It's the 21st century and we have programmers all over the world working tirelessly day and night to harness our futuristic graphics technology to allow us to shoot up impoverished african shantytowns with frighteningly realistic detail, so why would anyone even give a crap about a series of home-coded 2D indie shoot-em-ups from Japan? What would inspire otherwise sane individuals to drop thousands of dollars on creating dedicated arcade cabinets for these indie titles? Especially when the games revolve around a bunch of cute-as-a-button little anime girls wearing adorably frilly dresses?
|$2,500 to play a $15 game.|
These games are from the Shrine Maiden Project (Touhou project) created by the deceptively named "Team Shanghai Alice" (actually one lone programmer who works at Taito and calls himself Zun). These are curtain shooting games, otherwise known as Bullet Hell games. You know that inevitable scene in every "lovable loser(s) take part in a tournament for an unconventional sport (dodgeball, pingpong, etc,) to save the gym/orphanage,etc" where the losers find themself in a match against a little girl or a girlscout troupe? Well just like that scene, the adorable little girls in these games will proceed to mercilessly kick your ass.
Of course, there are plenty of shmups out there that will gladly throw hundreds of bullets at you for free, so what makes the Shrine Maiden games stand out? Probably the attention to detail in said bullet swarms. These aren't just some random splatter of bullets. These patterns explode across the screen in gorgeous firework-like displays, twisting and contorting like a kalidescope on their way toward killing you. These are games where even non-videogamers will stop and watch a replay in action. Of course, it's all a ruse to draw your attention away from spotting openings in these patterns and carefully maneuvering your shrine maiden and her tiny hit box safely through this fountain spray of death.
The basic rhythm of these games starts with fighting a swarm of fairies who leave powerups in their wake (In this game's insane setting these cute butterfly-winged doe-eyed blonde fairies are violently ravenous beasts possessed of a dim animal cunning whose numbers must be routinely thinned to keep the human population safe.) before having a battle against a boss, which is supposed to be a goblin or witch or vampire, but they always just look like little girls. (Note that most of these video clips fast forward through the fairy-shooting parts). As you whittle the boss' life down, she casts what are called "spell cards" that result in a much crazier spread of bullets coming your way, sometimes with an extra distracting effect added to mess with you. If you can finish an individual spell card without dying or using a bomb, you get a big point bonus.
The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil
Here's a quick rundown of all the games in the series released for the PC (The first 5 were for some Japanese NEC computer) with links to their homepage where you can download their sizeable (3 levels, all 4 difficulties) demos. Note that the Touhou Wiki is an excellent resource for figuring out how the hell these games are supposed to play, how the scoring system works, (which can be really complex, especially in Imperishable Night), and getting a full translation of these games' insane plots. And if your machine can't handle .lzh files, the freeware 7-Zip can.
I actually never got the demo for this one to work on my computer. It's supposed to be about raiding a vampire mansion to get rid of a sun-obscuring fog that's covered the land. As you can see from the video, the later games in the series took a huge step forward in terms of graphics and sound. The main reason to get it at this point is if you've got OCD and are obsessed with having the complete series. Several Bosses from this game come back as playable characters in future games.
Perfect Cherry Blossom
A huge improvement over the previous game, this new graphics engine was used in 2 of the later games. PCB is otherwise a relatively straightforward Shanghai Alice game with one exception. All the games come with about 6 levels and an extra level that unlocks after you 1cc the game at least on Normal mode. THIS game has another level that unlocks after you 1cc the extra level with all 3 characters and it is positively insane. It's not clear whether this game or Mountain of Faith is the hardest in the series at max difficulty.
Phantasmagoria of Flower View
This is neck and neck with Mountain of Faith for my favorite of the series. The premise is trying to find out who stole the real moon and replaced it with a fake before the night is through. You play teams of 2 in this game, you're the human member when you're unfocused and you transform into the ghost member when you're holding down the slow/focus button (shift). Some enemies are only vulnerable to you when you're in a certain form. It's a similar concept to Ikaruga, but without requiring all the memorization. In addition to just plain surving, you're trying to collect time tokens to slow the passage of time. Some of the bullet patterns are just stunning in front of the game's dark blue night backgrounds. I am told, though, that this is probably the easiest of the series, but considering the insane difficulty of the Shrine Maiden Project in general, take that with a grain of salt.
Shoot the Bullet (no demo)
A big departure from the usual Shanghai Alice games, PoFV is a 2 player splitscreen verses shooter that's kinda like tetris attack or bust a move in that actions you pull off on your side will create bullet patterns on your opponent's side. You both have magic bars that fill up as you play and if you cast a higher level spell it wipes out bullets in your vicinity on your side and creates a doppelganger of your character on the enemy's side which proceeds to fire complicated patterns at him. On the upside, the bullets you're dodging are not hard coded into the game so if you get good, it's from skill, not memorization. On the downside the bullet patterns are randomly thrown at you so none of them are as dazzling as the ones in the other shrine maiden games. Still, if you and a buddy have a score to settle on who's the better shmup player, here you go. The AI for single player is very competent, though some say they get the impression that the AI is just choosing when to die.
Mountain of Faith
Another departure from the formula. Shoot the Bullet acknowledges that half the appeal in the Shanghai Alice games comes from the beautiful bullet patterns. So this game ditches actually shooting back at the boss and requires you to take photographs of bosses and their bullet swarms. Your camera can only take pictures when it's fully charged, though you can speed up the recharge rate by holding fire and slow at the same time at the cost of crippling your movement speed (think Warning Forever slow mode). When you take a picture, the game slows to bullet time and a rapidly shrinking viewfinder appears on the screen which you must quickly position over the boss. The more bullets are in the picture, the more points you get with multipliers added for having the boss centered in the shot, catching them with their red pentagram thing flashing, and getting yourself in the shot. You need to take anywhere from 3 to 10 pictures to defeat the boss. Your highest scoring picture is displayed on the menu even if you didn't win that round so this is a great game for people with OCD seeking THE PERFECT SHOT.
On one hand, it gives you a nice sample platter of all the best bosses from previous games and what their bullet patterns were like using a new sharper and smoother-running engine. On the other hand, this game has no difficulty setting and is the most newbie-hostile game in the series. So of course it was the first one I bought and I ended up hitting a brick wall at level 3's difficulty curve. While this game does not have a demo, there is an unfinished freeware clone called TOUHOU KOKUHUUJI (Scroll down, it's next to the picture of the blonde anime girl), which gives a decent feel for how the game controls, albeit with X in place of Shift, lower graphical quality, and no sound.
The 10th in the series and the best looking one by far, using a sharper engine and showing gorgeous backgrounds, especially the river on level 3. This game has an autumn theme to it and I find it oddly soothing with the warm colors and drifting leaves even though it's coupled with dodging for my life against an insane shower of bullets. Zun wanted to get back to basics with this game and gave this the simplest game system. Scoring is entirely based around a simple combo bar. Powering ups give you up to 4 options and pressing the bomb button sacrifices one of those options. I am told, however, that at the highest difficulty levels this is the hardest game in the series.
SO WHERE THE HELL DO I GET THE FULL GAMES?
There are 2 places that sell them to the US PaletWeb and HimeyaSoft. I've only dealt with Himeya. The games themself all retail between $13 and $18, the painful part is the shipping is a flat $19 for the first item and $3 for each additional item so if you think you might be interested in buyng the full versions for a few, buy them all at once.
Note that these games are usually sold out, but Mountain of Faith just came out on Friday so Team Shanghai Alice has just released a new print of all the previous PC games so they're all available at the moment.
Should you go insane as I have and decide to import a Shanghai Alice game, I can assure you that none of the other Doujin Shmups for sale on that page are any better than the many Freeware Alternatives out there, with the exception of Kamui. There are many who call this the greatest shmup available for the PC. I'm not certain I would call it the absolute greatest, but it's definitely a top 3 contender. It's best described as either a combination of RayStorm and Cho Ren Sha 68K or just as pure awesomeness.
Let's get the negatives out of the way first. This game is rendered at low resolution (later patches increase the resolution and add smoothing effects) with 2D sprites using SNES-style zoom and rotate effects to create the illusion of depth. The game is also fairly short at 6 levels with level 6 being just a boss fight. Also, unlike the Shanghai Alice games, the menus are entirely in Japanese (here's a translation of the options menu).
With that out of the way, what they manage to do with those 2D sprites and scrolling effects is damned impressive, especially a dizzying level 3 where you're flying diagonally into a canyon. and ending with a battle against a giant pissed-off spider tank. Pressing Z shoots your regular shot, holding and releasing X automatically launches lightning bolts at enemies that are below you, and pressing Z and X at the same time combines the two into a devastating lightning beam that does huge damage and destroys enemy bullets but overheats your lightning supply within seconds. Every moment of this game something somewhere is exploding. Bosses have individual parts you can blow off, you're constantly juggling energy management with maximizing score. It's just neato.