Touhou Project: Exploring What Makes This Japanese Doujin Shooting Game Such a Phenomenon - Gameplay

Touhou Project is a doujin game created by ZUN that’s incredibly popular, not just among game fans, but all otaku. What is it about this game that has grabbed the hearts of so many?

The common element between all Touhou Project games is that they are vertical scrolling shooters. In general, games headed by ZUN and distributed by Team Shanghai Alice are all vertical scrolling shooters (or in Japanese, “tate shu-”). There have been instances of collaborations between ZUN other developers to create fighting games and music CDs, but those are not relevant to our topic as we will be focusing on works released for the Windows OS.

From among the many characters, players select one girl, or a team of girls to play as. Each character has different weaponry and methods of attack. Also, the dialogue between characters and the ending change depending on who you chose. Characters can move at normal or slow speed. The slower speed is usually used for dropping bombs on targets. In addition to the regular firing method of attack, there are bombs that destroy the enemies on screen and their bullets. These can be used in emergencies to avoid being hit by enemy bullets. Players choose between four levels of increasing difficulty: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Lunatic.

When described in this way, it’s clear that Touhou Project games are, in general, normal shooting games without any drastically different characteristics. Each installment does feature different elements, such as a team system or online VS mode, but the series as a whole does not stray far from vertical scrolling shooting game conventions.

One thing about Touhou Project games that has made them so popular is the witty dialogue between characters. ZUN’s eccentric, and a little childish, girl characters exchange biting, otherworldly banter. The content is not enough to offer a full grasp of the game’s background, but it does exhibit the mystical nature of the story and the strangeness of the characters. A lot is left up the the player’s imagination. This precise feeling of distance allows players to create their own Touhou world for themselves, and this is one reason why the game has gained so much support. Evidence of this support is apparent if one considers the large number of derivative works––including manga, novels, and background music cover CDs––despite the fact that Touhou itself is already an independent fan-made game. There have been many popular doujin works in the past, but none of them compare to the scope of Touhou Project. Tokyo’s Big Sight Exhibition Center, where Comic Market is held, recent had an exhibition of only Touhou Project derivative works. An event of such scale is rare, even for commercial titles.

What really sets Touhou Project apart in terms of gameplay is the barrage of bullets that nearly cover the entire screen. It’s thrilling to dodge one’s way in-between the shots just in time. The bullets radiate out non-stop in colourful and dense geometric, even psychedelic patterns, that have an entrancing quality to them.

Games like this that feature an excessive amount of bullets covering the screen are often referred to as “danmaku-kei” or “barrage-type” games. CAVE Interactive’s titles like the Donpachi series are popular examples of this genre. Touhou is generally considered to be less difficult compared to other barrage-type games, but the pressure created by the gameplay gives it an abnormal sense of tension.

For beginners, even Easy mode is substantially difficult, and Hard mode is more of a test of one’s willpower than anything else. Lunatic mode is just as it sounds: sheer insanity. However, no matter how crazy a game is, if you can’t beat it, there’s no point. After several Game Overs and tries to get to the end of the stage, you suddenly begin to see the light of victory. In that instant, when you seem about to choke in the middle of a barrage of bullets, that’s when the game creator ZUNs algorithm comes into play. The algorithm does not order the game to simply cover the screen in bullets recklessly. There is a kind of order that regulates the chaos. Without some sort of reason behind the barrage of bullets, it will be difficult to create a game that can be won. Whether it’s the mismatched theatrical dialogue between characters or the barrage of bullets that fill the screen, both are made possible by trial and error and ZUN’s sense of reason.

ZUN’s keen sense of balance has allowed him to succeed in creating attractive and likeable characters along with a realistic and fascinating world, and put them together in an entertaining yet challenging game. That’s why he’s been able to grab the hearts of so many fans for so long. However, is it ZUN’s rationality that has allowed him to continue making these games alone? Personally, I feel that ZUN is set on making games that are fun to play. In order to do this, one must maintain a strong sense of reason. Perhaps his persistent bias toward rationality could be best described by the hardest difficulty mode of the game: Lunatic. Perhaps it is this madness that is the source of our enjoyment.

To follow up this explanation of the game system, tomorrow we will be talking about the characters of the series and how they were developed.

Team Shanghai Alice Official HP
Touhou Project Works on Tokyo Otaku Mode

Material used in this article was provided by Ichijinsha.
© Ichijinsha

This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.

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