TAIKO image.

Drum Mania!

Animefringe delves into the North American release of TAIKO: Drum Master with Namco's locaization producer, Ken Nakadate.

by Adam Arnold

With music games finally gaining a foothold in the North American gaming market, thanks to the likes of Frequency, Amplitude, Karaoke Revolution and Dance Dance Revolution, one game announced at this year's E3 came as a complete surprise. That game was TAIKO: Drum Master, or Taiko no Tatsujin as it is known in Japan --a game so Japanese that few even believed it was possible to bring it across the Pacific.

While the actual game received a brief cameo along with Guitar Freaks and Pop'n Music in the award-winning film Lost in Translation, the word "taiko" is actually a term that refers to both the taiko drums themselves and the art of taiko drumming. Taiko has a long history stretching back at least two thousand years in Japan and it has recently started to branch out to become a larger part of the world's musical culture.

Being extremely large, taiko drums themselves are often seen being supported on their sides with the drum portion completely facing the player. The player strikes the instrument with a pair of large softwood drumsticks called bachi, and performers can be seen pouring sweat once they are finished.

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To reproduce the thrill of playing a taiko drum in the arcades, Namco took the familiar sights and sounds of a traditional Japanese festival and added vibrant, cartoon graphics that were not only simplistic, but also expressive enough to draw in unsuspecting gamers. The actual drums have been placed so that gamers can strike the base of the drum at an angle around waist to mid-chest level and three modes of gameplay exist to give anyone a chance to step in at ground-zero and quickly move on to trying to master the harder songs.

Basic rhythm may be Taiko's true key to success; mastery of the drum controller is made extremely easy. There are only four possible places to hit the drum--left or right on the drum's face (red hits) and left or right on the drum's side rim (blue hits). The game lets players choose how they want to play. If someone finds that playing with their right hand hitting only the face and their left hitting only the rim is best for them, then they can play that way. The only required hits are rapid drum rolls and dual hits to create a booming sound, but all of that comes easily with just a few songs.

For Taiko's home transition, a miniature drum became a necessity. Made completely of plastic, the home controller's one main flaw is that it shifts far too much during play making it all but necessary to apply some Velcro or a non-slip mat to the drum's bottom. The drum's frail plastic appearance is also quite deceptive. The controller can take a lot of damage without showing any signs of stress, even under the hardest of hits.

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Currently five Taiko no Tatsujin titles (four core mixes and one anime-centric mix) have been released in Japan so far, with a sixth coming in early December. Do not be fooled though, the Japanese Taiko games are as Japanese as a game can come. All of the menus are in Japanese and English text is virtually non-existent, making a basic understanding of Japanese (or at least a menu translation) necessary to even turn the auto-save feature on. The track listings are spot on with Dragon Ball Z's "Cha-La Head Cha-La", Sailor Moon's "Moonlight Densetsu" and Mobile Suit Gundam's "Tobeyo Gandamu!" all appearing throughout the releases.

Japan's love of all things Taiko has actually taken on a new life of its own as well, with gel stress relievers and various plush animals and UFO catcher dolls of the game's mascots, Don and Katsu now appearing on the market in Japan. Most surprising of all is the fact that gamers can even pick up replacement drumsticks that look remarkably like candy. Just don't think to sink your teeth into them hoping for a crunchy center.

For Taiko no Tatsujin's North American release, renamed TAIKO: Drum Master, the entire Japanese song listing was jettisoned in favor of familiar English favorites like "Slide", "Lady Marmalade", "Love Shack" and "Killer Queen". The final release consists of 31 tracks and does include many of the Japanese releases' classical tracks including "Beethoven's Symphony No. 5" and "William Tell Overture", as well as Namco's surprise inclusion of "Katamari on the Rocks", the theme from Katamari Damacy. Hardcore gamers will be happy to know that the TAIKO's high-energy Japanese opening sequence has been retained and has simply been subtitled into English.

With Namco experiencing a mini-renaissance in the gaming market, Animefringe had the distinct pleasure to catch up with Ken Nakadate, localization producer for TAIKO: Drum Master, to ask him a few questions about the game's origins and how the songs were chosen for the game.

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Animefringe/Adam Arnold: As far as music games go, TAIKO: Drum Master ranks right up there with SEGA's Samba de Amigo in terms of originality. Where exactly did the concept for the game originate?

Ken Nakadate: We tried to create a simple music game that anyone and everyone --from little kids to adults-- can pick up and enjoy. "Taiko" is a traditional Japanese instrument that anyone in Japan knows, but you don't usually get to play it. I knew that if this instrument were featured in a video game, everyone would jump at it.

AF: Were there any particular challenges that your team faced during the development or localization of the game?

KN: The localization team and the voice actors had to work very hard to convey the same feel of the original version in English voice and text.

AF: Japan is about to have six Taiko no Tatsujin games on PlayStation 2. Which game engine does TAIKO: Drum Master use as its base or does it use a mix of them all?

KN: TAIKO: Drum Master is based on the game engine of Taiko no Tatsujin 4.

AF: What kind of learning curve do new gamers face when picking up their pair of drumsticks for the first time?

KN: It depends on the person. If you have played with music games, it will probably take a day. Even if you haven't played music games before, you will become fairly good at it in a week or so.

AF: Say you are literally a "Drum Master". What are the easiest and hardest songs in the U.S. version of TAIKO: Drum Master?

KN: The easiest songs include "ABC" in the Easy mode and "That's The Way (I Like It)" in Easy mode. The hardest song would be "The Genji and The Heike Clans" in the Difficult mode.

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AF: The tracks in the game range from "Toxic" to Soul Calibur II's "Brave Sword." How exactly did the game's 31-track line-up get chosen?

KN: Licensed songs were chosen based on the CD sales ranking and the rhythm of the song.

We tried to include latest hits as well as the classic fare, so that kids and adults can equally enjoy them. We also featured original music from Namco's popular games.

AF: Since TAIKO has Dragon Ball Z's "Rock The Dragon", is there any hope of seeing, or rather hearing, the Sailor Moon theme song or any other anime tracks in possible future releases?

KN: There is always such a possibility! You just have to wait and see.

AF: Are there any songs from the Japanese version of TAIKO that you would have liked to see brought over that were not?

KN: We decided at the very start to use songs that would be more popular among North American users, so there is no song from the Japanese version that we would have liked to see in the American version, but was not.

AF: In both the American and Japanese versions of TAIKO all of the songs in the game are accessible from the beginning. What kind of secrets can players expect from TAIKO: Drum Master to keep them playing?

KN: Actually, there are some unlockables both in the Japanese and American versions! You'll find them as you spend more time playing the game. Players can enjoy different mini games in addition to playing Taiko Mode, as well.

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AF: GameCube has the forthcoming Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat that players can also use the Donkey Konga controller with, but will any future games make use of the Taiko drum?

KN: There are no plans at this time.

AF: It seems that since some of the most fun and original games that Japan has to offer --namely Katamari Damacy and TAIKO: Drum Master-- are finally being brought stateside, do you think that other companies will pick up on Namco's lead and continue to give the American market a little more "gaming variety"?

KN: I do hope that other game companies come up with more diverse types of games. I also hope that developers in Japan develop global hits like GTA someday.

AF: And the question that I am sure everyone is dying to know... Don or Katsu?

KN: I feel more affection toward Katsu, the younger brother. He maintains a low profile and tries to make his older brother look good. He embodies traditional Japanese virtue.

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