. By being such a compact experience — the game can take you as few as three hours and as many as six if you go for 100% completion — it keeps it from ever growing stale. And by slowly unfolding its toolbox, letting you get acclimated to one system before changing things up in the next world, it's never boring.


There are four worlds, each equipped with four basic levels, a secret fifth challenge level to unlock, a shop for cosmetics we'll dive into later, and a boss fight. Each is better than the last in the ways they layer on mechanical complexity and find new ways to evolve the level design. Ahr Ech saves the best for last, though, as the final world introduces the most satisfying drill tool, the most interesting bits of level design with a modular concept that has you breaking the level apart in fun ways, and a final stage and boss that throws everything you've been taught at you.


The drilling system was inspired by Ecco the Dolphin, and taking that flowy movement out of an exploration-focused underwater adventure game and injecting it into a fast-paced platformer was a stroke of genius.

Boss fights were probably my least favorite part of the game. They usually limited you to a tight-quartered arena and often showcased just how squishy Pepper was in pure combat and how same-y combat is when not mixed into the flow of a level. For a game so focused on achieving that flow state and keeping things constantly moving, having to wait for boss phases killed all momentum that the five levels before it had built up. All I wanted to do was get back into those levels, not just because of the deeply satisfying drilling I'd be doing in them, but for sake of the completionist living inside of me.


Pepper Grinder is one of those games that sees you playing through a level three or four times before moving on. Because another genius move Ahr Ech employs here are... secrets. Secret coins, secret pockets of gems, entire secret levels that require those secret coins to unlock! Finding these secrets is as simple as peeking into parts of the level you think you might be able to reach, following visual cues like a corner of a cannon hidden just at the top of the screen or cracks in the floor that imply drill-ability, and generally searching each level's every nook and cranny. Like your Donkey Kongs, like your Marios, it's a nostalgic satisfaction that rewards you following your gut with some sort of sneaky prize.


An animated GIF showcasing one of the platforming lines in Pepper Grinder. Following a chain of gems and coins, Pepper shoots out of a cannon, drills through a tunnel of sand, and then shoots through hanging dirt blocks in succession.

Drills are dangerous, ya know?


When it comes to negatives, Pepper Grinder honestly doesn't have many. There's those pesky bosses, some inconsistent mechanics like the swinging grapple hook that can make the entire third world feel like more of a pain than you'd like and a slightly underwhelming cosmetic shop that features simple color swaps for Pepper and a gacha-style sticker collection. The stickers are fun, though, and represent a unique take on the "photo mode" phenomenon, allowing you to build out a scene of enemies, collectibles, and Peppers in various poses. But collecting all the stickers is up to the gods as you spend the coins you collect in each level on a capsule machine that can produce many repeats. Outside of those nagging things, there was a frustrating glitch I faced in the final boss, where I found myself having to essentially plow through its two difficult phases in one life. Ahr Ech promise a fix in the Day 1 patch and the rest of the game is technically flawless, so it's hard to hold it against them.


I wish there was more Pepper Grinder, wish there was more to collect to give me an excuse to dive back in. Outside of speedrunning intention, there isn't. But everything that's packed into the three and a half hours I spent with the game is worth it. I need to call attention to XEECEE's incredible soundtrack one more time. The ambient techno and thumping beats calm and excite in equal turn. Horns and disco-like dance tracks add a playfulness to the soundtrack that somehow meets the mood of each new level. It's not overbearing, it's the perfect complement to the flow-state achievements of the gameplay, and it just... sounds good. (I never said I was a music expert.)


I also want to shout out the visuals for one specific reason. Ahr Ech does something here that I think too few modern platformers go for: emphasizing the level design by making the player character very small on the screen and using as much real estate as possible to give the player heaps of info about what's coming up ahead of them. With the drill mechanic constantly pushing you forward and the player needing to quickly react to a shifting level, it's a smart technique. The fact that Ahr Ech still manages to communicate so much character in things like the dopey Narling designs and keep things readable despite all the fast-moving action is applaudable.


An example of Pepper Grinder's sticker sheet "photo mode". In an arctic scene, a shark looms underwater as a narwhal-like creature swims forward. A trio of narwhals stand on an icicle with various weapons: a flamethrower, a machine gun, and a drill-like horn. To the right, the main character drills throw snow towards two gems. Two narwhals are in the background, huddled around a fire with winter clothes on.

Pepper Grinder is a platforming gem, a masterclass in taking one simple mechanic and stretching it as far as you possibly can in one tight package. Ahr Ech built this game to be as satisfying as possible. It appeals to platforming fans of all types equally (speedrunners and completionists together), and it stands as a testament to the value of not overcomplicating things.


By evoking the simplicity and no frills approach of platforming greats, Pepper Grinder keeps the focus on its best bits and will undoubtedly drill down into your heart the minute you hop in.


Video Games Are Good and Pepper Grinder is . . . GREAT. (9/10)


+ incredibly satisfying drill-based platforming, constant motion keeps the adrenaline high, no-frills approach keeps the focus where it should be


- boss fights hinder momentum, a few inconsistent gameplay mechanics, one major glitch that hurt my specific play session


The key art for Pepper Grinder. In the middle of the shot, a green haired girl wearing a cape shoots out of a tunnel of dirt, holding a glowing drill up to the sky. Various monsters stand on the tunnel she's popped out of, on pillars around her, and jump into the scene all to attack her. Diamonds and coins are dropping behind her. The game's logo, a skull with a drill in its mouth, sits above the scene.

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