From the searing colour of the menu icon to the lively title screen, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! arrives on Switch with a spring in its step. And with good reason – alongside sister title Drum Session! on PS4, it’s the first Drum Master ever to arrive in Europe, and only the second to come to the US. In the East, though, it’s been a regular fixture in arcades and on consoles since 2004. The latest edition does a decent job of showcasing the series, although it trips over its own shoelaces at times with a wealth of control options, one of which simply doesn’t make the grade.
For the uninitiated, Taiko no Tatsujin involves beating a single drum on the head (red notes) or the rim (blue notes) as they move across a stave – think Rock Band with a Rhythm Paradise/Heaven/Tengoku (delete as appropriate) aesthetic and you’re there. Nailing the beat fills a ‘Soul Gauge’ and you’ll pass or fail a song depending on your performance. Yellow drumrolls, mallets and balloon notes give some room for personal flair, and new songs and characters are unlocked through high scores.
It’s rhythm game 101, then. Series mascots Don and Katsu provide the pure ‘vanilla’ experience, but a host of other playable characters offer ‘session skills’; they might fill the soul gauge at a faster rate or make the timing window for strikes more generous. There’s a whole bunch of characters to unlock, and the Switch gets saviour-of-the-moment, Kirby, and a pink Splatoon squid, too.
The first thing you’ll notice (following, of course, Bandai Namco’s comically lengthy End User License and Privacy Agreement) is the exploding fireworks of the loading screen, and they’ll soon become unwelcomely familiar. Don’t get us wrong; they’re never on screen very long, but they pop up between almost every menu transition. Sure, we expect short pauses before a track plays, but these interstitial loads, however brief, drag down the pace.
The meat of the game is split between two modes: the standard Taiko Mode for one or two players, where you choose from the entire list of songs, or Party Game which offers co-op and competitive multiplayer nuggets for up to four players. The tracklist is identical to the Japanese release, sorted into categories: Pop, Anime, Vocaloid, Variety, Classical, Game Music, and NAMCO Original. All tracks offer four difficulties (Extreme is suitably insane) and it’s a decent list, all-told, although look no further for why Bandai Namco top brass was reluctant to bring the series to Europe. It’s slim pickings if you’re not into J-pop or anime, and you’ll need to raid your local second-hand emporium for Rock Band peripherals to enact any Phil Collins/Gorilla-based drumming fantasies. It features Super Mario Odyssey’s ‘Jump Up Super Star!’, plus Splatoon 2 and Kirby medleys, and extra songs and packs are available as DLC – the Ghibli pack looks to be a winner, although making you pay for popular, non-copyrighted classical tracks feels a bit cheeky.
Of course, rhythm games rely on watertight controls and Drum ‘n’ Fun isn’t short of options. Our editor Damien already took a look at Hori’s drum peripheral – suffice to say it remains the preferred input method, albeit a hefty investment. If you’re already up to your eyeballs in DK Bongos and Guitar Hero plastic, the touchscreen is a great substitute, though hampered slightly by a couple of baffling design choices. For example, you can’t use it to navigate menus – it’s active only for the duration of the song. Likewise, it only works with Joy-Con attached, which makes stretching your thumbs to the bottom centre of the screen needlessly awkward.
We resorted to an odd, claw-like grip with our wrists pushed up in front of the buttons, the console pressed behind our bent knuckles and our pinkies acting as a shelf; this was the only way we could get our thumbs into position while holding the console. Resting the Switch on your lap is better, but that’s not always an option and won’t do your posture any favours. Button inputs can be used in conjunction with touch. Sure, there’s no shortage of options, but for something that should be pick-up-and-play, there’s a bit too much trial-and-error involved in achieving your perfect set-up.
But what about the ‘arcade-style’ motion controls, we hear you cry! Bearing in mind that the Joy-Con feature in Drum ‘n’ Fun’s logo, it’s depressing that they’re so incredibly unreliable. Duped or missed inputs are frequent and the game can’t consistently differentiate between horizontal/diagonal swipes and vertical hits. We’ve played enough Wii games to have very low expectations – of course it’ll struggle with multiple notes in rapid succession at higher difficulties! – but you’d hope that twelve years on from Wii, X-Y axis input would be a solved problem. The Joy-Con might allow very young kids or grandparents to ‘join in’ but, frankly, granny deserves better. Be prepared, also, for the return of the dreaded Wii elbow/forearm/torso, the ‘Bane of Boxing Day 2006’.
If you’ve got this far and are thinking ‘blimey – loading screens, claw-fist, dodgy waggle… Taxi!’, hold them there horses. In addition to the main game, Drum ‘n’ Fun has got a secret weapon in Party Game mode. It shamelessly apes Rhythm Paradise and, for the most part, the twenty games stand up very well by comparison. They’re similarly barmy, with a mix of co-op and versus games involving bouncing beach balls, scooping fish out of a pond, ordering sushi by repeating a beat, slicing projectiles, launching fireworks – you get the idea. While the quality varies (and the precision needed sometimes seems to be overly exacting), in the absence of Rhythm Paradise on Switch, this is a surprisingly fine alternative.
Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! gives Europeans a long-awaited taste of Japanese drum-fun. You’ll want to consider forking out for the taiko peripheral to see the game at its best, but Switch’s touchscreen makes this an easier recommendation than it would otherwise be. The motion controls should be avoided with extreme prejudice – they’re simply unworkable – and a few odd design decisions, not to mention an excess of loading screens, take the shine off what is a beautifully bold and bouncy game. Fortunately, the Party Game section helps shore things up, offering short bursts of multiplayer fun as a credible stopgap until Rhythm Paradise arrives.