Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Survival Sign, the segment belonging to the infamous Inverseman. And today’s topic du jour, the acclaimed “Touhou Project” game series. Now I’ll be introducing this series at an entry level, it’s made for the layman, so if you already know how Cirno is the strongest or happen to be the biggest fan in your hometown (like moi) then you can bypass this piece and tune back in soon!
Now some of you guys may be wondering, “what in Suwako Moriya’s name is Touhou?”
Well, let’s get started with the basics.
I. History Lesson
“Touhou Project” is a shooter game series. In particular it’s a shoot’em up type of shooter. Ever play “Gradius” or ”Mushihimesama”? You pilot your tiny character and weave through a hellfire of enemy attacks and take down huge bosses with lots of life. “Touhou” is in the same genre. If you thought your favorite FPS was hardcore, Touhou will blow it out of the water, “why dodge five bullets when you can dodge five-thousand!” The term danmaku shooter translates to “curtain-fire” because of the sheer volume of bullets, each of which is fatal.
Now what sets apart Touhou from other games in general is this, it’s a doujinshi game. It’s not made by big names like Nintendo, Capcom, Atlus, etc. It’s an independent publication. Team Shanghai Alice creates the Touhou games, but here’s the twist, the development team only has one member, a man who goes by the pen name, ZUN.
Junya Ota was a young programmer entering the Taito Corporation with a knack for music and a taste for beer. Way back in 1996 he wanted to spread his music through the game format, so he made the first Touhou game, “Highly Responsive to Prayers”, on a Japanese computer, the PC-98. From there, ZUN’s solid 8-bit beats blessed our gamer ears. Oddly enough, the first entry in the series wasn’t a shoot ‘em up, but more like Breakout but with bullets. The premise was simple, shrine maiden Reimu Hakurei has to crush invading youkai (a kind of monster, if you will) and save the mystical land of Gensokyo, a fantasy land where magical beings continue to thrive and exist, hidden from our modern world.
Seeing the huge success of the games, ZUN went on to make four more games for this retro computer and starting with the first sequel, went for the bullet hell shooter. The story never got much more complex but each entry gave us new friends for Reimu, like the thieving witch, Marisa Kirisame, lots of new foes, and melodious music all in quaint retro fun.
In 2002 it was the sixth game that revolutionized everything. “Touhou Koumakyou: The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil” was the first game for the Windows OS. During the platform jump, ZUN decided that other than Reimu and Marisa, all other characters would be retconned and “start over” (though Alice Margatroid and Yuka Kazami would surprisingly reappear in later games). To this day, there are twelve games in the series, each of which has its unique game mechanics and even spin-off games, and all from a guy who sees this as a hobby more than anything.
II. DIY Fandom
Now this is where things really start rolling. Each game would have new gimmicks, along with even more characters, and using the greater horsepower of Windows, ZUN was able to compose more complex songs and design more beautiful spell card patterns. This is one of two things that sets Touhou apart from other shoot ‘em ups, it is very artistic by nature. The way the enemy spell cards are designed, right down to the zany character designs, and the theme songs are all thoughtfully made by ZUN. You will die very much in Touhou, but you will die beautifully.
While the music is great and the abstract spell cards are a sight for sore eyes, ZUN cannot draw to save his life, you will rightly wonder if he was drunk when he drew (insert any character here), and yet the characters have some of the oddest fashions and most broken abilities known to man. (Manipulation of “borders”? Control over death? Fate manipulation? Nuclear power? All these are considered normal for someone in Gensokyo)
Right art by: shaun
Yes, all the characters, bar like 4 men and a turtle who never appear in the games these days, are girls, from busty babes to delicious lolis. But it’s no fanservice fest with the way ZUN creates his characters. Each girl can, and probably will, kill any non-magic-versed human as most of the enemies in the series are youkai, a catch-all term for a “monster”. Along with magic-wielding humans, Gensokyo runs rampant with human-eating youkai. Think of your favorite paranormal creature, a vampire? A were-animal? Fairies? Kappa? Now think of how they’re usually depicted, kinda gruesome for some monsters right? Well, in Touhou, all these horrors are depicted as cute girls in frilly hats who do battle with human spellcasters like Reimu and Marisa. They’ll still try to eat you though.
The story never really got any deeper either. The tried and true formula was as follows:
- New girl come to Gensokyo and try to stir something up
- Reimu, Marisa, and sometimes a couple girls who were bosses from recent entries put the new girl and her cronies in her place.
- Have tea with the defeated enemy back at the shrine
So what’s a fan to do when despite a solid soundtrack and creative characters, the official art sucks and there’s little to no plot? Make your own!
Touhou lives and breathes on its fandom. What little dialogue and profile you get about a girl from ZUN gets the gaps filled in by the fans, who all collectively loosely agree on her quirks and personality. Now try this, go to a site that posts fanart, Pixiv, danbooru, heck DeviantArt and even 4chan are valid options and search up Touhou fan art. You will find some real eye candy. Enjoy a good story? There’s plenty of doujinshi manga to go around, from hilarious strips, to serious pieces, to other… Things I won’t post here… It’s through the fandom, a character comes to life. The ever creative ZUN’s word isn’t law, but merely suggestions for our own imaginations to take flight.
ZUN originally made Touhou for his music, so numerous bands all over Japan have remixed and covered his songs, taking them in more directions than you think. We have techno, jazz, rock, even hip-hop mixes of ZUN’s songs. Some bands even have animated promotional videos, like the famous IOSYS, known for their PVs. There are so many artists out there that you can easily have a terrabyte’s worth of various artists and their works. Out of the sea of work, try some of these on for size.
So as you can see, fan support for Touhou is huge, it builds substance into what would be a simple game series. The sheer volume of fan works that are sewn across the net or are peddled at conventions are so vast that there’s even a convention dedicated completely to Touhou and floor space other general conventions reserved for the swarm of Touhou fans. Speaking of cons, as you can expect, since cosplay is another creative outlet for fans, there will be epic cosplays to be seen from a fanbase this diehard.
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