Review: Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! (Switch)

Bandai Namco unleashed its latest iteration of the long-running Taiko no Tatsujin series onto the Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch in Japan within the past year, and, in a surprise move, shuffled digital versions of the game over to North American download shops in November. This marks the first proper Taiko console release in the United States in 14 years, but is it a moot point when the official TataCon drums aren’t available for domestic purchase?

Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! enters the fray on the North American Nintendo Switch, hoping to bank on its Joy-Con motion controllers to eliminate the need for HORI’s peripheral. Teaming up with Nintendo, the game gets a boost with four-player support, Nintendo-themed songs and characters and a load of mini-games to further encourage multiplayer play. At the end of the day, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! has the spirit of the series nailed down, so let’s brush over these details before breaking down how the game feels in the absence of the TataCon.

Overall, the presentation of Drum ‘n’ Fun is fantastic, bringing the vivid, animated graphics of the series to the Nintendo Switch and carrying over all the “don”s and “ka”s, character voices and festive menu music on top. If you’ve ever played any Taiko no Tatsujin game, there will be zero surprises in the way Drum ‘n’ Fun presents itself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCdsj6LdlBs

The menus are obviously translated to English, but, in keeping the feel of the original, a number of elements, such as song titles, are still matched with Japanese text. The menus are very clean and streamlined, and this is further bolstered by fast changes by category of song/mini-game and the ability to mark favorites.

As a rhythm game, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! is highlighted by its music options and controls, but the presentation surrounding all of this is spot-on. The graphics pop off the screen, and helpful visual cues – such as the changes when you reach your clear norma, fill your performance meter or reach a new personal best score – are very noticeable without being distracting. The music is represented in high quality, and the classic taiko sound effects impactfully highlight the player’s rhythm inputs.

The real effort of the Nintendo Switch version went into its roster of mini-games, which can be played with one to four players. While a “mini-game mode” is usually a tacked-on bullet point, it does actually add some substance to Drum ‘n’ Fun.

There are categories of mini-games that pit players in free-for-all versus games, but also 2v2 team games and all-out cooperative games. Even for players going solo, there are target scores to clear to unlock “expert” versions of each game, and tallying up mini-game sessions unlocks new characters to use in the base rhythm game mode and “plays” that count toward extra song unlocks.

While I can’t say every mini-game knocked it out of the park for me, there is a surprising variety in what is offered. Taiko’s vibrant presentation coupled with the quick-play rhythm games gave me Rhythm Tengoku vibes, giving fans of that Nintendo series an extra reason to check out Drum ‘n’ Fun.

The mini-games are simple to control and do not last very long, so fans of the series picking up the title on the basis of the rhythm game mode won’t lose much in giving the mode a shot (especially since they add up to unlocking content). My only nit-pick on the mode is that the instructions for the mini-game didn’t always make it crystal clear on how the game would unfold, but it’s something that becomes evident within the first few seconds of the mini-game.

The mini-game mode is also the easiest way to stack more players into the game session. On a single Nintendo Switch, the Taiko Mode is only accessible to one or two players, meaning a local wireless session (another Nintendo Switch with its own downloaded copy of the game) is necessary to place more players into the session.

A true online mode is absent in Drum ‘n’ Fun (the Playstation 4 has a ranked rival mode where players can match against other players’ ghost plays), but Nintendo eShop service is set up for the title. Even for those not looking to expand their song roster, I encourage players to visit the store at least once to pick up free downloads for a Gold DON-chan character and cross-promotional characters NEKOKO and TOMOMO, who appear in their own Switch/3DS game NekoTomo (which furthermore has its theme song mixed into the game’s default song list). Both of these characters have skill sets that really benefit beginning players, but, since they are free, why not round out your character roster?

Many rhythm games launch with very little available as DLC, but, nine classic tunes were featured at $1.50 each, and special song packs featuring Studio Ghibli, VOCALOID and Touhou Project were stacked in. As of Nov. 8, an additional song pack, “Pops Pack Vol. 1,” jumped into the store. I have yet to download any packs, but the Pops Pack seems to include three hit songs from Japan, including DA PUMP’s “U.S.A.,” Masaki Suda’s “Sayonara Elegy” and Gen Hoshino’s “Koi.”

Taiko no Tatsujin has seen annual arcade releases in Japan for nearly 20 years, so, obviously, there is a lot of content in the vault for Bandai Namco to shuffle through. Still, it’s refreshing to see the company highlight popular and recent songs in its first few DLC offerings instead of starting at the back of the line or throwing in tons of generic music not based on licenses.

That also brings us to the roster of songs included in the Drum ‘n’ Fun download. When Drum Master released on U.S. Playstation 2 systems in 2004, it came loaded with video game music, classical tunes and U.S. pop music (and the amazing “Rock the Dragon” from the U.S. Dragon Ball Z anime opening). Drum ‘n’ Fun surprisingly sticks 100 percent true to the Japanese release, bringing more than 60 tracks that highlight Japanese pop music, themes from classic and contemporary anime, VOCALOID tunes, classical and variety songs, as well as themes from video games and Namco original music (even the mascot/manga license KoroKoro Comic is pulled over to the U.S. version without being altered).

This rich collection of licenses is likely where the $50 price tag stems from, but it finally brings a Taiko game to the U.S. in a version that is true to form. Repeated play of the game unlocks more tracks that push the title into the territory of approximately 70 songs, so, breaking the price down by song (and throwing in the mini-games), there is value in the game for new and existing Taiko players.

One minor content gripe I have is something that is likely not Bandai Namco’s fault, but given the collaboration with Nintendo, it would have been nice to see a little more exclusive content. The Drum ‘n’ Fun version adds two exclusive Nintendo-themed characters and three music tracks that highlight Super Mario Oddyssey, Splatoon 2 and Kirby. Obviously, DLC can play into this later, but a few more exclusive Nintendo tunes could have really hammered home the exclusive nature of the game’s content.

For existing players, the big catch, and likely the hesitation to dive into the title, stems from the lack of domestic TataCon availability. The HORI TataCon is the console-based Taiko controller and drumstick set that allows players to play the game as intended.

Obviously, those dedicated enough to the game know the Japanese TataCon can be purchased online, and this controller is fully compatible with the North American version of the game (complete with translated options and tutorials in the game fully laying out how to play with the drum peripheral). In a format true to the arcade, players strike the base to hammer out notes and red and strike the rim to play the blue notes – this is all nothing new to anyone who has picked the game up even one time.

However, these players were likely dedicated enough to import the whole game and controller package, so, in analyzing the gameplay and control of the game for a review, these observations assume someone new to the series is picking up the game, Playstation 4 owners of the game are curious about the version or, like me, you are a player familiar with the series and pick it up every now and again.

The North American Drum ‘n’ Fun game allows players to choose between using two Joy-Cons with a motion-based drumstick grip or a dual-controller (Joy-Cons connected to the system’s controller base) or Pro Controller. The mini-games are intentionally designed so a third option is available in utilizing a single Joy-Con in the horizontal orientation.

There isn’t much to be said about the dual/Pro controller setup, which works as intended. The game presents multiple options for the player to remap buttons designated to the face or rim of the drum. This is a simple scheme that works well for the mini-games and works as intended for the Taiko Mode. However, this control scheme doesn’t represent the spirit of the game too well, so most will likely be interested in how the Joy-Con drumming works out.

In my opinion, the Joy-Con motion drumming works well enough to make the game fun, but it is still not to the level where it can truly replace the TataCon. The game is heavily advertised to show the motion controls operate by strumming downward to strike the face of the taiko, and strumming at an angle to strike the rim. However, there are alternate controls, and I found it more responsive to hold the L trigger while strumming downward to strike the taiko rim.

The controls honestly hold up quite well for a number of the game’s rhythm charts. My biggest issue was getting the strikes to register properly when the command types repeatedly alternate. It’s quite fun to use the motion controls for low- to mid-level songs, but entering the 7 to 8 territory on the difficulty scale became slightly frustrating. That’s mostly where the control snafus will come into play – players tackling the highest difficulties and going for perfect runs.

For those looking to enjoy the music and take a more casual approach, though, the motion controls are very serviceable, and the gameplay delivery can be further tweaked by the game’s character traits. The default DON-Chan and KA-Chan characters present the game as intended, but selecting other characters give the player gameplay traits that make the game easier or more difficult. If a player is struggling, they can select characters that buff their performance meter or make the special commands (balloons, drum rolls, etc.) easier.

One of these characters, Master Bachio, eliminates the need to use different motions for the DON and KA notes, reducing the game motioning in rhythm to the notes. I made sure my kids had a chance to play the game using this option, and my 5-year-old and 7-year-old were immediately hammering out tunes up to difficulty level 5.

They had a blast as they recognize the characters (I have Taiko merchandise on my desk and DON-Chan has appeared in the Yo-Kai Watch series), as well as a number of the video game and animation franchises that are presented in the game. As a parent, I use the Nintendo Switch to play games suitable for the entire family, and, when I forget about playing level 8 difficulties and getting perfect performances, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! is a superb addition to our game library.

For those who do want to run for score, though, difficulty clears are the main performance-related item saved to the system’s overall record. Scores are recorded per-character, so if you have multiple people gunning for high scores, they can’t “cheat” out a higher score because they have a specific character buff.

Despite all that, the entire time I’m playing Drum ‘n’ Fun, it’s hard to shake the feeling the game would be MORE fun if I had the TataCon controller. While the motion controls are more serviceable than I anticipated going into the title, they fail to make the Joy-Cons an absolute replacement to the control scheme fans of the series have become accustomed to. The TataCon can be imported, but those picking up the title for more casual play are very unlikely to spend more on the controller than the game itself.

Overall, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! is a very welcome addition to the series. There was no doubt Bandai Namco would be able to pitch the spirit of the franchise onto the Nintendo Switch. The graphics and sound are top-notch, and, while the modes and offerings might fall a little short for some players wanting what the PS4 offers, what’s included in Drum ‘n’ Fun plays well to the Switch system.

Since the announcement of the North American version being digital only, the main point of contention for the title has been how it controls without a domestically-supported TataCon controller. Thankfully, the Joy-Con motion controls are a suitable substitute about 75 percent of the time. There are options in play to further adjust the playability (and players can just use the button-based controllers), but none of it completely captures the spirit of the original controller.

*A digital review copy of Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! was provided to bemanistyle.otaquest.com by publisher Bandai Namco.

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