A Touhou Project Primer

What’s Touhou?

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If you’ve come here, you’ve likely done so at my direction from another article on this site. Even though I am well-versed in video games, I don’t have the patience (at least as of now) to properly review video games. That said, I review manga, and the Touhou Project has a few of those I’d like to discuss. I can’t do that without talking about the games they’re based on.

Note: The following is from the perspective of an (as of this writing) weeks’ old fan of the franchise who is terrible at shmups/doesn’t tend to like or look for them, has played every Windows game but reached the credits of only a few (mostly spin offs, top accomplishment: making it through Clownpiece’s first nonspell on Normal), has otherwise watched full playthroughs of every Windows game, and has read three of the major manga series (FS, Sangetsusei, & WaHH), some other written materials, and a number of interviews from the series’ creator, ZUN. I only know of the PC-98 era of the series through wiki entries. If any of these statements bother you as a knowledgeable/long time fan of the series, feel free to give me grief about it.

Now then, I want to get things across simply, hopefully making the series sound appealing and giving any newcomers a reason to dive in on it. The Touhou Project (東方Project, lit. Eastern Project) is primarily a series of doujin (independently created) shoot ’em up (that is, top-down, vertically scrolling shooter) games created by Team Shanghai Alice (上海アリス幻樂団) that are incredibly, incredibly popular. Also, while Shanghai Alice is called a team, it consists of only one member who goes by the name of ZUN. ZUN does the programming, art, scenario/writing, and music for all of the mainline (that is, entries with whole numbers in their titles) games. He is also almost entirely self-taught for all of these aspects. I don’t speak lightly when I say that I believe ZUN is a genius.

In every aspect except for art, ZUN very much excels. Even then, his art certainly bears charm in it. These are all very good games with fun characters and stories ranging from pretty to rather good, supplemented by truly amazing soundtracks. How about giving this track a listen for now while you read?

Beyond having excellent gameplay, stellar music, and a charming cast, Touhou is also a strong mythos. The setting of the franchise is the fantastical paradise of Gensoukyou, a land cut off from the “Outside World” (our world) by a barrier and living in a state reminiscent of Japan’s ancient days. It is a large and varied place where flying through it can let you reach Heaven, the Netherworld, an abandoned Hell, the Moon, other dimensions and so on, on top of having its own unique geography. Also, while called a paradise, the statement is dubious. Most of Gensoukyou’s population consists of youkai — monsters or otherwise wicked magical beings — most of whom feed off either the fear or flesh of humans. Youkai can be anything from traditional Japanese folklore youkai (such as rokurokubi), Western folklore creatures (such as vampires), or entirely new species imagined for the world. Naturally there are also gods, ghosts, Celestials, fairies, phantoms, and the like. All these beings have their own societies and cultures and whims too, of course, but no need to get into all of that. For your purposes know this: Gensoukyou is a complicated place. It’s a place rich with creativity lending itself well to active imaginations.

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Keeping Gensoukyou’s barrier and overall land maintained and safe is the Hakurei Shrine Maiden whose shrine rests on the edge of Gensoukyou’s barrier, Reimu Hakurei (pictured at the start of this article). She is one of the series’ protagonists, who somewhat reluctantly silences troublesome youkai and punishes greater powers who threaten Gensoukyou’s safety. Pictured above is the other protagonist, Marisa Kirisame, who tends to also help keep Gensoukyou safe (though largely for her own gains). She is a witch (technically, a “magician”) thirsty for knowledge and eager to improve her magic. She also likes taking trinkets and treasures she happens to come across while resolving whatever incidents plague the land. On that note, many of the characters in these games, Reimu most definitely included, can be quite rude and self-serving. This is not a world where heroes face off against and defeat villains, but one where troubles are quelled by the strong who wish for peace. This gives much of the series a very lighthearted, relaxed, and joking vibe that cuts through the potential drama a series could have with a cast 80% comprised of beings that eat humans. It helps, considering most of those human-eaters befriend the two human heroines. For your purposes know this: Gensoukyou is a weird place.

Speaking of weird that brings us to another aspect of the world that keeps things mostly lighthearted: the way fights are handled. At the beginning of the first Windows game (which is where most begin their adventure with Touhou), a system is introduced called the “Spell Card System” that basically establishes a no-death policy on fights between humans and youkai, keeping things on fair terms so humans (or, in some cases, weak youkai) can defend themselves without a lot on the line. This system takes the form of beautiful spiritual/magic latices and beams of danmaku (bullet curtains) — spells people declare — and the name of the game is dodging. The one who makes the most mistakes loses the battle. Now we can talk about the gameplay of this series.

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Early in my forays into these games. The knowledgeable might notice that I suck, because I’ve already lost one life and this is the first stage boss.

You see, Touhou is a special brand of shoot ’em up referred to as “bullet hell” (danmaku) shooters. You have yourself a relatively small playing field, a character who can only actually be hit in a small dot at the center of their body, and a screen absolutely brimming with bullets. If you get hit, you die. There is no health bar for you, one bullet hits you and it’s over. You get a few lives, and you can earn more, but with no lives left you just get a few continues on Game Over screens before you’re forced to start over from the beginning. Hearing this, you might think the Touhou games are hard. You’re right, they’re very hard. Even on easy they’re hard. If you’re inexperienced like me, these video games will kick your butt. A few of them are much easier (such as “Phantasmagoria of Flower View” and “Ten Desires”) but for most the “normal” level of difficulty feels like the “hard” of most other games. Thankfully, the majority of these games are in the “fair” realm of difficulty where deaths you experience are your own fault (perhaps only “Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom” is different in this regard, but it was designed around assuming you would die repeatedly). You can learn to get better. On that note, I have some advice for you if you’re new, as a person who actually did get better at these games with very little experience and in a short period of time. Here’s where others may like to disagree with me.

  1. Start with the Windows games, so start with “Touhou 6: Touhou Koumakyou ~ The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil”. The PC-98 games are not necessarily to be ignored, but the current “canon” — the events, setting, and characters — comes from the Windows games. ZUN says to treat the PC-98 games as derivative works, but he does reference them. You can look into the PC-98 titles at your own leisure.

  2. Read the translated content you can find on the touhouwiki when you should (Prologue before you start playing, Extra Story before you play or watch the Extra Stage, Afterword after you’re done). All of this is good stuff, and it’s never much to read.

  3. Play with Reimu A (or equivalents) if you’re just starting out. This is a “homing” shot type that means you’re essentially always doing SOME damage above you. The need to aim is drastically reduced so you can focus on staying alive. Also, Reimu is easier to control and harder for the enemy to hit.

  4. The name of the game is not shooting, despite the genre name, it’s dodging. Focus on dodging. If you’re worried about just doing damage as a beginner you will probably get frustrated and feel like quitting. I suggest keeping your eye on yourself and immediate surroundings and not getting overwhelmed by the sight of all the bullets on screen.

  5. There’s actually an “Enemy” indicator below your character that shows you the position of the boss above you. It’s hard to see, but helpful when there are too many bullets around. This is not in EoSD, so you actually may want to at least try out “Touhou 7: Touhou Youyoumu ~ Perfect Cherry Blossom” (PCB) first to get your feet wet.

  6. Don’t outright quit. Feel free to stop playing on Normal when you hit a wall, but then maybe play on Easy. Definitely watch 1CC (that is, “one credit clear” — finishing the game without seeing the “Game Over” screen) runs of whatever game you’re trying when you’re fed up. A 1CC is near-flawless play. Study the patterns.

  7. Don’t let yourself be hung up on one game. There are a lot of games. When you’ve hit a wall and watched/read all of a game, move on to another one and repeat the process. Play in order, and play the spinoffs (some are fun and different takes on the format, some are fun fighting games). Read the story dialogues and ending bits to get invested, keep studying, keep moving forward. You’ll find yourself getting better. This is not likely to be a quick process, but trust me, it’s rewarding.

  8. Hold shift for focused movement.
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A screen from me playing the first fighting game (chilling on the right). Suika’s one of the best.

Before you get into anything else related to Touhou, manga included, I’m going to say that you must play the games. You don’t need to beat them, but at least see all they have to offer and try playing them yourself. For the manga, I may have some statements of exception to that, but as I said at the start Touhou is incredibly popular. There are many fan works related to it (particularly avoid comics/anime, music videos, and fangames for now) that can easily change how you perceive the franchise, and anyway pretty much all of them are better if you actually know the source material.

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A large grid of characters from the Touhou Project, originals drawn by ZUN beside incredible fanart interpretations.

To be perfectly honest with you, Touhou is probably better than you expect. I went into the series with high expectations and they were all vastly exceeded. I’ve been a longtime Internet-goer so naturally I’ve seen Touhou fan things  for many years, but you might be surprised just how much of that all comes from Touhou itself: the imaginative character designs, the silly jokes, the character quirks, pretty much everything. And what shattered my expectations the most was ZUN himself. I highly encourage you to, after playing/watching one of the games, read his Afterwords on the touhouwiki. The guy’s got a lot of very interesting ideas. For example danmaku, which I’d never thought much about, were almost like the source of everything Touhou became about in the Windows era. Fond of the beautiful patterns, ZUN created a format where every major attack/pattern got a distinctive name and told you something about the character in its appearance and style. By contextualizing it in “a way for humans and youkai to fairly clash” you also gain quite a bit of insight into the setting. It’s essentially what Undertale has been recently touted for doing except ZUN’s been doing it for almost two decades. Story and gameplay integration is a precious thing indeed. I genuinely feel enriched on many levels by coming into this series.

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ZUN is hardly a businessman. He has only recently begun taking steps to bring Touhou games to the West, and if you want to buy his games he’d prefer you buy them at a video game/anime convention in person or order the physical copies online (he doesn’t seem to offer digital downloads). On the other hand, he is a fantastically chill individual. He’s not profiting nearly as much from the megalith franchise he’s created as he could, but he doesn’t really mind because that’s how his philosophy works. Your best bet to play the Touhou games is probably to find downloads for them, but I don’t imagine ZUN will hate you for it. Translations are available for all games. I most definitely encourage that you look into this series. Remember: even though I expected good things, I went into it with a low opinion of this entire genre. You’re probably going to like it.

To end, a collage of orchestral fan interpretations of music, as I gave a collage of interpretations for characters:

Toodles! Hope you enjoy Touhou!

The manga I’ve reviewed! By all means, read ’em:

Touhou Suzunaan ~ Forbidden Scrollery. — A young, human book store owner in Gensoukyou’s one human village can suddenly read writings of any language, and so starts dabbling in dangerous texts. Meanwhile, Reimu and Marisa solve mysterious incidents bothering the townsfolk.
Touhou SangetsuseiThree Fairies — The childish Three Fairies of Light play pranks on the people of Gensoukyou, while the reader learns more about the land in which they live.
Touhou Ibarakasen ~ Wild and Horned Hermit. — A mysterious, one-armed hermit who our heroines know from the past helps guide the shrine maiden and witch while hinting at having her own goals. Could she be an oni? But oni don’t lie…

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8 thoughts on “A Touhou Project Primer

  1. I’ve been interested in the Touhou Project for quite a while. On a music composition site I used to frequent, I noticed a lot of ZUN/Team Shanghai Alice arrangements popping up. Curious as to the source of these tracks, I delved into Youtube for the originals and found a huge amount of fantastic music.
    From all the comments full of inside references, I sensed that there was a dedicated fanbase who clearly loved the series – which made me want to get into it, myself. So I researched the games, in the process realising how impressive ZUN was.

    Somehow I never got round to playing the games though. Quite often, I see doujinshi popping up, which make me pretty interested in the lore and characters. I think that a combination of the games being bullet hell shooters, plus the fact that I’d heard there isn’t much story/characters aren’t fleshed out that much, put me off.

    After reading your review, I suppose I’ll give it a shot after exams are over.

  2. a_cartoon_duck says:

    As a Touhou fan I think this is a pretty great primer! I really enjoyed your Touhou manga reviews too and it’s always great to see Forbidden Scrollery get more word out there, I legit love that manga.

    I’m curious though: Do you have any plans of reviewing Silent Sinner in Blue in the future or are Touhou manga reviews a closed chapter for now? It’d make for an interesting contrast to the other ones since SSiS is a single cohesive story compared to the other ones’ definitely more episodic formats.

    To be perfectly honest it is probably my least favorite of ZUN’s work and I feel the other episodic stories work more towards ZUN’s strengths as an author, but I’d really love to read your thoughts on it if you ever feel like reviewing it!

    • Thanks very much. Means a lot!

      I have yet to read SSiB, but have been meaning to. I’ve heard not great things about it, and I try to review only manga I like, so I’m not sure if I’ll write about it after I finish it if I don’t end up liking it. Then again, I still may write on it if only to offer my perspective. After all, it indeed sounds like it’s very different.

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