The rhythm game genre has evolved into a number of interfaces for players to get their groove on. There's the basic button pressing mechanic, which asks gamers to tap the corresponding button in time to the music or the onscreen icons. Many gamers are also aware of the phenomenal success of DDR and the Dance Pad that took the world by storm. There have also been a number of instrument peripherals, from maracas and guitars to turntables. The latest addition to this growing list of devices comes directly from Namco, who's bringing over a taiko drum from Japan. Grab your sticks and practice your cadence, because it's time to become a Taiko Drum Master.
Like most rhythm games, players typically have to hit a series of notes or icons in time as they scroll across the screen with their gamepad or their peripheral. Drum Master provides a few different kinds of notes to hit. The majority of them can be pounded out on the skin of the drum, although there are a few that you’ll actually have to hit the sides of the drum (essentially the rim of the drum itself) to successfully make the note. There are a few sections where you’ll have to fire off drum rolls also, either to clear out a large section of notes or to fill up on onscreen meter that can obscure following beats. Aside from this, there are times when large beats will scroll across the screen, requiring you to hit either both sides of the drum or the rim to clear the meter. Good performances on the drums gets the numerous animated characters in the game (there’s at least a dozen or more) dancing, shaking and hopping around at the bottom of the screen. Furthermore, solid drumming allows you to pass sections or potentially unlock additional songs.
Aside from the primary Taiko mode, you’ve got three mini-games available to you to pass the time. One of them is a watermelon eating mini-game, where players have to hit the drum as quickly as possible to eat the slices placed in front of you. Once the slice is fully eaten, you have to continue to hit the drum to spit out watermelon seeds. However, you’ll also have to hit the side of the drum to avoid being hit by one of the other characters that intermittently swings a bat at you. There’s also a fireworks title where you’ll have to launch bags of fireworks out of a cannon. The more you successfully fire, the faster your assistant pulls items from a cart to reload your machine. You’ll have to be conscious of what you’re doing however, because some items are bombs that can make your cannon blow up in your face, forcing you to knock them out of the machine to rack up points. Finally, there’s a cat balancing game where you try to maneuver a growing tower of cats into an awaiting helicopter. This can be quite tricky, as each move makes the tower bend and wave towards falling over. What’s more, there are gusts of wind that can knock your feline spire over, forcing you to start all over again.
With a game featuring a Taiko Drum, you’d better expect some Japanese influence for your playing experience. Well, I can easily say that this game doesn’t disappoint. Taiko drums, kids, drum sticks and other characters are merely some of the animated figures that will dance across the bottom of screen as songs play. While players probably aren’t going to pay much attention to the background animation as they’re drumming, these characters are nicely drawn and interesting enough for observers of the game action. Supporting the graphics is a 30 track song list that covers rock, pop, classical, anime, TV and Namco original titles. This does include perhaps a newfound personal favorite: the theme song to Katamari Damacy. The diversity of titles included provides quite a bit of replayability, and the three levels of difficulty for each song will give even the strongest drummers in your family a bit of trouble.
Speaking of trouble, there are some significant issues that can cause some problems for players. First of all, the exceedingly trippy tutorial, which is creatively sung to gamers to explain the rules, doesn’t provide players a chance to practice your skills or learn how to fully react and interact with the drum. This can throw some players headfirst into the deep end. Secondly, while the mini-games are somewhat fun to play at times, particularly if you’ve got a few friends over, they quickly become stale, making the taiko mode truly the only section you’ll probably pay attention to. Once you’ve crossed over into trying to successfully unlock hidden songs, you’ll also stumble into a tricky fluke of the game. Whatever difficulty level you were playing at when you unlocked the song, you’ll be playing the hidden track at this level immediately. Considering that you’ve probably never heard that song before, it can feel like being thrown into the deep end, especially if you’ve been on hard difficulty for a while. Finally, and perhaps most dramatically, the drum peripheral doesn’t seem to be sensitive enough to register all of the hits you’ll need for some songs. For instance, I started doing a number of quick 1-2-3 patter cadences for a couple of hard difficulty songs, yet the drum wasn’t sensitive enough to pick up on them. So much for my combo, and so much for the rhythm that I’d started building up as I hit the unit. This carries over from side to side of the drum itself, making it tricky to know exactly when and where a beat will accurately be picked up.
Peripheral issues aside, Taiko Drum Master is probably one of the first rhythm games in a while to actually provide some amount of creativity to the genre. Thanks to the drum and the playlist, gamers will have a number of tracks to beat out differing rhythms to, and the animated characters are somewhat amusing. Were the drum and the other features of the game more solid, this would’ve been an award winning title.