As regular listeners of The MoeGamer Podcast will know, I greatly enjoy music games, but I’ve never had a chance to play the Taiko no Tatsujin series to date.
Well, I figured, it’s probably time I rectified that situation, isn’t it? Various installments in the series are often held up as all-time classics in the genre, after all. Plus it’s hard to resist that super-cute artwork — which, if you didn’t know, is the inimitable work of Yukiko Yoko, wife of the man who brought the world the Nier series. How’s that for a weird-ass twist?
So it was with some excitement that I downloaded the newly released demo of Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun, one of two parallel games which mark the first time the series has ever officially come to Europe. And… well, read on.
For the uninitiated, Taiko no Tatsujin is a pretty straightforward take on the rhythm game genre. You pick a song and difficulty, then notes scroll across the screen and you have to hit them at the appropriate time to score points and increase your “soul gauge”; missing notes, conversely, will break your combo and deplete your gauge. Have the gauge over a specific point by the end of the song and you clear it; fail to do this and you, well, fail.
Taiko no Tatsujin’s gimmick is that, as the name suggests, it’s based around the traditional Japanese instrument, the taiko drum. The original arcade versions were designed to be played with a big plastic drum, with the game distinguishing between red “don” notes (hitting the middle of the drum for a big “boomy” sound) and blue “ka” notes (hitting the rim of the drum for a “clicky” sound). Previous home ports made said big plastic drum an optional but desirable (if noisy) accessory, but you could play with controller buttons if you so desired or didn’t have the budget/space/understanding spouse to be able to add yet another single-purpose plastic instrument to your collection.
Drum ‘n’ Fun’s addition to this formula is that, being a Switch game, it has support for motion controls, with the twin Joy-Cons designed to simulate the physicality of hitting a taiko drum without there actually being a drum there to hit. Hit “straight” for a don, hit on the diagonal for a ka. Simple enough, and it’s a good idea in theory — the game even makes use of HD Rumble to simulate the impact on the drum, which is a nice touch.
Note that I say it’s a good idea in theory; in execution, however, it… well, it’s not great. The trouble with motion controls is that however much HD Rumble or other haptic feedback you add to the controllers, you’re still missing an important tactile element — that feeling of impact going right up your arm — and this makes it difficult to do two things: firstly, time your actual swings, and secondly, do the correct swings for the different types of hit.
There have been a number of attempts to create motion-controlled music games over the years, with varying degrees of success. Microsoft’s Kinect showcase title Dance Central for Xbox 360 demonstrated that it was possible to have relatively convincing full-body motion control in a music game; Ubisoft’s Just Dance series has remained inexplicably popular for years despite the fact you can win without fail by sitting on the sofa and wanking off a Wii Remote; and as for Konami’s disastrous attempt to bring its legendary Pop ‘n’ Music series to the Wii without its iconic big-button controller… well, the less said about that, the better, really.
In other words, it can be done, but it’s far from a desirable approach; if we look at the most well-known, well-established music games out there, the thing they all have in common is the feeling that the player is directly connected to the music; that they are playing the game almost like an instrument. And this is something you can really only do with a non-imaginary physical, tactile element such as buttons. A great example that doesn’t require any sort of external accessory is Sega’s Hatsune Miku series, which remain, for me, some of the most immersive music games ever made, particularly when played on the handheld Vita; they really do feel like “playing along” with the song rather than just hitting buttons according to a chart.
The trouble with Drum ‘n’ Fun’s motion controls is that they just don’t feel accurate enough to make playing the game satisfying; it doesn’t feel like you’re actually playing an instrument. All too often you’ll hear a don or a ka just by you moving your hand naturally rather than actually taking a swing, and way too often you’ll find yourself doing a don when you meant to do a ka, and vice-versa. Not good, particularly when playing on a harder difficulty level, where speed and accuracy are both key.
So it’s fair to say that my first impressions, regrettably, weren’t all that great. However, in the absence of a physical drum controller — which will be available for the game’s full release — I decided to try the button-based controls, which have several variants. My favourite was “type B”, which places the don on the D-pad and face buttons, and the ka on the shoulder buttons, since this separation between thumb and forefinger having distinct roles made sense to my brain.
Suddenly the game became playable! Suddenly I started to understand how enjoyable this game could be, and while it quickly became very apparent that anything above Normal difficulty would require a lot of practice and learning of the songs, those negative first impressions were blown away — and I can only begin to imagine how much better it’ll feel bashing away at an actual drum controller.
I started to get that feeling I get during a particularly intense Project Diva session on Vita; that feeling of being immersed in the music, of not having to look at the note charts, of just pressing the buttons by instinct. The rhythms the game tasks you with playing are natural and complement the pieces of music well, and you’re given a certain degree of freedom to improvise between notes as well as on dedicated “drum roll” markers.
Did I like the demo enough to pick up the full game when it releases in early November? I haven’t quite decided yet, but I’ll spend some more time with it and we’ll see. I certainly want to like Taiko no Tatsujin and support its localisation — plus the track list for Drum ‘n’ Fun is very nice indeed — but I feel like it might be a bit of a “grower” rather than something with immediate, up-front appeal.
More about Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun!
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