In Japan, Namco has released six versions of Taiko Drum Master, or as its known there, Taiko no Tatsujin.  Namco has heard my repeated wishes and dreams and they have finally released Taiko Drum Master in the United States on the Playstation 2.  For anyone who has played drumming games such as the trap-set arcade title published by MTV to Nintendo’s recently released Donkey Konga, the primary issue with these games are the selections of songs and how well you can play along with the controller provided.  After six arcade titles, can the American market revel in a well-designed drumming game or will this title skip a beat?  Let’s find out!

The graphics in Taiko Drum Master are just as bizarre as you might expect from a Japanese drumming simulator.  The game features dogs in “Kabuki” and “Noh” masks, dancing Foo dogs, happy earthworms, smiley meatballs, and other manners of bizarre characters who listen along while you play and react accordingly.  For instance, if you do well, little creatures fly across the screen while a picture of your drum (complete with smiley face and stubby little legs) dances about the top of the screen.  If you mess up, the drum looks sad and little ghost creatures swim by instead of the happy ones.  If you do particularly well the screen will flash and many creatures will dance and hop around the screen in praise of your accomplishments. 


The graphics really don’t add to the game as even a seasoned percussionist will be watching the drum notes flying across the screen rather than anything going on in the background.  There could be cliff notes to the secrets of the universe being unlocked on top of the screen and you’d never see it on the later levels as you simply cannot take your eyes off the scale or you’ll start missing notes.

Just like the Dance Dance series, many of the songs in Taiko Drum Master are open to personal preference.  There are 31 songs total to choose from, all of which are unlocked by the time you get through the Easy mode. While I’ve personally heard of every one of these songs, I can honestly say that I have no desire to play some of them enough to get good enough at them to beat them on some of the later levels – there is only so much of The Jackson 5 you can take before you start to go a little out of your head.  Other songs include Love Shack by the B-52’s, Jimmy Neutron Theme by Bowling for Soup, Material Girl by Madonna as well as classical titles such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and William tell Overture.  Additionally there are some Namco classic titles such as Katamari on the Rocks, Ridge Racer, Soul Calibur II’s Brave Sword Braver Soul, and Taiko March.  All of the songs are well done and each one is clear with good bass and balance throughout. 

As I mentioned before, the controls can easily make or break a title like this.  Taiko Drum Master comes with a small drum approximately 10in diameter and two plastic Taiko sticks.  As an aside, I think it is fairly hilarious that this traditional Japanese drum simulation has you playing American classics using sticks that were made in China.  The drum sits on an included stand that places the drum at a 45 degree angle.   When I played I found that it worked best if I put a wedge under it to bring the drum back to a flat plane again as I played traditional marching snare – your mileage may vary. 


The drum is split into four sections, the two outside edges, and the left and right halves.  This is both a blessing and a curse as the bar bisecting the drum is neither left nor right and doesn’t register your notes on either side.  Under the Easy and Normal mode this isn’t an issue, but as the action becomes fast and furious on Hard and Oni you’ll find that you are missing some of your notes not because you didn’t strike the drum, but because you didn’t strike the drum on the left or right side of the center.


Not that you’d want to, but you can play Taiko with a PS2 controller.  I haven’t a clue how you’d play any of the harder levels, but it’s better than nothing.

The gameplay is a mixed bag in Taiko Drum Master.  Non-percussionist players will find that anything beyond normal requires too much practice to complete under almost any circumstances and percussionists will blow through easy and normal on a single pass.  When you get to Hard and Oni the game gets difficult, and while its possible to still clear the stage if you are a practiced drummer, it may take more repeats than you are willing to spend on a single song.


The gameplay is somewhat tainted by a bit of localization.  The game soundtrack features very few actual Taiko songs but instead we are made to suffer with generation-gapped titles like “ABC” and “That’s the Way I Like It” by KC and the Sunshine Band.  It’s not intolerable, but it does make you wonder just who these songs are aimed at.


In addition to the songs that you can play, you can also play several mini-games as a distraction.  One game features your little drum eating watermelons and spitting the seeds, another is a Simon Says clone.  A third is a fireworks game where you have to light more fireworks than the second player without lighting the occasional bombs that get tossed onto the block. 


The repetition of the songs to master them to completion is not enough to make or break the title, but it does make this game one that you’ll play occasionally instead of constantly.  Heads up Namco – put this game on the Xbox and put out new songs for us to play!

There is an incredible replay value to this title for percussionists who can appreciate the harder levels as well as non-percussionists who can enjoy the simpler normal modes.  Playing this game with friends expands the replayability even further as your friends can laugh with your at you depending on how badly you play. 


31 song choices go a long way with regards to the fun-factor of the game.  While some are not as fun to play, others like the Namco originals are an absolute blast to play over and over.  This is a game you’ll pick up and play, put down for a month or two, then pick it up and play again just because it is so much fun.


There is one other issue to address in the value category – the price.  The price of the game and controller is $59.99 MSRP.  It is a little bit more expensive than a brand new full-priced title, but it includes the custom controller in the package. This price carries the promise that if the title does well in the United States, we might see further titles in the series which would allow us to use the drum again.  Now go out there and buy the game, I want more innovative titles like this on the shelves!

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