Yakuza 5 has reached the West today. It’s the end of a long wait for Yakuza fans, and an encouraging sign that the roughest days for American fans of Japanese games are behind us. Secretly, though, it’s the return for a franchise that is just as beloved and missing outside Japan for even longer: Taiko Drum Master, or Taiko no Tatsujin.
Taiko no Tatsujin places you in the role of a Japanese drummer, laying down the beats for various pop songs, classical pieces and assorted other tracks in the hopes of getting accurate hits and long combos. Like most great Japanese rhythm games, the series began in arcades, as a 2001 bombastic showpiece with two enormous drums and an overabundance of color.
What makes Taiko tick is its note system. Red notes indicate that you should hit the face of the drum, and blue notes mean you should tap the edge. There are also roll notes, that have you hitting the drum like a madman, and large notes, that award extra points for harder strikes. Generally, though, it’s about the rhythms of the reds and blues, and keeping up as these sequences get more and more complex.
If this is all sounding familiar to you, it’s possible that you came across the original Taiko Drum Master, a 2004 PS2 release and, until now, the only time the game’s been in English. But you’d be forgiven for not remembering it, as it didn’t enjoy very much success. It’s more likely that you played Donkey Konga, the GameCube game with special bongo controllers. The two series are quite similar, since the same Namco team developed both. It’s safe to say that if you’ve been missing Donkey Konga, picking up a Taiko game is a good way to scratch that itch.
In Yakuza 5, Kiryu can head to an arcade with some actual working games. One of them: a Taiko no Tatsujin cabinet, which may be short on songs but is nevertheless totally Taiko. You can play “From the New World,” “Nijiiro Yumeiro Taikoiro” and a Mappy medley and choose your difficulty on each, so you can at least put together a full session of play. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and after over a decade, we’ll take what we can get.
It’s interesting that Taiko is popping up in the West through a PS3 release, since it’s actually the only time it’s ever been on that system. Its platform loyalties have shifted about, but home releases have been restricted to the Wii and Wii U for the past decade. Of course, this Yakuza 5 iteration is running the arcade game, and its limited track list means there’s not much of a menu.
The real fun of Taiko comes from its song selection. It still has the public-domain re-recordings and random pop songs from its early days, but later titles have done a good job filling out the song list with game themes, anime songs and some personality-filled original compositions. The latest entries even incorporate Vocaloids into their repertoire, adding more variety (and, inevitably, a bit extra difficulty).
Frantic rhythm play gets even better with friends. The series has always supported two players, and recent Wii and Wii U entries even allow four. This usually means using controllers instead of drums, but unlike something like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, this doesn’t totally break the enjoyment. Face buttons and shoulder buttons handle red and blue hits, respectively, which feels right. Big hits require two buttons at once, and that works fairly well too. If you’re playing competitively, you’ll probably want to all use the same controls, since the drum adds a degree of difficulty, but if you’re just having fun, trading off can be a blast.
Button controls also allow Taiko‘s portable entries to be just as fun as the home versions. It’s enjoyed a lot of success on PSP, DS, 3DS and Vita, and not because of the weird promotional styli included with the Nintendo versions. That said, if you want to be a silly human being, drumming a touch-screen in a public place sounds like a great way to make that happen!
Unfortunately, most of the series’ best releases are on region-locked platforms, from its long PS2 and Wii runs to its latest releases on 3DS and Wii U. The best option for importers is the Vita release, V Version, or one of the just-released Idolmaster-themed editions. But hey, you can get a taste in Yakuza now!