Spanning 12 games in the main series, the Touhou Project series of games started back in the 90’s with the release of five games for the PC-98. Seven more games in the main series were further released for Windows after Zun, the creator of the games, separated from his previous publisher Amusement Makers. Since then the series has taken off in Japan and carved somewhat of a cult following outside Japan, especially here in the US. The Touhou Project series of games is primarily known for its vertical shooter aspects, along with “bullet hell” boss/enemy patterns, and also infamous for its nearly all-female cast with new characters constantly being introduced into the series. For those who have just been introduced to the series, the shear number of Touhou Project games, plotlines, and characters (as well as their relationships to one another) can be overwhelming. So I’ve created this quick guide and overview to help aquaint those new to the Touhou series of games. Happy reading!
Highly Response to Prayers (1996)
In the very first Touhou game, we are introduced to Reimu Hakurei, who is not too happy that somebody or something has wrecked her shrine, the Hakurei Shrine. As such she travels into another world in search of the perpetrator in order to punish those responsible for this act.
Unlike the other Touhou games that would come, Highly Responsive to Prayers had a radically different gameplay than Zun’s later works. In a sense, this game was similar to Arkanoid but with enemies firing at you and the ball (or Reimu’s Ying-Yang orb) can not fall “below the screen”. Reimu uses the Ying-Yang orb to attack cards (that’s right) and flipping them over. Once all the cards are flipped, she can proceed onto the next stage. Meanwhile enemies are trying to stop Remiu by shooting bullets and lasers at her. And did I mention if your Ying-Yang ball slams into you she loses a life too?
This goes on for 20 stages. A boss battle takes place every 5th stage and only the Ying-Yang orb can damage the boss. Reimu has a vertical shot to deflect enemy bullets and she can also slide and swing her gohei to deflect bullets too. Boss battles in this game were reminiscent of what was to come for the Touhou series. In other words, bosses tend to bullet-spam and make your life miserable while you attempt to dodge the bullets, hit your orb at the right angle, and damage the boss.
Unfortunately, Highly Responsive to Prayers has little in terms of dialogue. So I can only assume the bosses were the ones responsible for vandilizing the shrine. In retrospect, this game is probably one of the more frustrating ones in the series simply due to the difficulty of controlling the Ying-Yang orb and the necessity to “flip” cards and use the orb to defeat bosses in the game. But it’s worth a try if you want to experience how the Touhou series evolved from the first game to what it is today.
Story of Eastern Wonderland (1997)
Once again the Hakurei Shrine has been attacked, this time by ghosts and youkai which have occupied the shrine itself. Not taking too kindly to this, Reimu once again decides to take on these ghosts and youkai and seeks out to find who is behind the attack and occupation.
Unlike Highly Responsive to Prayers, Story of Eastern Wonderland is the predecessor to nearly all future Touhou games. As the second Touhou game, Story of Eastern Wonderland is a true vertical shooter with several attack types to choose from for Reimu and of course…screen clearing bombs which are known as “spell cards” in the Touhou universe. Story of Eastern Wonderland would also introduce the power-up concept to the Touhou series, as well as the common orange “P” sprite used in every Touhou game since. Like other vertical shooters, this game also incorporates a specific hit-box, allowing advanced to expert players the opportunity to “graze” and avoid tightly spaced bullets.
Story of Eastern Wondeland also introduces one of the few male characters known in the Touhou universe, that being Genji the turtle that Reimu uses to fly around. Speaking of characters, there is significantly more character devlopment in his game as Reimu converses wth every boss enemy. Story of Eastern Wonderland also introduces Marisa Kirisame, who would also make an appearance in every Touhou game after this one.
For those who think they are hot stuff with this game, Story of Eastern Wonderland also begins the trend of having four difficulty settings, topping it off with the “lunatic” difficulty. And in order to see the good ending, you can’t continue through the main game, a trend that would be picked up throughout the series. Furthermore, for those who think the lunatic difficulty is too easy, Story of Eastern Wonderland also introduces the ultra-difficult extra stage in which you confront a powerful boss at the end of a long stage…without the ability to continue.
All in all, if you are interested inseing how the Touhou series truly got started, give Story of Eastern Wonderland a try. This game would form the backbone of the gameplay of the Touhou Project series.
Phantasmagoria of Dim Dream (1997)
While taking a stroll outside the shrine, Reimu comes across some ruins and a group of Genskyo residents who are vying to enter the ruins…which on a flier mentions only one person can enter. As such, the residents proceed to hold a compeition with the winner able to enter the ruins.
Phantasmagoria of Dim Dream greatly expands on the number of playable characters, up to nine (after unlocking everybody) characters to choose from. The gameplay is also different, being a competitive vertical shooter very similar (if not identical) to the Neo-Geo game Twinkle Star Sprites. For those wondering, Twinkle Star Sprites was released a year earlier than Phantasmagoria of Dim Dream so the assumption here is Zun was inspired by that game, as nearly all the game mechanics are identical.
Sadly though, character development takes a back seat again in Phantasmagoria of Dim Dream. Aside from the victory boasts each character makes upon defeating another, there is little dialogue until the final two battles. Furthermore, unlike the vertical shooters in the series, the game is VERY difficult towards the end of the single-player mode. Quite simply, a computer can dodge bullets better than any human can and sometimes you’re dependent on a little luck to defeat the CPU.
However this is the first game in which you can compete against a human opponent (again, very similar to Twinkle Star Sprites) to determine who is the better Touhou player. All in all, this entry in the series is not too bad, but it can get frustrating in the single-player mode.
Lotus Land Story (1998)
Yokai once again attack the Hakurei shrine and Reimu once again fights back. But this time unable to control the hordes, she flies off in search of the source of the invasion. Meanwhle, Marisa senses a great power underneath a mountain lake and flies off insearch of the power. Both characters would eventually meet and fight, with one going on to discover the entity behind the attacks and the source of the power.
Zun returns back to the vertical shooter genre with this Touhou entry. Lotus Land Story’s gameplay is very similar to Story of Eastern Wonderland in that you pilot your character through legions of enemies and dodge an insane number of bullets. Like Story of Eastern Wonderland, in order to get the best ending you can not continue through the game. This checkpoint is in stage 5, if you didn’t continue you can proceed onto stage 6 while if you did, the game would end. This is different than Story of Eastern Wonderland as you have to go through an entire stage, whereas in the previous game this was only an additional boss battle.
There are a few additions to the game though. A boss health meter now appears, indicating how much health remains during boss battles. This game also marks the debut of Marisa as a playable character in a vertical shooter Touhou game, as she
would be featured prominently in every Touhou game that follows. An additional note, sometime between Story of Eastern Wonderland, Phantasmagoria of Dim Dream, and this game, Marisa’s hair changed color from red to blond.
Two extra score bonses are included in the gameplay now, one being the graze bonus awarding players points for grazing or staying next to an enemy bullet. The other being the Dream Bonus, that of collecting specific dream items to increase one’s score.
All in all, Lotus Land Story doesn’t change the core gameplay of the Touhou Project shooters, but starts to add the elements and characteristics of the game that we see in later iterations. And while I have heard people comment that the next Touhou Project game is the most characteristic of the Windows iterations, I argue that Lotus Land Story introduces most of the concepts found in the Windows games and future Touhou Project games build upon what Lotus Land Story accomplished.
Mystic Square (1999)
Youkai once again attack! However this time they are all over Gensokyo instead of just focusing on the Hakurei Shrine. Overwhelmed, Reimu once again seeks the source of the invasion and flies off to stop it. Meanwhile Marisa finds out about this and characteristic of her (selfish) nature, follows Reimu in the hopes she can find some power to steal at the invasion’s source. Two other characters, Mima and Yuka, also decide to search for the invasion. Mima seems jealous that Youkai are attacking “her world” and Yuka simply because she seems bored and wants something to do.
Gameplay-wise, Mystic Square is very similar to Lotus Land Story. Six stages of increasingly difficulty await you. Unlike Lotus Land Story though, if you continue you can still play the last stage, however you will still not receive the best ending. Furthermore there are now four characters to choose from instead of two. The scoring bonus returns, but tweaked in that while your bonus is still dependent on collecting dream items, you are penalized when you lose a life or use a bomb.
But to sum Mystic Square up, its pretty much your typical Touhou shooter which we will see in the later Windows iterations. Don’t get me wrong, Mystic Square is a fun shooter to play and the refinement of the game makes it play similar to the Windows iterations.
These five PC-98 games are what started the Touhou Project series. Aside from Highly Responsive to Prayers and to some extent Phatasmagoria of Dim dream, these games tended to build upon and improve upon each other and started the popularity of the series in Japan and to a small niche outside of Japan. The series would start to really take off with the introduction of the Windows iterations, of which there are another 6 games in the series with one up and coming Touhou game.