In the world of entertainment media, similar properties come out simultaneously all the time, usually as bandwagon hopefuls trying to cash in on whatever the hot topic of the day is. In 1997, Hollywood gave us Pierce Brosnan and Tommy Lee Jones battling molten lava in both Dante's Peak and the aptly titled Volcano. Today's bookshelves overflow with DaVinci Code wannabees. It happens in modern media all the time, and more so in gaming as it becomes an even larger player in the entertainment industry. Over the past few years, there have been five or six versions of Taiko: Drum Master put out before Namco finally released a North American console version of it in 2004 for the PS2 (around the same time Nintendo/Namco released Donkey Konga for the Gamecube). Having first gone ape playing Donkey Konga, I just had to see how the console version of Taiko stacked up comparatively. The short answer? It doesn't. But that's far too simplistic.
Taiko (for those not in the know) is both the name of the drum itself and the modern-art drumming technique kumi-daiko, mixing elements of martial arts, dance and classical music. Large wooden drums, synchronized movement--it's all very grand scale and rich with cultural majesty. History lesson aside, I didn't find a world of pageantry or intricate martial arts workout in Taiko: Drum Master, but I did find a moderately fun drumming game that sadly plays second banana to Nintendo's Donkey Konga.
From the moment I opened the oversized box, Taiko left a lot to be desired just by its controller alone. Some assembly was required for this not so sturdy unit. Even the drumsticks were disappointing. They vaguely resembled the traditional wooden sticks but they're plastic, hollow, and slightly reminded me of adult "back massagers." The controller itself is unwieldy, making it difficult to play unless I cradled it in my lap while sitting Indian-style. Lastly, the drum is somewhat unresponsive. The most likely area to hit, the center, has a support that kills drum sensitivity and the outer rim was no better-- all this despite a detailed diagram showing appropriate hit zones. I did eventually find areas that were sufficiently responsive, but for seventy dollars I would have preferred a peripheral that had more heft to it, especially if I was expected to rhythmically whack the crap out of it. I don't think it's asking a lot of a drumming game to give me a controller that actually registers my drumming.
Taiko is all about the rhythm, as my arms and I soon painfully discovered. The game is simple enough to follow: drum like a test monkey at a caffeine research facility. Red and blue notes (bearing happy faced drumheads) scroll by a target zone and I banged the drum according to their patterns and accompanying music. Each color represents either a rim shot or a hit to the drumhead with larger icons indicating simultaneously hitting both sticks on either area in response. The frequently changing rhythms kept me constantly focused and on my toes. Using a second Taiko Controller (or simply a Dualshock PS2 controller) allows players to perform in duet mode, adding another level of sophistication to the performance. New songs and difficulty modes (Easy, Medium, Hard, and the devlish Oni) are unlocked by scoring enough points by drumming accurately.
Both games are extremely similar right down to the interface, but this is where Taiko falls remarkably short, lacking the familiar charm and recognizable characters that Donkey Konga brings to the table. Taiko struggles to establish a half-assed Hello Kitty cast of characters that simply don't cut it. Only after reading the character bios in the Taiko manual did I come to the conclusion that they aren't endearing, but simply disturbing. How disturbing? Every last item on the screen is graced with personification. Water balloons, cotton candy, worms, jellyfish, a bowl of dumplings (brothers who like to be stabbed by toothpicks), a cat and ladle that hang out together, lanterns, humans, turtles, and the stars of the show, dancing drumsticks (back massagers) and drums Don and Katsu. Very bizarre and distinctly Japanese, but overall ultimately very weak.
The variety of music is one of the best features of the game, ranging from classical to pop hits by Bowling for Soup, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Jet, the B- 52s, and Queen (all featured in sound-alike glory). Namco also pays musical homage to several of its own franchise favorites including music from Soul Calibur and a catchy track from 2004's addictive sleeper hit Katamari Damacy.
Overall, in comparison to the Hollywood-like blockbuster Donkey Konga, I ultimately found Taiko: Drum Master to be lacking. It's a shame that this older, more established drumming franchise wasn't able to put out a decent console version. Too much effort was spent trying to force loveable, quirky characters down my throat with all the believability of The DaVinci Code's plotline. My own interest in the art of Taiko drumming kept me playing, but without that, I don't think I would have continued on as long as I did. I would rather be going bananas with Donkey Konga.