Years before plastic guitars dominated every birthday party here in the West, Japanese arcades were full of gigantic taiko. Even now you can’t turn your ass in Japan without bumping into the red mascot Don. In fact, virtually every tourist attraction in Japan has its own Taiko merch. Taiko no Tatsujin is so popular for a reason: it is the perfect rhythm game. It’s easy to learn, hard to master, and bursting with both ancient and modern Japanese culture. With seventeen years of development, it has also built up a considerable track list. Almost every popular song from anime, games or Hatsune Miku’s repertoire has been translated into a Taiko variant. Rhythm Festival finally bundles most of them into one game. Unfortunately, that is accompanied by an extra price tag on top of the game and optional(?) drum.
Mastering the Taiko
As the name suggests, in the Taiko games you play on a taiko: a traditional Japanese drum that is widely used in theater and at festivals. Even at the smaller folk festivals you usually see a group of people playing these types of drums. In Taiko no Tatsujin this works quite simply. You will see red and blue drums appear on your screen, which respectively indicate whether you should hit the center of the drum or on the edge. In addition, larger drums sometimes appear, where you have to hit with both sticks, and there are moments when you have to roll.
The design is simple and that is exactly its charm. Within a few seconds you understand what is expected of you, and you can drum along with your favorite music from One Piece, Persona 5, or from the oeuvre of bands like Babymetal. For the non-weaboos among us, there is also K-pop, classical, or, for example, some music from Frozen. Meanwhile, cute, dancing yokai accompany your play, and mascots Don or Katsu cheer you on enthusiastically. It’s hard not to get carried away by Taiko’s childish enthusiasm.
However, work your way up to the higher difficulties, and you won’t know what you’re in for. On the infamous ‘Extreme’ difficulty setting, the drums are flying around your ears. If you thought ‘Through Fire and Flames’ in Guitar Hero was difficult, check out some ‘Oni Full Combo’ videos on YouTube. Perhaps an even greater indication of Taiko’s popularity in Japan is that there is almost always someone with such Taiko skills in every arcade.
Now Taiko has been previously released in the West. In recent years we have already seen a PlayStation and a Switch game. Rhythm Festival is not fundamentally different from the previous game, Drum Session!, from a few years ago. It does have some more features and hopes to bundle the entire Taiko experience in one game.
For starters, the party mode is back, with some fun but superficial mini-games. Plus there’s an online mode again – if you want to see some Japanese nerds in action. Rhythm Festival now also offers a practice mode, if you want to try to keep up with the Japanese on Extreme. Also new is that the game tries to tie things together with a story that automatically progresses as you play other modes. It’s not very exciting, but it sure is cute.
Ultimately, of course, it’s all about the arcade mode, and unfortunately the game is a bit disappointing there. Without DLC, the track list of Taiko no Tatsujin is quite sparse. Additions from Persona 5 and Katamari Damacy are of course welcome, but quite a few favorites are missing from the 70 or so songs you get when you buy the game. If you want to master all those songs, it will still keep you busy for months, but the track list is still a downer.
That only gets worse when you consider that the other, more than 500 (!), songs are held hostage as DLC. So the promise of a complete Taiko experience comes with a price tag. You can buy those 500 songs in bundles as DLC, or you can purchase a subscription. That subscription costs about four euros per month, after which you have access to the entire list at once. That list is impressive, and in itself four euros is not a crazy price for so much content. That price of a live service is only on top of the full price that Bandai asks for the game.
In addition, there are the additional costs for a drum. You can also play the game with buttons, or move the joycons as if they were sticks. The first is of course not the experience you buy Taiko for, and the second doesn’t work well enough if you want to drum a spicier game. In total you will spend about 120 euros on the game and a single drum, and then you actually have the entry-level version. I would expect at least a few free months from the subscription.
Do you really want to make it work? Then you will still have to tinker with cork to be able to hit faster.
The Hori drum that comes with the special edition of Rhythm Festival is of comparable quality to those of previous years. That means they work fine for normal use. They’re sturdy and sensitive enough to handle most songs on any difficulty. Do you really want to make it work? Then you will still have to tinker with cork to be able to hit faster.
All in all, Rhythm Festival is an excellent, complete Taiko experience – but with a catch. For those who just want to get into this series, 120 euros is already a considerable barrier. You do have a fairly meager version of the game, and it is difficult to justify a subscription service with monthly costs on top of that. If you’re already converted, then 4 euros per month is of course a small price to have the entire Taiko tracklist at your fingertips.