Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Hell Made of Bullets

If you browse Danbooru as much as I do, you’ll notice it’s full of Touhou characters. I think if you browsed randomly, there’d be no page without at least one such image. So, like any curious person, I thought I’d look into it. I knew it was a game, but I expected it to be some sort of game in which the personalities of the characters are thoroughly displayed, which would explain why they are so loved by everyone. I was extremely surprised when I found out that the games are probably the worst genre to showcase characters: a top-down space shooter!

Well, I call it “space shooter” to distinguish it from the term “arcade shooter” (like The Chaos Engine), but it doesn’t actually take place in space. I’m actually pretty fond of shooters, but there are two things I hate about them: if your ammo is limited and you die from a single hit. Well, I can say this about the Touhou games, at least you don’t run out of ammo.

But before I look into the games themselves, let me talk about the Touhou Project as a whole. Interestingly enough, it is a doujin game. Remember that term? Doujin? It featured in my video review of When Seagulls Cry [Umineko no Naku Koro ni]. Ah, you mean to say I didn’t release that one yet? Don’t worry, it’s still in the works. So, a doujin game, or comic, or whatever is an amateur creation, usually a fanfic spin-off, but not necessarily. It has huge support in Japan and you can actually make it big with such productions. Touhou is a prime example. The whole production team behind the project features a single man, ZUN, who did the programming, art, music, everything. Commendable, considering the project is at its 12th title.

The project mostly follows two main characters, Hakurei Reimu, a shrine maiden, and Kirisame Marisa, a western-type witch, who do all sorts of things to save Gensokyo, the place of the Touhou games, from all sorts of disasters brought about by evil spirits.

Some of the features which are constant in the project are the weapons and behaviours of the characters. Reimu fires homing shots, or otherwise covers a large area of the screen, while being quite slow, whereas Marisa deals large amounts of damage directly in front of her, and has considerable higher movement speeds than her eastern counterpart. Also, by collecting drops from the enemies, you can improve the spread/power of your weapon (depending on character), but you can never change your firing mode. Also, by holding down a certain key, you enter a so-called “focus mode”, in which you move a lot more slowly and smoothly, while concentrating fire in front of you, this being useful when dodging the shots of bosses, and believe me, there are plenty to dodge. You may also use “spell cards”, which other games call bombs or whatnot, which clear the screen of enemies and at the same time render you invulnerable for a limited amount of time. The important feature of spell cards is that if you press them right after being hit by an opponent, they will still trigger, which allows you to barely survive the shot. Mastering this technique, as well as flawless dodging, are the keys to defeating the game.

The first title to appear on the PC was the 6th game, and I’ve played them starting with that. I’m going to tell you my opinion about them, write a little something about each that I’ve played.

Touhou 6 – Embodiment of Scarlet Devil
If you plan on playing Project Touhou, I suggest you start with this game. It is probably the most iconic, as it introduces the main characters (on the PC at least), as well as important bosses, such as Cirno, Hong Meirin, Patchouli Knowledge, Sakuya Izayoi, and Remilia Scarlet. It is pretty hard. I didn’t manage to finish the game on normal difficulty, not even using 3 continues. I always lost a lot of lives fighting Sakuya Izayoi at the end of stage 5, and by the time I got to the final boss, Remilia Scarlet, at the end of stage 6, I had very little chances of beating her. However, the game is very good as it introduces the mechanics of the series and, like I’ve said, introduces the characters. Also, this is the only one I’ve played which is 100% in English.

Touhou 7 – Perfect Cherry Blossom
This one had an error when I tried to open the archive, so I didn’t get to play it. Moving on…

Touhou 7.5 – Immaterial and Missing Power
This one had a different error, and wouldn’t start either. I read that it’s a fighting game, which must be interesting, but there’s another one down the line which I’ve played, so I guess it’s ok to skip this one too.

Touhou 8 – Imperishable Night
This is my favourite in the series. It has an interesting mechanic, which implies changing the firing mode of a character while being in focus mode. The reason for this is that you actually play as a pair of characters, a human one and a youkai, some sort of spirit. When you focus, you actually activate your youkai, which fires in a different way. This is a pretty cool mechanic. Once you finish the game and obtain the good ending (by not using up a continue), you are allowed to play with single characters, either human or youkai, retaining your firing style. Also, the story goes that something strange has happened to the moon and an eternal night threatens the land. You start the game at 11:00 PM and you5:00 AM. You have a certain number of “time points” to accumulate each level. If meet the quota, the timer moves only 30 minutes, but if you don’t it moves 1 hour. If you reach 5:00 AM, you get a bad ending. You gain time points by either shooting and killing enemies while in human mode, or by dodging shots while in youkai mode. Also, it seemed to me that this game was easier than the rest, since I managed to finish the game and get a normal ending (used 1 continue) on the first try. I totally recommend this one.

Touhou 9 – Phantasmagoria of Flower View
This one is weird. It features a strange side-by-side battle interface, reminiscent of Puyo Puyo. I don’t really understand how it works, but from what I’ve seen, if you engage your charged attack (which is different from your spell cards), a version of yourself appears over at the enemies side and attacks him/her. Also, besides your enemy, there are mobs flying al over your screen, as well as your opponent’s. This one isn’t particularly hard, but I just didn’t like it.

Touhou 9.5 – Shoot the Bullet
This one is very interesting. It has a different gameplay from the other ones. You play as Aya Shameimaru, a tengu (hyena spirit) reporter, and you need to take close-up pictures of the spirits threatening the land for the headlines. You get to meet a lot of the bosses from the other games and your only weapon is your camera. In this game, you face off bosses only and you need to take a certain number of snapshots of each one of them. When you take a snapshot, the bullets in the captured frame disappear, but you have to wait a few seconds for the film to load. Also, if you don’t get the boss itself in the frame, the snapshot doesn’t count towards your quota. The gameplay is interesting, but it gets hard very fast. It’s really enjoyable, but more than that, I loved the flavour of it. Aya became my favourite character, because she is willing to risk herself like a true reporter. Sure, when you’re a witch it’s normal to fight off evil spirits to save the world, but she’s just a tiny wittwe spiwit, so her courage is admirable. Thumbs up for Aya Shameimaru!

Touhou 10 – Mountain of Faith
This one probably sets the standard for the newer Tohou games. The cast of playable characters is reduced to the original two: Hakurei Reimu and Kirisame Marisa. This time though, they have three fighting styles, instead of the original two, so you basically get 6 characters. The power level of your attack is made a lot more visible, since when you gain an extra level, an orb appears next to you, and it’s this orb which releases the extra shots. Also, the spell card system has been modified, since now you don’t have any, instead, when you use a spell card, you lose one power level. This has its ups and downs. The positive aspect is that you can recover spell cards pretty quickly, however, if you’re not good at dodging and rely on your spell cards too much, you’ll end up facing the boss at level 0 pretty fast. Also, the continue system has been changed. You only start with 2 lives (which is a really small amount, in my opinion) and you have unlimited continues, however, when you use up a continue, you start from the beginning of the stage, instead of where you were at. The game itself isn’t that hard, but the fact that you have to finish each stage in just two lives makes it a bit annoying, rather than challenging.

Touhou 10.5 – Scarlet Weather Rhapsody
This is the fighting game I’ve been talking about. I really liked it. The gameplay and graphics are nice (using chibi characters), and if you’re into the characters, you’ll enjoy pitching them one against the other in full contact magic-enhanced combat rather than the usual top-down shooting battles. If you’re playing the singleplayer campaign, you’ll have to fight the characters one after the other in classic tournament style, however, when you deplete a character’s health bar, they activate their spell cards, and will proceed to kill you using a pattern of strong attacks. While they use their spell cards, the characters can’t be knocked down or interrupted, and they usually fill the screen with shots, but we’re used to that by now. Overall I think it’s a really nice adaptation.

Touhou 11 – Subterranean Animism
The gameplay in this one is pretty much a copy of Mountain of Faith. There is not much to say, except that they changed the attack forms of the characters and that they are really shitty this time around. I only played this up to the second or third stage, and really didn’t get into it that much. The feeling in this one is closer to Embodiment of Scarlet Devil than is that of Mountain of Faith, however, I still think I liked Mountain of Faith more, since the attacks were what I was used to. Also, in this one, using a spell card will only make you invincible, without clearing the stage, which is pretty lame sometimes. But in the end, I think both Mountain of Faith and Subterranean Animismare far down in my list, just above Phantasmagoria of Flower View.

So, that’s all for Touhou. I haven’t played the newer games, and I’m not really into them that much. Like I said, I just wanted to get to know the characters a little better, and for that purposes, it worked. It is pleasant to recognise the characters when I browse Danbooru lately. If you’re interested in finding out a bit about them, or just want to play a shooter and test your skill, I recommend you try the games, at least for a few minutes.

Next time, Rebuilding the Awesomeness.

Friend Fact:
Favourite ice cream flavour? Definitely stracciatella. Also, I have this concept that there are two kinds of ice cream: fruits and nuts. When you eat fruits, you should only have fruit flavours (strawberry, banana, pineapple, peach, pumpkin), and when you eat nuts, you should only have nut flavours in it (coconut, coffee, walnut, caramel, mint). I know some aren’t fruits and some aren’t nuts, that’s just the name I gave them. Also, chocolate and vanilla are the two flavours which go with both kinds.

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