The North American release of Taiko Drum Master mere weeks after Donkey Konga in Fall 2004 is unfortunate because it invites the inevitable comparisons between the two. Despite the fact that Taiko Drum Master, or Taiko no Tatsujin as it's called in Japan, actually came out well before Donkey Konga in that country, it seems cursed to be perceived in North America as "that other drumming game - you know, the one that isn't plastered with recognizable Nintendo mascots."
As a rabid devourer of rhythm action games both foreign and domestic (mostly foreign), I was already well-acquainted with the Japanese Taiko no Tatsujin and four of its sequels for PlayStation 2 before I sat down with Taiko Drum Master. Not much had changed. For the first time, I could read the menus and understand the snippets of voice. There were now subtitles to guide me through the quirky opening theme song. (Not that it made any more sense as the voice sang about being happy despite being scolded for not washing its hands.)
The game is still so very "Japanese" with some English grafted on top, like a wild animal barely and tenuously domesticated. Personally, I rejoiced that Namco didn't patronize us by giving the game too much of a makeover. Had Taiko Drum Master reigned in some of its quirkiness for the North American release, however, perhaps it would have been better received.
I, for one, was not offended by what Anton calls the "half-assed" cast of characters. In fact, I barely noticed them at all. This is a music game, after all, not an RPG, and I really couldn't care less about who or what is bopping around in the background as I focus on the furiously scrolling icons in front of me and try to coordinate my hands to match their patterns.
So let's talk about music, then. Taiko Drum Master is simply the stronger game. I was able to blow through every single one of Donkey Konga's songs on the first try, whereas there are still a couple of Taiko Drum Master's Oni mode tracks that I haven't been able to clear thanks to a much higher difficulty ceiling.
I'm not completely happy with the song list, but it's impossible to please everyone. There are a few too many pop fluff numbers for my liking (songs like "ABC," "Walking on Sunshine," and the well-worn "Hungarian Dances No. 5" seem to pop up absolutely everywhere), and I was disappointed that there was no traditional taiko music like that featured on the Japanese versions. However, amidst the usual pop/rock standards and classical standbys are some truly sizzling tracks. Most of the Namco originals stand out as being exceptional, specifically the themes from Katamari Damacy, Ridge Racer and Soul Calibur II, as well as the arm buster "The Genji and the Heike Clans."
I didn't have the same problems with the drum controller that Anton did. Although friends have had problems with the drum sliding across the floor, I never have—likely because my "technique" such as it is involves pounding the thing down into the ground with every stroke so it can't possibly move. It's true that the middle of the drum is completely unresponsive due to a narrow divider that separates the left and right input panels on the drum face, but the solution is simple: don't aim for the middle.
I've found the drum to be sturdy and able to withstand all the abuse I've thrown at it so far. If the drum requires the player to hit it with firm and precise strokes for the best results, well, it's just behaving like a real drum would. The Donkey Konga bongos hurt my hands, and the microphone often picks up background sounds that it interprets as claps. And in what is a rather more serious problem, hit detection on the kongas is not as precise as the drum, meaning that if I want to score a perfect hit in Donkey Konga, I actually have to anticipate the beat by a fraction of a second.
Although like Anton I've spent this review comparing Taiko Drum Master to Donkey Konga (and have concluded that Taiko Drum Master is the superior game), I don't share Anton's opinion that the "loser" gets automatically relegated to wannabe status. No one game should get to have a monopoly on drum controllers and quirky characters. The more the merrier, I say! The optimist in me looks forward to the day when "drumming game" can be seen not as a novelty, but as an accepted subgenre. Wishful thinking, I know.