Few things in this world are as exciting as wandering into an arcade space and finding a Taiko no Tatsujin machine. They are wondrous things, massive hunks of plastic housing enough space for two players to tear it up on the huge drum controllers, big ol’ screens ,and of course, the adorable red and blue Taiko mascots. Banging on those drums and clacking the sticks together is such an irreplaceable experience, but playing home versions can be a suitable alternative as well, thanks to choice music licensing, and controls that adapt well to a normal pad or even touch screens. It has been tragic, then, that the series has remained unlocalized for so many years, likely due to licensing woes. But now, in 2018, Bandai Namco has made it happen, and two different Taiko experiences have dropped on the same day. Here, of course, we’re taking a look at the PlayStation 4 version, called Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session. It’s about as robust as you can get for such a simple game, and while the PlayStation 4 version doesn’t benefit from the same platform-exclusive brand power the Nintendo Switch alternative does, Bandai Namco’s dedication to keeping the Taiko identity intact makes Drum Session a must have for longtime fans and Japanese music dorks alike.
Feel the Beat in Your Aching Wrists
Taiko no Tatsujin is deceptively simple. It’s a music rhythm game, which means as a song plays, notes sail across the screen in a defined lane towards a scoring mechanism. One the note collides with the mechanism, the player has to hit the right button at the right time to score. Scoring can be pass/fail, but other games such as Taiko also grade based on accuracy. While many rhythm games have multiple kinds of notes and even lanes, Taiko has one lane, and is based on interacting with a simple drum controller. This is effectively translated into two notes, red for the face of the drum and blue for the outer rim. There are some variations, but generally you’ll either be hitting the “blue” or “red” button.
While you won’t have to dedicate energy to memorizing much in the way of positioning, or adapting to reading wild note charts, as the difficulty increases, Taiko throws more at you. Single notes become clusters of notes, and God help you if you aren’t playing on an actual arcade drum unit on Expert difficulty. Again, like many arcade conversions throughout time, playing on console is a compromise in exchange for convenience. It’s possible to master Taiko with a pad, but it is neither easy nor comfortable. Hori makes a drum controller, but it’s pricey, and doesn’t come in a bundle in North America. Good luck! If you do have trouble or you’re still learning, Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session has a surprising amount of tweaking you can do with the settings, from making accuracy more or less forgiving, to of course tuning down the difficulty and more.
From Kiseki to Hello Kitty
The strength of any rhythm game is its song selection, and Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session is definitely no slouch. Taiko in particular is not beholden to style or genre due to its goofy instrument conceit, so the selection available is traditionally all over the place. There’s techno, classical tunes, video game music, modern and classic anime themes, Japanese pop hits, and more. You can even play that godforsaken “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” song in this version. Such is the versatility of percussion. A blessing and a curse indeed.
What’s awesome, of course, is how intact everything is. This isn’t the Japanese rhythm game of old, with the game’s original music replaced by awkward covers of American music. This is not Donkey Konga; this is the real deal. There are even songs from the Japanese versions of Disney hits Frozen and Zootopia here, along with anime fair such as Dragon Ball Super, My Neighbor Totoro, and stuff I haven’t even heard of. And, as you’ll see in the legally sound gameplay video, Bandai Namco also has plenty of original music to play with as well. As long as you stand somewhere on the nerd spectrum, there is probably something here you’ll enjoy.
And if the tracklist seems lacking (it shouldn’t), there are also purchase options for more music, including more licensed fare from hit anime such as K-On. It’s kind of a drag that Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session launched with a lot of paid DLC, but there is considerable distance between this and the original Japanese version, so it does make sense.
Busting Ghosts and Stacking Coins
While there’s plenty of joy in just picking and playing tracks by yourself or with a friend, you can also throw down in an online ranked mode. However, it’s worth noting that you don’t play with other people in real time here. It’s based on ghost data, so you’re essentially challenging recordings of other players’ high scores. This means you’re not going to be able to count on in the moment human error to clutch a win out, but it also means you don’t need to worry about connection issues, timeouts, rage-quits, so on and so forth. Playing songs in ranked also contributes to your performance checks in general, so you can earn similar rewards on top of those tied to multiplayer.
Earning rewards takes the form of filling out progressively difficult bingo cards per song, which pay out in profile settings and coins, which can be turned into, well, loot boxes. Within these wholesome, cartoon boxes of loot are titles, decorations for your profile and the real good stuff, cosmetic items for your little sentient, anime drum child. These items range from the mundane to the bizarre, and at one point my cute little drum child was wearing a cheeseburger costume, had what looked like a prison tattoo on its face, and rode into musical battle with a creepy, little clown sidekick. It was pretty good.
That’s about the long and short of it. Of course, the strength of Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session, beyond its time-honored musical mechanics, is the variety in its tracklist, its long list of goofy unlockables, and easily digestible score chasing. This game won’t convert anyone who runs away screaming from rhythm games, but if you’re feeling the itch in a genre that has been struggling as of late, this is one of the best ways possible to scratch it right now. What could possibly be more compelling than a heated, rank-determining battle via the Hello Kitty theme song, after all?
Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session! review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.