Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun (Switch) review — Bang the Drum

It’s not unusual for a Japanese arcade hit to never see the light of day in the West, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for fans (or would-be fans) of a particular game. Such has long been the case for drum-based rhythm game Taiko no Tatsujin: it’s been holding strong in Japanese arcades since 2001, but its only Western appearance until now was with 2004’s Taiko: Drum Master, and even that was limited to North America.

With Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! for Nintendo Switch (as well as Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session for PlayStation 4), Bandai Namco has finally seen fit to bring the Taiko series to a global audience. It’s good timing, too; the Switch is establishing itself as a rhythm game powerhouse, and this is a game that every rhythm fan will want to check out.

Related reading: Gal Metal is a very different but equally worthwhile drumming game for Nintendo Switch. Read our review.

What’ll hit you first with Taiko no Tatsujin, before you even get to the music, is Yukiko Yoko’s adorable artwork. The game is full of cute personifications of everything from drums (Don and Katsu, the series’ mascots), to animals, to a water balloon. With their heavy linework, bright colours, and emotive faces, these characters are expressive beyond words. They’re what give Taiko no Tatsujin so much of its identity, and I’d say they’re a big part of why the series as endured as long as it has in Japanese arcades.

Aside from just giving the game its unique look, these different characters provide extra benefits and challenges in the game proper. Depending on who you pick before diving into the song selection, you might get easier timing, less punishment for missed notes, stricter timing, and so on. It’s a neat way to customise the difficulty, and between the different characters and usual difficulty levels, Taiko no Tatsujin ranges from very easy to extremely difficult.

As for the game itself, it’s classic rhythm game action: notes fly across the screen, and you press buttons, swing your Joy Con, or bang on a drum (if you have the drum controller) to match. In some ways, Taiko no Tatsujin is even simpler than its music game brethren, since there are, effectively, only two main note markers: the red Don, on which you hit the centre of the drum, and the blue Ka, on which you hit the rim.

Other markers twist those slightly—bigger Don and Ka notes want you to hit the drum or rim with both sticks simultaneously, while yellow notes, balloons, or golden drums want you to do a drumroll—but that Ka-Don, Ka-Don, Ka-Don is the basic framework of Taiko no Tatsujin.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that simplicity means the game lacks depth, though. Once you start playing tracks on Hard, just keeping up with the rhythms the game throws at you becomes a challenge, and Extreme is very much for the hardcore rhythm game crowd. A lot of tracks have their own quirks, like tempo changes or a dynamic difficulty that scales with your performance, and some even have an extra difficulty level above Extreme.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! supports a range of different input options, which is a nice touch. I expect most people will jump for motion control, which simulates the physical taiko performance without the need to invest in a specialised controller. Basically, you just swing your Joy Con: a straight downward strike for a Don, or a curved cutting motion for a Ka (imagine there’s a big drum in front of you). This option generally works well enough for easier songs, though I found it not quite responsive enough for the harder tracks. Button and touchscreen options offer a lot more precision, though it loses that physical drumming feeling.

If you can get one, the drum controller is probably the best way to play. I say “probably” because, I have to admit,  I haven’t played this way myself—my review copy was a download code—but it’s the control scheme the game was designed for, and everything I’ve seen of it in action tells me that it combines the best parts of the other options.

Almost any rhythm game lives or dies by its track list, and that’s another area where Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! shines. There are some 80 songs in the base game and a few more available as DLC, covering a range of J-pop, J-rock, anime music, vocaloid, game music, classical, and “Namco originals”. There are even a couple of Nintendo tracks for the Switch release, like a medley of Kirby music and the theme song from Super Mario Odyssey.

It’s the exact same track list as the Japanese release, and for the people who Taiko no Tatsujin will most appeal too, that’s a good thing. Even if you’re not overly familiar with J-pop and the like, you sure to find songs that you like among the list, and it’s a great way to discover new music—I’d never have heard of Goldenbomber if not for Taiko no Tatsujin‘s inclusion of “Memeshikute”.

Finally, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun also includes a series of multiplayer party games for up to four players. They’re all rhythm games built around simple, original beats (rather than the songs from the main game), and see you doing things like drumming out sushi orders based on the rhythm of the chef’s pronunciation, chopping blocks of wood thrown at you by a ninja dog, or playing red light / green light by drumroll.

Most of these games are competitive, with all players vying for the best scores—and, to be honest, those are the most enjoyable ones—but if you’re looking for something more team-oriented, there are also a couple of cooperative games and two-on-two games. Naturally, the party games are best played with friends, but they still work surprisingly well if you play alone, with or against AI opponents.

Whether you’re gathering friends for party mode or trying to get those perfect runs in the main game, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! is a whole lot of fun. The track list is excellent, the characters are utterly adorable, and it manages to capture both the beauty of taiko drumming and the excitement of arcade rhythm games wonderfully.

Score: 4.5 stars
Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun!
Genre: Music
Developer: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: 2 November 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.