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The Mystical, Demystified – A Neophyte’s Guide to Touhou

Touhou: Cute girls, frilly hats and COSMIC LASER DEATH

Touhou: Cute girls, frilly hats and COSMIC LASER DEATH

Disclaimer: This article contains copious quantities of saccharine anime stylings, and very little in the way of space marines shooting things. If such things bother you, retreat now. Also, be warned that this article ended up far longer than I first intended, so feel free to skim.

Introduction ~ Welcome To Gensokyo

If the rags-to-riches, one-man indie success story of the western world is Minecraft, then the eastern equivalent is undoubtedly the long-running Touhou series. You’ve almost certainly heard of these games, but due to none of them having ever gotten official English-language releases, they remain a confusing and alien prospect for newcomers. Who is ZUN? Why are there so many frilly hats? How on earth are you meant to dodge all those bullets? In writing this, I hope to lay out the basics here, and make the series (and now-sprawling franchise in general) a little more friendly and accessible.

Obstensibly, the Touhou games (a staggering 18 official ‘numbered’ releases to date) are a series of vertically scrolling 2D ‘bullet hell’ (aka Danmaku – ‘Curtain Fire’) shooters, set in the magical parallel realm of Gensokyo, an idyllic home-away-from-home for a broad variety of deities, spirits, ghosts, fairies, Youkai (assorted beings of Japanese legend) and other such creatures of myth both eastern and western. Also of note is that apparently 99% of the named characters in Gensokyo are female. Why? I don’t know, but it makes for a silly, whimsical, and exceptionally cute setting. The core stories tend to follow the misadventures of Japanese shrine-maiden Reimu, and her best friend, the european-styled witch Marisa. While not an official production (rather, it’s part of the enormous range of third-party and fan-made works), I think the video below perfectly captures the general feel and style of the Touhou universe.

 

The Creator ~ The Enigmatic Boozer

The Touhou games themselves are almost all the creation of a lone developer – Jun’ya Ota, most commonly known as ZUN, founder and only member of Team Shanghai Alice. Very little is known about the man, beyond his oft-comically-referenced love of alcohol. Beginning in 1996, he has been the leading force behind the 18 official Touhou games, with him working fully solo on 15 of them, with a single guest artist on one, and with a full studio on the remaining two. Despite the enormous popularity of the series, ZUN remains a largely mysterious figure, releasing his games through indie/specialist channels only, and seemingly uninterested in capitalizing on the enormous success of the project as a whole. He could very easily become a much richer, more famous man if he ever wanted to be.

Series creator ZUN, and his favourite thing in the world.

Series creator ZUN and his favourite thing in the world.

All the core games in the series make some things clear; while possessing a great eye for gameplay design, ZUN is not a great artist. While charming in their own way, the illustrations and character portraits on show in most of the series are awkward at best, comically poor at worst. While he may not have the greatest artists touch, he shines as a composer. Despite limiting himself to slightly MIDI-ish synths for most of his compositions, the Touhou series is famous for its multitude of catchy and memorable character themes, which have been covered and arranged by literally hundreds of groups now. Floating around the web there is a torrent weighing in at a staggering 180GB – the contents? Touhou fan-music exclusively.

Where To Find Them ~ Quandary of Availability

Now here’s a problem of sorts. You’re interested in the series. You want to play one, maybe try it out, right? Well, the good news is that there are demos available for a great many of the games in the series. The bad news is if you want to play the full version. ZUN is exceptionally indie, and has eschewed more traditional revenue streams in favour of having limited print-runs produced of each game, to be primarily sold at specialist stores and big convention events like Comiket. What this means is that even if you can find a copy in stock (increasingly unlikely), you’ll likely be paying top dollar AND for postage all the way from Japan. While I cannot endorse it, I can’t condemn digging around for torrents of many of these games either. In many cases, there’s just no other way to get hold of them.

Another key issue is the language barrier – all the games are in Japanese! Fortunately, that barrier has been thoroughly steamrolled by dedicated fans, and unofficial English-language patches have been released for all but a couple of the earliest, most experimental games in the series. It’s usually just a matter of weeks before a new release is fully translated these days, as the western fanbase is large and industrious enough to have whole teams of veteran translators ready to make the game accessible for the rest of us.

Scarlet Weather Rhapsody: Now In English!

Scarlet Weather Rhapsody: Now In English!

You can find links to official pages (for patches and demos), links to the fan-translations, and even a page full of links to stores that ship internationally and may have copies of the games in stock over at the English Touhou Wiki, as well as a seemingly boundless (and sometimes baffling) font of information on all the games in the series.

Tips & Tricks ~ Mastery of Danmaku

If you’re not a fan of the genre, ‘bullet hell’ shooters can seem astoundingly intimidating, but they’re not nearly as mean as they look. Here’s a few tips, applicable to most of the series:

Most bullets aren’t going to come even close to you. Those beautiful swirling death-blossoms are 90% for show. Just keep an eye on the ones in your little corner of the screen. It’s part intimidation, part artistry. This is highlighted particularly well by Shoot The Bullet, where you’re trying to take photos of the bullet sprays, rather than directly fighting the boss.

You have a teensy tiny hitbox. While your character may appear relatively large, only the center couple of pixels are vulnerable to damage. In some games, you even get bonus points or powerups for ‘grazing’ bullets along your sprite without taking a direct hit. With a little practice, you should be weaving your character through impossibly dense-looking waves of incoming fire. The Touhou series is pretty good at being fair here – each boss has a clear set of attack patterns, and they usually take the form of geometric patterns that are easy to follow visually. Not too much in the way of wild bullet-spray.

Bullet Hell: Not as bad as it looks. Really!

Bullet Hell: Not as bad as it looks. Really!

Don’t worry about shooting for a high score unless you’re confident. The ultimate goal of any such shooter is to ’1cc’ (one credit completion) it. Beating the whole game in a single sitting without continuing once, thus preserving your score, as it tends to be reset or lowered significantly if you do choose to continue mid-game. If you’re a beginner, pick one of the lower difficulty settings, bump up the number of lives if you want, and don’t sweat the details. It’s a game – if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Also, don’t expect to win on your first (or second, or third) try – these are old-school arcade style games. It’s okay to lose – just pick yourself up again and aim to do better next time.

Bomb, bomb, bomb, and if in doubt: Bomb. The Touhou series is relatively generous in giving you smartbombs, and while they do damage enemies, their key purpose is to clear bullets off the screen. Depending on the character or loadout chosen, they might be more or less effective than usual, but it is ALWAYS better to spend a bomb than get caught by enemy fire. Later Touhou games also introduced a brief ‘escape’ period of a couple of frames after getting hit, where you can bomb to negate the damage. Dying usually replenishes your stock of bombs too, further highlighting the importance of using them before death.

The Early Games ~ Relics Of The PC-98

Despite being an enormous force capable of massive influence on the Japanese indie scene, the Touhou games started small and unassuming. A series of five little games developed for the PC-98, an obscure Japan-only personal computer. These first five are something of a footnote these days. They show the origins of the series quite well, but are very primitive by comparison to the later Windows-based outings, despite their impressive double-barreled titles. They’re also now only playable via emulators, which occasionally brings it’s own share of issues and glitches. Still, here’s a little bit on those early games:

TH01Wondrous Eastern Legend ~ Highly Responsive To Prayers – The very first adventure of Reimu Hakurei was a strange one.  Her shrine has been trashed, and she’s going to the spirit-world to beat down whoever did it. Using the mystical Yin-Yang orb from the shrine, she has to bat it Breakout/Arkanoid-style through a variety of stages, dodging bullets and occasionally fighting bosses. While there are some interesting bullet patterns on show in the boss fights, this first game is only very loosely tied to the rest of the series in terms of gameplay.

TH02Recorded Sealing of an Oriental Demon ~ Story Of Eastern Wonderland - The series finally found its true calling here, as it shifted from a bizarre hybrid into a full-fledged shooter. Reimu’s shrine has been overrun with ghosts and Youkai, and clearly someone has to pay. So she grabs the Yin-Yang orbs and flies off on the back of her sagely flying turtle, Genji.

TH03 - Oriental Dream Dimensions ~ Phantasmagoria Of Dim. Dream – The early experimental phase continues, with the game branching off into an experimental 2-player Vs format akin to Twinkle Star Sprites for the Neo Geo. Each player has their own game to play, but by scoring sufficiently impressive combos of hits upon the multitude of enemies, enemies are spawned on the other players screen. The story revolves around a magical fighting tournament, the prize being access to some mysterious ruins supposedly capable of granting your hearts desire – naturally, Reimu has signed up.

The evolution of the series continues, slowly but surely.

The evolution of the series continues, slowly but surely.

TH04 - Fantastic Home Village of the East ~ Lotus Land Story – The second pure shooter of the series. The increased focus on complex scoring mechanics paved the way for a lot of the finer details of later games. The plot once again revolves around Reimu’s shrine getting wrecked by otherworldly forces, and the game charts her headlong charge into the unknown in search of whoever might be behind it, shooting down everything in her path.

TH05 - Fantastic Eastern Tales of Romance ~ Mystic Square – More straightforward shooting, but with four playable characters. Joining Reimu is her rival (and eventual friend) Marisa, and there’s the chance to play as returning villains Mima and Yuuka, the latter being the malevolent-looking girl in the sunflower field from the video in the introduction above. The plot revolves around an invasion from the spirit-world, and the heroines attempts to stop it. Surprisingly, Reimu’s shrine escapes mostly unharmed for once.

The Main Games ~ Mystical Main Course

After many years of being limited to the ageing PC-98, the series finally migrated to Windows PCs, and has stayed there ever since. Better graphics, potential for vastly more elborate/beautiful bullet patterns, and sharper control response really moved the games forward. Here’s all the main games up to current day:

TH06Eastern Lands of the Scarlet Devil ~ Embodiment Of Scarlet Devil – Finally in its new home on the PC, the series kicks into high gear. Gensokyo has been bathed in a red mist, and Reimu is off to find the cause and stop it. Both Reimu and Marisa are playable, and the Scarlet sisters are introduced as antagonists – a pair of vampires who, while known for stirring up trouble, are generally one of the quieter and more sociable forces in Gensokyo.

TH07Bewitching Eastern Dream ~ Perfect Cherry Blossom – Continuing the gradual refinement of the shooter formula, in this one you play as Reimu, Marisa or Sakuya (chief maid over at the vampire mansion) on a mission to discover what has happened to the weather, as Spring seems to be late this year. Naturally, someone has to be behind it. This game introduces a very useful mechanic – when holding the ‘focus’ button (which slows your movement and tightens your shot pattern), your hitbox becomes visible, letting you more accurately evade bullets.

The series finds its new home on the PC. Many bullets abound.

The series finds its new home on the PC. Many bullets abound.

TH08Eternal Night Vignette from the East ~ Imperishable Night – Someone has stolen the moon, and put it its place a fake one that will never become full. Someone needs a beating, and all of Gensokyo is involved this time. Pick one of four 2-character tag teams and blast your way to the culprit. Some minor gameplay additions here, including a refinement of the smartbomb system, but nothing major.

TH09Oriental Flower Viewing Mound ~ Phantasmagoria Of Flower View – Returning to the style of TH02, this is a 2-player (or Vs Computer) competitive shooter. Two screens, two games linked by a combo scoring system that lets you send extra enemies to attack the other player. A whole 16 playable characters are available, each with their own quirks and special attacks, as the inhabitants of Gensokyo investigate the causes behind an abnormally lush spring this time.

TH10Eastern Wind God Chronicles ~ Mountain Of Faith – Back to regular shooter gameplay, and this one is a little tighter and more focused. Only two playable characters (although each with three weapon types to choose from) and more refined scoring system are the highlights here. The plot revolves around Reimu and Marisa heading to Youkai Mountain, searching for a way to reinvigorate regular humans respect for the divine, as it has been dwindling as of late. Guess hanging out with magical creatures all day long makes it all seem rather mundane.

TH11Eastern Palace of the Earth Spirits ~ Subterranean Animism – Much the same as TH10 in terms of gameplay, with a focus on deliberately ‘grazing’ bullets in order to maximize score. After a magical hot spring geyser erupts behind Reimu’s shrine, the locals all come to visit the new tourist trap only to discover that along with the water comes a band of earth spirits, and a secret behind even that. Curiosity abounds, and investigations begin.

Artful vortexes of bullets that shoot bullets. That's Touhou.

Swirling vortexes of bullets that shoot bullets. That's Touhou.

TH12Star-Lotus Ship of the East ~ Undefined Fantastic Object – The latest official release to date. A new main character, Sanae, comes to join Reimu and Marisa as one of the main problem-solvers in Gensokyo, and all three of them jet off after hearing rumors of a mysterious flying ship (possibly packed full of treasure) seen in the skies lately. Gameplay in this one is defined by a return to older-style bombing mechanics, and a bonus scoring system involving hitting patterns of coloured UFOs that will pop up as you blast your way through the levels.

The Side Games ~ Fairies And Photography

Alongside the whole-numbered games in the series, there’s been a handful of side-games. Usually unique twists on the core gameplay, finding new and interesting riffs on standard shooter gameplay. Here’s a rundown of the official ones:

TH09.5- Oriental Cultural Album ~ Shoot The Bullet – A reversal of the standard gameplay happens in this side-game. Playing as intrepid Tengu reporter extraordinare, Aya, you must irritate the heck out of the residents of Gensokyo, evade the inevitable magical bullet storm, and wait for that perfect moment to snap the most aesthetically pleasing picture of both the shots and the shooter. No lives, no bombs, no shooting, although bullets caught in your pictures are removed from play.

TH12.5Oriental Cultural Album ~ Double Spoiler – More Shoot The Bullet action. Now introducing Aya’s partner in crime journalism, Hatate, it’s more of the same, but with prettier bullet patterns, better music and more varied stages. As with the previous game, after each successful run, you can review your photos, and see the characters comments on it.

TH12.8Eastern Three Fairies ~ Great Fairy Wars – Resident troublemaking idiot supreme, Cirno, strongest of all the fairies finally gets her own game. A declaration of war has gone out, and all the fairies are gunning for each other. Why? Nobody can remember, or whether they even made a declaration in the first place. Gameplay here is remarkably different from the regular shooters. In addition to your basic shots, you have a chargeable freezing attack, capable of stopping and destroying bullets. Charge it enough, and the freezing effect will conduct across whole waves of shots. Powerups and scoring both depend on you timing your freeze attacks correctly to clear as many shots as you can in one hit. Also, ZUN had a guest artist contribute on this release, which means somewhat better character art on show.

The Fighting Games ~ Pugilistic Magic

It’s not all shooting, all the time in Gensokyo. Occasionally there’s punching and kicking too – but still mostly magical fireworks. ZUN teamed up with a larger team, Twilight Frontier, to develop an official line of Touhou 1v1 fighting games. Rather than just being straight Street Fighter clones with Touhou characters, they really do feel like a logical adaptation of the core shooter mechanics, right down to a large focus on story, projectile attacks (and evasion) and spectacular boss duels. Here’s the skinny on them:

TH07.5Gathering Dreams in the East ~ Immaterial and Missing Power – The first of the spinoff fighting series, and the beginning of something great. A mysterious mist has spread over the land, distracting everyone from their festival feast celebrations. Investigations ahoy! IaMP leaps straight into the fighting game scene with something very unique. Unlike most 1v1 fighting games, there’s a very large focus on wide area projectile attacks, and even a basic heavy attack can manifest itself as a projectile spray. Dodge moves allow you to pass through shots harmlessly, and characters have the ability to multi-jump, effectively flying for short periods of time. Below is a great video, explaining the basic and more fancy points of the game, while showing off a fair amount of gameplay too. If you just want to see how gameplay in general looks, skip to the next video down.

TH10.5Eastern Skies of Scarlet Perceptions ~ Scarlet Weather Rhapsody + Expansion – In this sequel to IaMP, the depth of gameplay increases notably, adding a huge range of new elements such as weather effects, light collectible card-game elements to build custom character loadouts, and even more powerful flight. The plot this time involves strange weather apparently following the Gensokyo inhabitants around, as well as a mysterious red mist seen rising from some people. Clearly, mischief is afoot, and someone needs to get beat up. Below is a gameplay video of the english fan-translated version:

On top of all that, Scarlet Weather Rhapsody got a major expansion (also playable standalone, albeit with reduced content) introducing several new characters and a new series of remarkably fun story campaigns, often featuring bosses going far beyond the regular gameplay. The story here involves the mad scramble to discover the truth behind rumors of a massive figure seen in the hills of Gensokyo. A giant? A golem? An anime super-robot? Everyone has their own theories, and people need to be punched before they see the errors of their ways.

And The Rest ~ Boundless Roads

The official games are just the tip of the iceberg. If you like them, you might want to dig around the Touhou wiki and investigate the multitude of official print/manga titles (which range from long-running character arcs to newspaper style four-panel gag strips) published under the official brand, or one of the countless dozens of unofficial fan-games, which range from straight shooters in the style of the series to bizarre comedy football-management-RPG hybrids, right up to remarkably stylish Touhou-izations of other classic series’ such as Mega Man and Castlevania. To say that Touhou is big is a grand understatement. If ZUN wasn’t the strangely quiet and humble figure he is, it’d be an industry unto itself. But it isn’t – for all its hugeness, it’s still as indie as can be.

An enormous cast that keeps on growing. What will the future hold?

An enormous cast that keeps on growing. What will the future hold?

And that’s about all I can say without getting into excessive detail. If you ever wanted to know why the series is so big, here it is – charming characters, comical setting, remarkably great games, catchy music and a seemingly neverending stream of fan-works. If you consider yourself an indie gamer at all, you should at least give this series a look. I sincerely hope this article has been of help/interest to somebody. If you feel I’ve missed out anything crucial, tell me in the comments below, or just chat about the games.

Comments

  • John Polson

    Wonderful post! Touhou is a twitchy danmaku dream! The soundtrack is midi heaven. I’d go so far to say they are the Cave-doujin equivalent.

  • KDR_11k

    I usually get games like these from http://www.paletweb.com/, there’s also Himeya but their shipping fees are insane. Japanese Indie games aren’t carried by big stores like Play-Asia, after all. I got two of the Tasofro games, PatchCon (RTS/Tower Defense) and Scarlet Weather Rhapsody. And of course Kernel Panic: http://springrts.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?f=43&t=18797

    • Dominic Tarason

      Yeah, the page on the Touhou wiki lists mosts of the standards. It’s just that most of them are out of stock on most of the games, which sucks. I’ve always gotten the feeling that ZUN and co have never been too worried about piracy, though.

      If he ever wanted to release the series on Steam or some other big distro network, he totally could. I bet Carpe Fulgur would be able to help strike a deal and even line up localization. The guy just doesn’t seem interested though – he’s happy just releasing small quantities into the Japanese doujin circuit.

  • John Polson

    I have seen some sold for digital distribution on DLSITE.com, which has an english version of the store in the upper right corner.

    • Dominic Tarason

      Yikes! Warning to anyone thinking of checking out DLSite – 99% of their stuff is porn games, and I don’t see any way to easily filter it out. I mean, jeez, they have a ‘filter by fetish’ option.

      No wonder it’s so difficult to get hold of the series via official channels.

      • John Polson

        Project Aja’s developers tipped me to DLsite.com, where you can buy their first ‘Koumajou’ game, which pays homage to Touhou :)
        If you know other digital download sites for Japanese developers, let me know, so I can pass it along when I interview them.