“Music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart.”
Just try to play this game with a straight face. Taiko: Drum Master is… well… maybe it’s easier just to show you this intro cutscene…
So Taiko: Drum Master is a relentlessly cheerful, extremely Japanese, percussion-rhythm arcade series released by Namco in Japan as Taiko no Tatsujin. This review is for the North American Taiko: Drum Master for the PlayStation 2.
Drum Master is a unique game with plenty of bizarre Japanese caricaturing in it, but it is also unique among rhythm games because it features play based on drumming a taiko.
The taiko is a traditional Japanese drum (which comes in many sizes) typically played with the use of two handheld bachi, simple drumsticks that are thicker than those found in the West.
The controller for Taiko: Drum Master is a simple simulation of the Japanese taiko designed to sit on the floor or on a table, and players navigate menus, interface with mini-games and play songs using both the center and the rim of the taiko-controller, striking it with their bachi sticks.
The gameplay is simpler to explain than all that. Circular blue and red icons scroll from right to left across the screen at varying speeds based on the tempo of the song. Blue icons mean “hit the taiko on the rim” and red icons mean “strike the taiko in the center”. A bigger icon means to strike with both drumsticks.
Occasionally another icon can prompt a player to execute a quick drum roll. If you time strikes at the right moment, when the icon reaches a line on the left side of the screen, you score a hit. If you don’t then you miss. Miss enough times and you fail a song. Drum Master also grades players on accuracy and has a finalized score for each playthrough.
Besides for the crazy-happy animated characters, another weird thing about Taiko: Drum Master (I’ll probably say that alot) is it’s song list. It’s shorter than most rhythm games, like DDR song lists, but it has some wacky choices considering the context and aesthetic of the game. Some of these are gonna make you say “wat?”
“Tubthumping” – Chumbawamba
“ABC” – Jackson 5“That’s the Way (I Like It)” – KC and the Sunshine Band
“The Impression That I Get” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
“Walking on Sunshine” – Katrina and the Waves
“Material Girl” – Madonna
“Love Shack” – The B-52’s
“Toxic” – Britney Spears
“I’m a Believer” – Neil Diamond
“Slide” – Goo Goo Dolls
“American Girls” – Counting Crows
“Girls & Boys” – Good Charlotte
“Killer Queen” – Queen
“Lady Marmalade” – Labelle
“Are You Gonna Be My Girl” – Jet
“My Sharona” – The Knack
“Rock the Dragon” – Dragonball Z
“Jimmy Neutron Theme” – Bowling for Soup
“Symphony No.5” – Ludwig van Beethoven
“William Tell Overture” – Gioachino Rossini
“Carmen Prelude” – Bizet
“Symphony No.25 in G Minor” – Mozart
“Hungarian Dances No.5” – Brahms
“Soul Calibur II ~Brave Sword, Braver Soul~” – Namco
“Katamari On The Rocks” – Namco (YES! A Katamari Damacy reference!)
“Dragon Spirit” – Namco
(as well as 4 unlockable secret songs)
When will you ever find the Jackson 5, Queen, Dragonball Z, Goo Goo Dolls, and the William Tell Overture on the same soundtrack? Where else could you find Pop, Rock and Classical in one mix? Only in Taiko: Drum Master. Really a game where you’ll only ever find a few things together that shouldn’t be. Ever. But it’s that surreal effect of multiple elements co-existing somehow that makes this game so charming, among many other things.
Drum Master on the PS2 is tragically the only release the West has had from the entire Taiko no Tatsujin lineup. Namco, you need to change that right now.
Hey, it worked when I said it about Final Fantasy XII!
The 8-Bit Review
Taiko: Drum Master is an interactive “Meanwhile in Japan” meme.
Everything that has a face has got a face, and it is smiling the biggest and cutest it can possibly smile. If it’s jarring or off-putting for even a second, your inner 2-year-old will kick in and take over and leave you grinning like an idiot at hyper-chromatic, rainbow-scopic, exuberant psychedelia. The thick outlines, reminiscent of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e, of the shadow-less shapes make the visuals really pop, though of course you won’t find any high-detail graphics here. That is far from Drum Master’s intention. This is a living, breathing anime, replete with every Japanese stereotype and trope stuffed into an overflowing blender, baked in a dishwasher made by Sony, cut into cubes and presented as mochi. And it’s lovable. Every addictively hyperactive second of it.
Being a musical rhythm game, perhaps the most important element of Taiko: Drum Master is it’s audio. The soundtrack here mainly serves as the missions/levels/stages to complete. Sadly, I can’t see giving it a higher score than 7 because the song list seemed limited to me. I’ve played other rhythm games with much more tracks, and for the only US Taiko release, this game seemed to run out of songs quite quickly.
While not all of the songs are inspired choices or covers (I’m lookin’ at you, Lady Marmalade), there are several go-to tracks that are indescribably fun. I wouldn’t listen to Britney Spears or Madonna in my free time, but “Material Girl” was a favorite, nonetheless. A few others were “My Sharona”, “Hungarian Dances No.5”, and “Katamari On The Rocks”. Further, the varying difficulty modes in the game (more on that under Gameplay) shook up the mandated beats of the songs to strike out on your taiko-controller that familiar songs could seem somewhat different on a different difficulty. There are a few songs in here that were, literally, custom made for this game.
Simple and easy to learn, keeping beat is enjoyable even for non-percussive instrumentalists or people who aren’t even good at clapping there hands. Divvying up the action with the song list are a handful of separate mini-games.
There’s a watermelon mini-game where you have to rap the top of your taiko as quickly as possible to eat your melon quickly, while taking care to tap the rim on occasion to dodge the swings of the kid behind you with his baton. The other game requires you to tap the rim to move a living tower of shiba (Japanese dogs). The dogs climb on each others shoulders, attempting to reach the bottom of a helicopter in order to proceed to the next stage, but the higher their tower gets the flimsier it becomes and it can topple over under the force of the wind on the way up to Mt. Fuji. The last mini-game (not pictured) involves a character placing fireworks and bombs in random order, and you must have quick reflexes to tap the rim to kick away the bomb or strike the center of the taiko to light the firework. The more fireworks you light, the better.
Finally, there are the multiple difficulty modes: Easy, Normal, Hard and Oni (the latter is a Japanese mythological word meaning “demon, devil, troll or ogre”). Oni is particularly fun and notably impossible on a handful of songs. Working up to that difficulty is a real pay off and you’ll feel like a pro in front of your cat for getting the first 50 hits on “Dragon Spirit”… and then entirely missing the rest.
The best way to play Taiko: Drum Master is with a friend. The game gives each of the two players a unique rhythm to follow with their drum that echoes and accentuates the other person’s rhythm in a kind of percussive harmony. The result when two veterans take to multiplayer is something truly awesome to behold and hear. It’s a slight change to the way a song plays, and subtle… and not something that everyone would necessarily experience in playing the game, but it’s one of the best multiplayer experiences I’ve had: non-competitive, non-argumentative, non-confrontational. Just playing music together. Note that this two player mode can still be accessed by setting an “auto” second player that’s essentially a CPU player, if you want to mess around with the alternating rhythms.
Most games are about beating the crap out of somebody or something. Taiko: Drum Master is about beating the cute out of a small, plastic and rubber ethnic drum. And since most of us were once babies (some of us may never have grown up beyond that), it’s intuitive for us to bang on things: pots and pans, couch cushions, our own thighs, anything that would double as a makeshift drum. Surprisingly, some people are more musically inclined than they think. But even if they can’t keep a beat, Drum Master isn’t to blame. It’s clearly a game accessible enough for a child to learn. “ABC. Easy as 123. Simple as Do, Re, Mi.”
Unfortunately, a short song list holds Taiko: Drum Master from having an truly great score for replay value. While many of the songs are quite fun, the game is built for small doses. Which is fine, it’s just that you’ll wish there was more taiko for your drum master. Different mini-games and difficulty modes, and the presence of a friend, help to alleviate that a bit.
One of the most distinctive and unique games I’ve played, especially in the rhythm genre. Again, you probably won’t find this combination of music and visual content anywhere else. An entire series does exist of these games but as there has only been a single Western release for the PS2, the uniqueness as far as I’m concerned deserves to be ramped up quite high. Drum Master isn’t a hugely popular or commonplace title, and most people I show it too are baffled by it, having never seen it before. Therefore, I’d consider it an obscure and hidden gem.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Taiko: Drum Master is extremely fun and one of the better rhythm games I’ve played. I think this is in large part to its embracing of the “silly”, rather than trying to be “cool” with too many covers of really modern songs. It’s definitely a game that must be played with two players, so get a buddy who’s willing to drop the cha-ching for his own game and taiko controller and have at it on a Saturday afternoon. It’ll make even the most grizzled of hardcore gamers break into a smile.
Aggregated Score: 8.1