Also known as Project Shrine Maiden or simply Touhou, a series of vertically-scrolling, two-dimensional PC shooting games from the Land of the Rising Sun. It's the only scrolling shooter series I know of in which you control actual characters - not spaceships, fighter jets or the like, but girls who fly and fire magical bullets (or knives, or possibly swords depending on the character) at their enemies. The games are also terribly hard, unless you're playing them in Easy Mode. But why would you deprive yourself of the challenge by doing that? The challenge is the whole point, after all.

Almost every official Touhou game has been created entirely by one man working under the pseudonym ZUN. ZUN creates the in-game art, designs the characters and enemies, programs the games and composes the (great) background music. You can thank him alone for everything great about these games (and curse him alone when you get frustrated at dying so many times.)

The Gameplay

In most Touhou games, you choose one out of two or more playable characters, and then battle through several stages of increasing difficulty. In the course of a stage, enemies appear from either the top or the sides of the screen and move in fixed patterns while firing colorful bullets, called danmaku in Japanese (also the name of this genre of shooting games). Some enemies fire their bullets in a fixed pattern, while others take aim at your character. In the later, more difficult stages of a typical Touhou game, the screen is often almost completely covered with bullets. To survive, you must find the patterns of the enemies' and their bullets' movements and dodge every obstacle. Oh, and there's no life meter. You get hit, you lose a life. Thankfully, the hitbox, the part of your character that needs to connect with a bullet in order to count as a hit, is very small, so you can fly between and graze bullets pretty easily without being hit.

In the middle and the end of of each stage, you face a boss, who has a life meter and intersperses short, regular attack patterns with "spell cards", which create a colorful and especially deadly flurry of bullets, often of different sizes and moving at different speeds. To halt the attack or spell card, you have to hit the boss until her life meter decreases to a fixed spot, at which point she moves on to her next attack until her meter has reached zero and she's defeated. The most difficult (and most entertaining) aspect of the games is figuring out how to dodge these spell cards and quick attacks while draining the life meter of the boss.

Sound hard? Don't worry. Depending on which game you're playing, you'll have a few ways to get out of a tight spot and possibly do a lot of damage to your enemies at the same time. The easiest way out is your bomb - each playable character comes equipped with at least one out of two possible "bomb" attacks that will rid part or all of the screen of bullets and do varying damage to anything else on the screen. Different characters have different kinds of bombs that work better in some situations than others. The downside is that your supply of bombs is limited, starting out with two, three or four at a time, and you'll only get a few chances to refill your stock without dying and having it replenished automatically. In the seventh Touhou game, Perfect Cherry Blossom, you're also able to collect powerups that give you a temporary shield against one hit. Finally, if you fire a bomb just after being hit, you can "cancel" your death by destroying that bullet that hit you along with all the rest on the screen. This requires very quick reflexes, however, and in some games, such as the sixth (Embodiment of Scarlet Devil), it's really difficult to pull off due to the fraction-of-a-second window of opportunity the game gives you before you die.

There's also a scoring system, with an extra life available once you reach certain scores. The scoring is very complicated, and it seems to change with each new game, so I'll just say that in pretty much every game, using bombs slows the increase of your score, and if you can survive a spell card attack from a boss without dying or using a bomb against it, you'll get a large bonus. Playing the games in Easy, Normal, Hard or Lunatic Mode will also add to or subtract from your base score depending on how the difficulty level is set.

If you run out of lives (and this will happen a lot), you're allowed up to three continues. There's a downside, though - you'll get the bad ending if you reach the end using continues, you won't unlock the "real" final stage, and you'll have an empty and thoroughly pissed off feeling afterwards because of it. ZUN is a bastard.

The Storyline and Characters

Each Touhou game has a storyline that is slowly revealed to the player through dialogue between the character and the bosses she faces before and after they fight, and each new game's storyline is separate from that of the previous game. However, they do share some themes. Every game takes place in a land called Gensokyo that has been sealed off from the rest of the world by a magical barrier. The inhabitants of Gensokyo consist of youkai, a wide range of spirits from Japanese folklore that have supernatural powers; a bunch of other non-human, non-youkai residents, and a village of humans who, after being sealed off from the world, have developed magical skills to defend themselves from the youkai. The youkai, for their part, often cause the humans trouble and sometimes prey on them for their meals or simply for fun. Every storyline involves the relationship between the humans and the supernatural creatures they have to live alongside (it should be noted that every character in Touhou, even if youkai or otherwise non-human, is drawn more or less human-looking, sometimes with wings or other animal features attached to emphasize their non-human status.)

In most Touhou games, some of the non-human residents of Gensokyo have caused some major problems for the humans, either severely fogging up their living space (Embodiment of Scarlet Devil), or taking away all the springtime warmth for themselves, causing a much longer winter (Perfect Cherry Blossom), all the way to stealing the Moon (Imperishable Night). Your goal is to fix the problem by shooting the hell out of it.

There are a lot of characters in the Touhou canon, almost all of whom you can find out about by playing the games yourself, or by reading manga and doujinshi based on Touhou. One unique aspect of Touhou is that almost every character in the canon (and every single character in the games) is female. I'm not listing the 60+ characters that have shown up throughout the game series, but two of the most important, both playable in almost every Touhou game, are:

  • Reimu Hakurei - shrine maiden of the Hakurei Shrine, a Shinto temple built on the border between Gensokyo and the rest of the world. Because of its situation, the shrine is kind of a doorway between the two worlds, and the traffic going in both directions causes a lot of trouble for Reimu. She takes it upon herself to investigate every time some major problem arises in Gensokyo.
  • Marisa Kirisame - a girl living among the humans of Gensokyo who has mastered magic. She uses her skills to poke her nose in everyone's business, so she's almost always involved in Gensokyo's problems along with Reimu.

Aside from these two characters, every new playable character has been a boss from one or more of the previous games.

Other Touhou-related works, the fanbase, etc

There have been a few manga and artbooks released with ZUN's collaberation set in Gensokyo and revolving around the same themes that the games' storylines deal with. The whole Touhou universe has created a native fanbase based on the games and to a great extent its characters. An English-speaking Touhou fanbase also exists but is much smaller. Fans have produced a lot of doujinshi using the Touhou universe and its characters as well.

The Games

PC-98 Windows

*These two games are numbered 7.5 and 9.5 because they are different enough in style from the typical danmaku games that they aren't considered a part of the regular series. Touhou 7.5 is a fighting game using characters from Touhou 6 and 7, and 9.5 is a photography game, in which you must take pictures of spell card attacks without getting hit.

None of the eleven games in the series have been exported to the United States, so if you live there or probably in most any country other than Japan, your only options for playing any of them are pulling them from the Internet pirate-style, buying them from or a similar site, or scouring your local anime convention for them. Since Touhou 1 through 5 were designed for a now obsolete system, downloading those along with a PC-98 emulator may be your only option for playing them.

Just don't blame me when you've died thirty times in a row at the same spot.