A little while ago, I offered my first impressions on the demo version of Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! for Nintendo Switch.
I came away from the experience less than enamoured with the game’s motion controls, but starting to understand the appeal of the game when I switched to playing with buttons.
Despite my slightly tepid response to the demo, I came to the conclusion that this was still a game I wanted to support a Western release of… so I splurged on the £90 game-and-drum bundle which comes with a standard copy of the Switch game, and the HORI-made USB drum accessory. Let’s take a closer look!
I’m not going to reiterate too many of the things I already said about the demo’s gameplay, so check that out if you want to know how the basic game works. For now, let’s talk about that drum. It’s well-packaged and protected in the bundle box, with the main body of the drum wrapped in the typical sort of foam wrap vaguely expensive pieces of tech tend to come swaddled in, and the three parts of the plastic stand and the girthy sticks for the drum coming in their own separate unsealed thick plastic bags.
Assembling the drum is a simple matter of slotting the main supporting bar into one of the two side pieces, then slotting the other side piece onto the free end of the bar. After that, the drum itself clicks into place on four brackets atop the stand — it can be removed with a bit of force if you need to pack it away, but it otherwise stays locked firmly in place once it’s clicked on. The two sticks can also be stored in dedicated slots in the stand, making the whole arrangement very neat and suitable for display when you’re not using it.
The stand for the drum has rubber feet, but these aren’t very thick and unfortunately don’t do quite enough to prevent the drum sliding around, particularly if it’s placed on a smooth surface such as a coffee table. They help to a certain degree, certainly, but they don’t hold it in place completely. In fact, the instruction leaflet for the drum even recommends placing one or two full 500ml bottles of water in the stand to weigh it down and stop it from moving — not the most elegant solution, for sure, but it does work.
The drum consists of a moderately sized rubber pad similar to that found on modern electronic drum kits, or indeed the Rock Band and Guitar Hero drum kits. The pad absorbs impact without making an excessive amount of noise, though let’s be clear — if you’re not making a lot of noise while playing Taiko no Tatsujin you’re not doing it right. If anything, the separate pad around the rim of the drum — intended for the blue “ka” notes in the game — makes more noise than the main pad, particularly if you have the drum on a table, since the impact vibrates right down through the frame of the drum and into the surface you have it on.
The drum needs a reasonable amount of force to respond reliably so don’t be shy about twatting it one, but it also provides the impression that it will stand up to a fair amount of punishment. The plastic stand is probably the flimsiest part, but even this is made of decent quality components with some nice moulded designs down the sides. One thing worth noting — and something that the instructions specifically highlight — is that an invisible line down the centre of the main pad will not respond to any impacts, so you’ll need to make sure you’re clearly hitting on either the left or the right of the pad rather than in the middle. Thankfully this feels natural enough, and I haven’t found myself accidentally hitting the middle at all.
Beneath the main drum pad is a selection of controls, all moulded and indented into the rubber. There are L and R buttons — mainly used for confirming the controller in the Switch OS’ user interface, four directional buttons, + and – buttons, Screenshot and Home buttons, and the four face buttons. These are all about the size of the buttons on a Joy-Con — i.e. pretty damn small — but certainly usable for their main purpose, which is navigating the game’s menus. You can also bang the drum to simulate a press of the “a” button and confirm selections.
The drum is wired but comes with a generous length of USB cable, so even if your playing position of choice is a reasonable distance back from the TV as my sofa is, the wire should still be able to reach a coffee table or area of floor you’d like to use it on.
The game allows you to calibrate the drum controller separately from button or motion-based controls, but unfortunately there isn’t really a simple means of doing this accurately besides trying a few different values and repeatedly running the “test” function (or a favourite song) to see how accurately your hits are registered. I found it helpful to turn off the in-game drum sounds altogether, since they tend to occur just a fraction of a second after you actually hit the drum, which can prove to be rather distracting. The amount of noise the drum itself makes gives you ample audible feedback, so you won’t really miss them all that much.
One interesting thing I found with the drum controller calibration is that what appeared to be the optimal setting for the main game mode proved to be completely unacceptable for the Rhythm Heaven-esque Party Mode — at least when attempting to play by hitting the drum. Using the buttons on the drum controller for these minigames was absolutely fine, but attempting to play with the drum required you to hit notes significantly before you heard the audible cues.
The reason for this strange behaviour is the fact that the main game mode makes use of primarily visual cues — and the positioning of these is what the calibration tunes — while the Party Mode minigames use almost exclusively audible cues. As such, I very much recommend playing the Party Mode games with either a standard controller or just the buttons on the drum — in fact, given the nature of the minigames in general I’d recommend that anyway, even without the calibration issues.
Within the main game, the drum is enormously satisfying to use. The rhythmic patterns you’re expected to play are all composed in such a way that you complement the musical track you’re accompanying rather than simply following along with a part that is already being played. This is an approach many popular music games take — Sega’s excellent Hatsune Miku series is a great example — and it always adds enormously to the feeling of immersion. You’re not just “playing along” with a pre-existing part of the music — you’re actually playing your own, distinct, separate and important part of the completed composition.
Because the actual selection of different techniques you have to use in Taiko no Tatsujin is so small compared to games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, the note charts are easy to read and parse, even when they’re moving at high speed. This means that if you have even the slightest whiff of musical skills about you it won’t take long for you to start “reading ahead” of where the beat bar is and just naturally play the notes by instinct rather than attempting to precisely time your hits with the visual cues. It’s a really wonderful feeling to get “in the zone” with the game, and immensely satisfying when you hear the sounds you’re making with the drum and how they complement the various pieces of music.
And that track listing… man. While there aren’t many songs that will be immediately familiar to Westerners — unless you’re a J-Pop or anime fan, of course — there are a wide variety of different styles covered, and they’re consistently great fun to play.
It’s great to see Namco acknowledging its heritage with tracks like the theme tune from the original Ridge Racer and even a track from the relatively unknown Critical Velocity, and it’s likewise a great deal of fun to bang along with anime classics such as “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” from Neon Genesis Evangelion or Nintendo themes such as “Jump Up, Super Star” from Super Mario Odyssey.
A small selection of classical tracks provide a bit of culture — though it’s a shame those that aren’t electronic remixes of well-known pieces make use of MIDI sounds rather than an actual orchestral recording. “Variety” tracks provide everything from “The Alphabet Song” to the theme song you never knew YouTube had. A few extremely energetic Vocaloid tracks provide you with an exhausting workout even on the lowest difficulty levels. “Pop” tracks cover an interesting cross-section of modern Japanese popular music. And the package is rounded off with a selection of original tracks composed specifically for the game.
There’s no real “metagame” beyond simply trying to beat all the songs on the hardest difficulty with the best score possible… but that will take you quite some time. Numerous songs are locked off until you play either the main game or the Party Mode a set number of times, but if my first day with the game is anything to go by, the addiction factor here is so high that it won’t be long before you reach the requisite milestones.
Variety is added through the different characters, who are unlocked by playing Party Mode, and each of whom offer “Session Skills” that affect gameplay in various ways. Some might make the timing required to get a “Good” rating for a note more forgiving, others might make the penalties for missing a note harsher. And on top of the various characters’ abilities, there are a number of additional game options you can fiddle with, including swapping the “don” and “ka” notes around just to confuse you, altering the speed the note chart scrolls and even revamping the scoring system entirely so it’s based on accuracy rather than combos.
In other words, while there’s a certain amount of “make your own fun” here thanks to a deliberate lack of structure and direction to the overall experience, the package as a whole is arguably better for it. This is an arcade game through and through; the appeal is in sitting down and banging away at a plastic drum to a wide variety of different tunes, and in that regard it most certainly delivers.
Probably the most structured experience in the package as a whole actually comes from the Party Mode I’ve mentioned numerous times already. Here, you’re provided with a selection of rhythm-based multiplayer minigames for up to four people, with computer-controlled players filling any remaining slots. These fall into several different categories: competitive games pit all four players against one another in an attempt to score the highest number of points, co-operative games add everyone’s score together for a communal total, and team games split the four players into teams of two to cooperate with one another while competing against their rival pair.
Upon starting Party Mode for the first time, all the base games are available. Reaching a specified “Clear” score in one of the games unlocks its Expert variant, and new characters are mostly unlocked based on how many times you play rather than accomplishing specific conditions.
The games are varied and a lot of fun. One game tasks you with tapping out rhythms that match Japanese sushi-related phrases that are read out to you. A goldfish-catching game relies on pattern recognition and precise timing. A “bon dance” game relies on audible cues to tell you which regular rhythm you should be tapping when. And a game about climbing a giant cake requires two players to accurately alternate their notes with one another to make the most efficient ascent.
While the main appeal of Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun is undoubtedly the main Taiko Mode, Party Mode is a surprisingly substantial and enjoyable addition to the package as a whole, even if you’re playing solo. It’s simple and accessible enough to get even non-gamers involved in some fun rhythmic multiplayer action — most games only require a single button — but it offers enough competitive depth to encourage some foul-mouthed and bitter rivalry between equally matched, more experienced opponents. As noted above, the only real blemish on this aspect of the game is that the drum controller’s calibration really doesn’t see to work with it — but grab a Joy-Con, Pro Controller or even just use the buttons on the drum controller itself and you’ll have a ton of fun.
Is the game worth playing without the drum controller? Yes, absolutely; it’s a solid rhythm game that has endured as a series (in Japan, at least) for so long with good reason. However, for me, the physical aspect of playing with the drum controller adds to the experience immeasurably, so I highly recommend at least trying it if you get the opportunity; for me, it made the difference between simply quite liking the demo and being absolutely in love with the full game.
DON DON DON DON DODODODODODOKA!
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