Touhou music: Phantasmagoria of Dim. Dream

Most Touhou soundtracks are pretty great. And one of the best of all also happens to be one of the oldest.

First things first; is the menu theme any good?

Yes. Definitely. It’s quite epic. Just like most of the game’s songs.

Mystic Oriental Love Consultation: Your basic epic theme, setting a nice benchmark for the rest of the songs in the game. This one’s more rhythmic than most, and cheery, too.

Reincarnation: One of the game’s longer epics, and one of its most epic in the true sense of the word. The chorus is particularly dramatic, but the bits before it are just as lovely to savour.

Dim. Dream: A crazy, high-tempoed song and also really rather brilliant for it. There’s a reason it’s got the same name as the game; it defines the sheer action of the game like no other song.

Tabula rasa ~ The Empty Girl: Not one of the game’s strongest themes, and yet still pretty solid. The chorus is especially strong, although the song does kind of lose life in its second half.

Maniacal Princess: A proper epic of a song. One long build-up to a seriously dramatic chorus and the whole damn song is just brilliant. A seriously underrated theme, and one of the game’s best of all.

Vanishing Dream ~ Lost Dream: There’s no frills or spills to this song; this is just an A-grade, top-class song all the way from start to finish. One of the era’s finest songs, and the best in this particular game.

Visionary Game ~ Dream War: Even most of the long Touhou epics of today don’t stretch beyond 4 minutes: this one lasts for 5 and it was only the third game. It’s not perfect, but the first section of the song does more than enough to get you involved in the song, even if you’ll likely never hear the whole thing in game.

Decisive Magic Battle! ~ Fight it out!: A song that screams of absolutely intense action. As it should do, given that it’s the round 7 song. This is one of the game’s coolest songs of all.

Sailor of Time: The only real weakness in the soundtrack, in my opinion. The start seems interesting enough but it doesn’t end up leading anywhere. Also the shortest battle theme in the game.

Strawberry Crisis: A suitably epic final boss theme, featuring some unbelievably intense guitars right from the start. No theme is better suited to Yumemi firing crosses at you and phasing onto your screen in the most PC-98 way ever.

Other good songs

Selection: We haven’t even started playing yet and already big music is hitting our ears. This music is dedicated solely to one screen only and yet it’s still absolutely brilliant. It’s also quite spacey, to go with the background. I could sit on this screen quite happily.

Maple Dream…: First time players might end up knowing this as the IN credits theme. Except it isn’t, because this came first. The IN credits theme is this theme, re-done in a modern engine. This is just as good, though.

Victory: Yes, the victory theme. No, I’m not joking. It really does sound that epic. As I’ve said before, I’d quite like this to play every time I successfully manage to get away with something. Or indeed for any victory in my life, big or small.

Outside World: The top of the doujinshi world

If you ever go anywhere looking for fan art, these series I’m listing here will almost inevitably be among them. Here’s a general rambling about the top 15 of them.

Of course, the top 15 might be a little difficult to define. Pixiv seems like a good indicator, but that takes in an Eastern audience most of all. There’s websites catering for my Western side as well, and the most frequently uploaded on those seems like a good bet. So that’s what I’m going off. Still, this top list is relatively subjective, so take it however you will. I’m just talking about 15 undoubtedly popular series, either way.

1. Touhou

Obviously. Touhou might not be at its peak any more, but even so it still remains well amongst the most prominent series for doujinshi. And at its peak, it was so unbelievably popular that it will almost certainly remain the all-time most popular. Indeed, thanks to its peak from 2009 onwards, it still has well over double its nearest contender. The next series down has close to seven times less fanart.

Of course, I shouldn’t have to go too far to explain why Touhou is so brilliant. This is a blog where I write about it, after all. The games, the bread-and-butter of Touhou, are terrific. The music is undeniably outstanding and has resulted in quite the most extraordinary arrange scene. But the utter abundance of fan art is all down to the many and varied characters, all of whom have been drawn in every way you can think of. Of the 20 most drawn characters ever, Touhou has 16 of them. That is how brilliant they are. I don’t think all of them are perfect, but they have all struck a chord in many, many, many fans’ minds. And they’re the ultimate reason why Touhou is about as fantastic as any other piece of fictional media ever conceived.

2. Kantai Collection

I don’t know whether to be amazed that Kantai Collection has been in vogue for nearly four years now, or be amazed that it was nearly four years ago it got in vogue. But I do know this. Like Touhou, it is a series that benefits from a bucketload of characters. But whereas Touhou introduced a group of them with every passing game, Kantai Collection started with its characters in triple figures. And the characters kept on coming all the time. They still do today. This would already have been enough to give it a strong degree of popularity, but there was one thing that did for it above all else. And, regrettably, it was its fanservice.

With so many characters selling themselves to artists, a massive chunk of the doujinshi scene went to KanColle and worshipped it and several of its many characters. The result was something that was able to challenge Touhou’s position as top of the pile for doujinshi. And, in the here and now, it has succeeded in that. It’s not going to topple Touhou’s historic all-time mark, but right now, if there’s an artist you’ve seen, they’re probably doing KanColle.

I hate it.

The reasons for it are many and varied. But I don’t want all my reasons why to swallow up this entire piece. So I’ll just go ahead and say I’ve blacklisted Kantai Collection in every way I reasonably can. Mostly, it has worked. And I am happy with that.

3. Idolmaster

I have absolutely no idea what to make of Idolmaster at this point in time. There are just so many conflicting opinions I have of it that it’s all just a load of mush. However, I am sitting up and paying some notice to it as I’ve found a couple of the numerous Cinderella Girls from their eponymous game, and I think I quite like them. Not many, you understand. But enough now to make my head turn.

But countering this, I’ve seen some clips of the Idolmaster anime that makes its characters look utterly mad. Like, I swear there’s nothing to say that they aren’t on drugs or something. I have no idea what is going on with any of them. And it’s not like any of the girls from the romantically-named 765 Productions are really notable. So I’m not sold on that side at all.

However, there is one opinion I have on Idolmaster that overshadows the rest of them by far. And it’s on the whole theme of the series. In short, it’s based on the real life idol industry, which by all accounts is pretty dreadful. An industry which takes talent to stardom, and then one day decides they’ve had enough and just throws them away. Why would you want to play a part in any of that? Well, here’s why. Because the girls are always attractive and that’s all that matters to you. Idolmaster is just bait for those sorts of people. And nowhere is this made more clear than the fact you play the role of a ‘producer’. I’ll leave to make your own judgements on playing such a shady (and shadily-named) role, but I have a general comment in terms of being made to play as the producer. In doing this, Idolmaster is effectively forcing you to believe you are someone else. Kantai Collection does this too, with its even more suspicious ‘Admiral’. (He’s the most popular character from the series, by the way. Gee, I wonder why…) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve never taken a liking to any series that forces you to do this. By contrast, I absolutely love the two most direct rivals to those series, which just ask you to watch other characters doing their thing. Maybe that’s the reason author avatar OCs never work in Touhou fanfiction. Because their world is designed for them. Not you.

Anyway. My point is, I respect Idolmaster for what it is and its success. I even like some of it. I don’t dislike it, despite what it has its roots set in. But I suspect it is not for me.

4. Vocaloid

Now these are some singers I can get behind. And not just because Vocaloid might even be more popular than this. It’s notable more mainstream than the three series above it here, and mostly that is the result of one character. Remember how I said Touhou had 16 of the 20 most drawn characters? Well, despite being the all-time #1 series, what it doesn’t have is the all-time #1 character. That honour lies with Hatsune Miku, who, it has to be said, is evidently very excellent, despite only actually being a voice program. She has gotten entire venues full to see a hologram of herself. She has won races with cars with her on the side. She has appeared on David Letterman. She is, frankly, quite unlike anything else we’ve seen, but she’s not this popular by accident. She’s a most popular character because, at the heart of her, is all a character needs to appeal to doujinshi makers. Nothing more, nothing less. So I’m fine with her, frankly.

There are other Vocaloids who have managed great success, however. Kagamines Rin and Len are next best after Miku, as well as Megurine Luka. There’s other notable Vocaloids within too, such as Gumi, but Meiko stands as my personal favourite. The thing is, though, I’ve known about Vocaloid for plenty of time. Longer even than Touhou, to be honest. And there’s nothing wrong with it, really. I think it’s rather nice, on the whole. And it’s hard to see anything of its like coming around again.

5. Fate

I know a fair few people who know and love Fate very much, but I’m not really one of them. I know a little about it though, so I can kind of sum it up. The primary source of work from the series comes from its original anime adaptation, Fate/stay night, with the following anime and prequel, Fate/zero, and free-to-play video game Fate/Grand Order also popular works. Fate’s most popular character, by some distance, is its main heroine, Saber, whilst twin-tailed, tsundere-incarnate and thigh-highed Rin Tohsaka also makes a strong showing. It helps that the series just so happens to be really damn good as an original, away from its numerous fan works. Certainly, it sold well in its initial life as a visual novel, way back in 2004 now. Most of all, it sells itself as one of the best bishojo games there has ever been, too. That’s a combination that has seen it build up one hell of a fanbase. And all credit to it for doing so. It’s got a mixture of action, romance and urban fantasy that has attracted all sorts. Make no mistake, this is an impressive series.

6. Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica

An anime-first series which I still somehow haven’t seen in its entirety, yet I know plenty about Puella Magi Madoka Magica, to give it its English title. And chiefly what I know is that it is an absolute masterpiece. Even though there’s over two and a half years of it still left to go, Madoka will likely be the best anime of this decade (though I would personally give it to Shaft’s other masterpiece of the decade, the Monogatari series). You probably know the form with Madoka, too, although it’s difficult to say what it is without really spoiling the whole premise. And I won’t because it’s brilliant. But the appeal of the whole series is so undeniably excellent that it’s worth noting the characters behind its popularity. Whereas some of the series above needed a plethora of characters to get into the big time, Madoka needed only six main characters: Madoka, Homura, Sayaka, Kyouko, Mami and Kyubey. All six are much beloved. This series is the only other aside from Touhou with more than one character in the top 20. Weirdly though, the titular character Madoka is not the most popular. That accolade rests with Homura, because emotional coldness is a big selling point amongst most of the world’s anime fans, evidently. Oh, and a considerable role in the plot of the series, but like I’ve said, I’m not spoiling anything here if you haven’t actually seen it. I’d like to explain its brilliance in more detail, but it has to be seen to be believed. Then I’ll explain it to you. The result was wild popularity in the time it was running, and a place as the most defining anime for a long, long time. I wonder what the next anime to make as big a splash as this one will look like.

7. Pokemon

Of course. I’ve already talked about my nearly life-long relationship with Pokemon on this blog already, so I won’t recite any of my very lengthy piece on it. But I suppose I will touch on the anime, seeing as it’s more relevant here. Well, I’ve certainly watched my fair share of it, but was hardly obsessed with it to begin with and certainly am not now. I’ve not been much into it since R/S, and haven’t paid much attention to it at all since D/P. Still, I suppose that’s fine. The original will forever be the best in the anime’s case, of that I’m confident. The games got better and better (until X/Y, and then S/M), but with the anime the first remains the best. It’s nostalgia, you see. That’s Pokemon through and through. And it’s why it’s really damn popular. Just remember when you look for art of it – this is the Internet. If you’re the type who doesn’t want their ‘childhood ruined’, tread carefully.

8. Precure

Of the series here, Precure was the one I knew the least about, for sure. In fact, I don’t think I’d heard of it at all. So I’ve researched on what is a notably popular series. And it’s a long running magical girl series. It’s been going since 2004, for 600 episodes, and 14 anime series. It’s filled to the gunwales with characters, which probably explains how it’s managed to get so popular for a cash cow of a franchise. Anime girls are in constant demand in doujinshi, after all. Basically, it’s the leading magical girl series in all anime, and that’s all that it needs going for it.

9. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

Now we come to something I meant to get into quite a while ago, but never did. But it didn’t matter anyway because I’ve seen plenty of little snippets of it and I now know, as we all do, that it’s just about the coolest manga the world has ever seen. It’s now into its 30th year of existence, although it didn’t even get an anime until its 25th, in 2012. Its famous art style complements the immense flamboyancy the series exudes. An intricate plot, creative battles and the never-ending conflicts with the supernatural are the definitive points of action in the series. And, in the West, the general badassery of the whole series has resulted in plenty of memes throughout. Basically, going through JoJo and its madness is a bizarre adventure in itself. But it’s also really rather brilliant. This isn’t like the other series ahead of it by any stretch of the imagination. By and large, with JoJo, you just see badasses doing badass things because they are badass. Badass. And artists have only been too happy to oblige. An icon of all anime, and long may it continue.

10. Love Live!

A magnificent series, one so magnificent that it was the first properly new thing I got into for 3 years. That speaks volumes.

I’ve said in many places elsewhere just why Love Live is so utterly brilliant, so I’ll try not to go too deep into it here and now. Instead, I’ll sum up the most relevant reason to this article, and the biggest reason I love it. The characters. I’ve already mentioned some series that get by with a few terrific characters but I feel it’s really worth noting with Love Live. Idolmaster, its most direct rival, needed 13 characters to start with, and that was before Cinderella Girls. God knows how many that’s added. A million, probably. Further up, Touhou is creeping towards the 200 character mark. Kantai Collection has passed that. All Love Live needed was nine characters, who each made up mu’s. And the best of the bunch are simply magnificent. Eli is the best example. There might come a time when I say that she is my favourite character from anything, ever. Honest. Maki, the consensus fan favourite (she’s really attractive, but also mistaken for a tsundere), is another seriously good character. She’s probably in my all-time top 5. After them, the rest are similarly damn superb in their own, special way. Then there’s Honoka and Kotori…but that’s my opinion, not yours. They have their own fans for their own reasons, too.

I shan’t go on much longer about my experience with Love Live much longer, but I’ll just raise my last thoughts on the comparison between it and Idolmaster. I said Idolmaster’s theme was buried in some very shady, and offputting roots. Love Live looks like it might be the same thing, but it really is not. Idolmaster is about the professional idol industry. Love Live is just some girls becoming idols to save their school. And that’s absolutely fine.

Certainly, it hasn’t stopped the series getting a mass of popularity. Sadly, I only got into it a few months before mu’s Final Live. They’ve since been succeeded by Aquors, who are basically nothing more than pretenders to them. They’re just another nine girls, but the formula behind them is exactly the same as before. If they’d changed  it up a little (i.e. less girls) I probably would have been cool with them. But, sadly, I’m not nearly as sold on Aquors as mu’s. They are still notably popular now, mind. And yet even today they can’t hold a candle to the original greats of mu’s. They will live forever in my mind. They’re just unbelievable.

11. K-On!

Another manga that made it big when it came out as an anime in 2009, K-On is about a five-girl band making music to save a high school club. Somewhere within it, cuteness happened and the world’s anime fans were sold. The two seasons of anime were, of course, done by Kyoto Animation, probably the go-to studio for making a slice of life like K-On was (of which, more later). This was, quite simply, an ordinary anime done absolutely right, something to aspire to. Obviously, its peak has long passed, but the fact it made it so big is testament to its greatness, and its place as a historic trend-setter of an anime. I’ve never gotten too involved in it myself, but the five main characters are all notable enough for me to know them. So I’d say Yui and Ritsu are my two favourites on the basis that they’re the cutest to me. Which was probably the point of it all. K-On benefitted a lot from the all-powerful need for moe, and K-On gave it in spades. That’s why it made it big.

12. Final Fantasy

I would have been able to talk a fair bit about Final Fantasy this time last year, but not as much as I could now, having not long ago gotten further than ever into the series thanks firstly to an explorative look into the brilliant FF8, and then a play-around with the also excellent FF15, the latest instalment in this legendary game series. Naturally, such great popularity breeds great amounts of art, and so it has proven. Mind you, this is one series where it isn’t the characters that is the biggest sell for me, though they certainly help. I mean, I loved FF8’s lot and that’s my favourite in the series. Plus, the four mains in FF15 were great to play as, and there are plenty of other greats throughout the series. FF6 had a great bunch, my favourite being Terra. FF7, the most popular game of them all, has the most popular characters with it, Cloud and Tifa among them. Both are amongst my favourites from the series. And let’s not forget about FF9’s bunch. There’s also the likes of Yuna from FF10, too. Final Fantasy is a series with positives beyond just these characters, but not only are they obviously vital to the whole series, they’re all much loved too. And as well they might be. The series is coming up to its 30th year of existence, and even if it doesn’t ever get back to its previous brilliance, the series will live forever.

13. Lyrical Nanoha

I’ve known about Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha for a while, but I’ve only really known it as something I used to confuse with other anime series with similar words and numbers of words, such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica (perhaps an easy mistake to make when you’re a total noob like I was) and Mahou Sensei Negima (which makes a lot less sense and just makes me look ridiculous). But now I know it to be a really rather popular magical girl series. But this isn’t quite a magical girl series as you know it. Not in the same sense as Madoka, but merely the details of the series itself. Now we know that magical girl series appeal most of all to two demographics: kodomomuke, and seinen. Precure, as mentioned previously, aims to please both demographics. Lyrical Nanoha is meant entirely for the latter. And it shows in all the art that’s been made of it.

But Nanoha also has quite a ridiculous production history. Nanoha was originally a girl in an H-game. No word of a lie. But whilst she was only very minor in it, she was so popular she got a whole new spin-off game, where she became a magical girl. Then an anime on that game was made, except elements of mecha were thrown in, simply because of Nanoha’s costume design. The result was an anime with fight scenes so far beyond the norm for a magical girl anime that it brought fans in who otherwise had no interest in the genre. The result was something really very popular indeed. There isn’t anything quite this popular quite like this, which probably makes sense. It’s hard to see something as mad as this working quite so well again, but the series has proved an exercise in how to take multiple interests and combine them into one, and attract an even greater audience than would otherwise be the case. So I respect it for earning success that way.

14. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Way back when I started to get into anime, Haruhi was the third proper anime I actually watched. I rather enjoyed it, even though it didn’t exactly seem the best thing since sliced bread. But it certainly looked like it seemed that way when Haruhi’s anime first hit the scene. What we have here is an anime with no clear genre – there’s all sorts on hand here, from comedy to sci-fi to fantasy to mystery to romance to slice of life and all in the typical high school setting. But the prominent theme is that of the supernatural, as seen in its main characters. And none more so than the titular character, who, unaware to herself, is a reality warper. The jokes of her being an actual god were probably fitting at the time; her anime was a domestic and international smash hit. It was much loved, and later much despised, but the result was a seriously popular anime. It also marked the point where Kyoto Animation made it big. Again, it’s the characters that sold the whole thing. Quite apart from Haruhi, who I think is pretty damn great despite also being very annoying, there’s a very good protagonist in Kyon, there’s Mikuru, who is basically moe personified, whilst Yuki gets the most love of anyone (she’s the emotionless one, again), and Itsuki is a nice man, too. This famous five were the big names behind the series’ popularity, and their doujinshi from so long ago remains here for all to see today.

The series’ greatest moment has long since gone, though. For some reason they tried to make a new animation as late as 2015, but no one watched it. At least, not anyone I know. The anime world had long since left it behind. It could get away with three years between its first and second seasons, but not six. There is still one very good reason to watch Haruhi now, though. The anime isn’t perfect, but you should still watch it anyway, solely so you can watch Disappearance, the 2010 movie. I waited a long, long, long time to watch it after finishing the second season. Like, a really long time. I actually kept on saying for years that I’ll watch Disappearance ‘soon’, without doing it. Then I went and did it eventually and it was fantastic. So make sure you go out and find a reason to go and see the outstanding movie.

15. Gundam

Lastly, here’s another series where I know plenty of people who love it, but I’m not as into it myself. But, obviously, I know exactly what Gundam is. Everyone does, because it’s been around since 1979. It’s a mecha series that needs little introduction, with a common plot that has stood the test of time. The theme of war encompasses the series mostly, and the hell and mental trauma that comes with it. The series has gone from many animes to mangas, OVAs, games, and a mass merchandising empire. There’s been theme park rides of it, racing team sponsorships, and more spin-offs than you could possibly think of. Yeah, and you need much more explanation why it’s popular? Why it’s been drawn so much? Thought not. About as timeless a classic as any anime will ever be.

 

So, that’s what I think on the most popular series in the world. I’ll end up covering my favourites further in due time, as well as looking at more series in brief eventually. And I have more Touhou stuff to write about at some point, too. Oh yes.

My favourite Touhou music from the third Windows era (13-15)

Spirit of Avarice: Comfortably the best title theme there has ever been. I mean, how can it sound so epic?! Especially the opening. I mean, when that drops, you know you’re in for something special. Well, OK, you aren’t really, because it’s TD. But at least it makes a good immediate first impression.

Let’s Live in a Lovely Cemetery: The peak song in terms of Touhou’s turn of atmosphere from its recent past, this Stage 3 piece is a lovely, melodic tune. It comes served with TD’s methodically slow pace, and fits it well, unlike the Stage 2 theme from previous.

Desire Drive: The point at which TD suddenly turns into a rave. This is an action-packed song with a difference, and instrumentation unlike mostly any other Touhou song. This is the peak of TD’s soundtrack, a real gem among a selection of largely forgettable songs. The song was so good, it was basically the ending theme as well!

Starry Sky of Small Desires: Fortunately, Stage 6 is pretty long by Touhou standards in TD, so it gets a good semblance of a song. It’s not the very best Stage 6 song in the series, but it’s got plenty of drama and atmosphere around it. It’s a quintessential Touhou song of its era, with several of its most recognisable instruments featuring.

Hartmann’s Youkai Girl (HM): The one good song amongst a lacklustre HM soundtrack, and even then it had the benefit of already being one of Touhou’s greatest songs. But this is a strong remix, a great twist on the original, even if the instruments aren’t too dramatic. But this isn’t even the best remix it got in a fighter…

Dullahan Under the Willows: It was so, so tough to choose between this and its accompanying Stage 2 theme – both are terrific, especially when combined into the same stage. But it’s Sekibanki’s theme does it, thanks to those epic, new-to-DDC guitars. You wouldn’t guess she was a mere Stage 2 boss from this theme. You wouldn’t guess Stage 2’s theme was actually for Stage 2, either…both songs sound like they belong two stages further in a game.

Bamboo Forest of the Full Moon: A seriously epic tune, one of the most rocking in the entire Touhou series. Again, a reminder that this is only a Stage 3 song – it too sounds like it belongs more in somewhere like Stage 5. And yet it comes around as early as the midpoint, which is plain awesome, both when playing the game and for the stage itself.

Magical Storm: The best stage theme in modern times. This is nothing short of a musical wonder, and it is made even better when playing in Stage 4 itself thanks to some magical sequencing, making the song fit perfectly with the stage itself. As epic as the two stage themes before it, but it manages it with a lot more subtlety. Which is an even bigger achievement, I’d say.

Reverse Ideology: An action-packed theme befitting of a wild fight. There’s not much to this theme, there’s no frills, no spills, it’s just a plain damn good track by itself. The build-up throughout the track only serves to make it sound even more intense. And, of course, it featured again in Seija’s own game, Impossible Spell Card.

Primordial Beat ~ Pristine Beat: A classy Extra Stage boss theme for Raiko, who is otherwise one of the less remarkable Extra bosses despite having her moments. This is another one where you can just sit back and enjoy the musical greatness of it all, although such a style might be pretty bold for an Extra Stage boss. Despite that though, it works. Brilliantly.

Cheat Against the Impossible Danmaku: A surprising place to find such a good song, but the opening days of ISC have this superb song. This is the best song you’ll find in any Touhou game like this, and it’s just a shame that it’s only a song for the start of the game. It’s so intense it would work just as well in the later days of the game.

Hartmann’s Youkai Girl (ULiL): HM’s remix was strong, but this from Kishida is even better. The tempo of this song is unbelievably fast, and the song a frantic madness of rock. It’s a dramatic song, worthy of the great song it originally was. AoCF will probably give us a third great remix of Hartmann’s Youkai Girl, but can it top this?

Unforgettable, the Nostalgic Greenery: This is a great return to the exciting Stage 1 songs of Touhou’s prime, ones that get the vibes running right from the outset. This is among the very best Stage 1 songs, by virtue of having a great melody by any song’s standards, never mind a Stage 1 tune.

The Rabbit Has Landed: Here’s a similarly super-intense, super-fast song for the first boss of LoLK, Seiran. Like the song immediately before it, this stands out as a song with a surprising degree of variation in its instruments, certainly by Stage 1 boss standards. This makes for a fantastic start to LoLK, and it gets even better…

The Lake Reflects the Cleansed Moonlight: From a high-octane opener, we come to a song that is just plain epic. There’s a wide variety of instruments on show here, all used pretty much perfectly. As with DDC, this is the type of song that almost feels as if it belongs around about Stage 4, so intense is the atmosphere of this song.

Pierrot of the Star-Spangled Banner: An astonishing song, the best boss theme for many years. Clownpiece’s theme fits absolutely perfectly both with her own character and her batshit mental fight, and has a composition and instrumentation that brings to mind epic themes from a time long gone by, as far back even as PC-98, and the likes of Doll of Misery, which was also brilliant. This is just plain awesome on every level.

The Sea Where One’s Home Planet Reflects: Here’s another Stage 6 song that got plenty of effort put into it, thanks to the length of LoLK’s final stage. And what a fitting song for the stage it is. The dramatic tone of this song makes it great most of all, and not only does it match up with the wild patterns you face in the stage itself, it also serves as a perfect build-up to one of the most terrifying fights in Touhou history, and just about sums up the insanity of the adventure you’ve been on up to this point.

Touhou 14½ ½: Urban Legend in Limbo…for the PS4?!

NOTE: Since I wrote my ULiL piece, v1.40 has come out (of course it did, less than a week after I reviewed it). The update is nothing more than a whole lot of balancing, though. So there’s no need to touch on it too closely, I think.

The PS4 version of ULiL was first confirmed in February 2016, some time after its initial release. But it’d be a while before it’d be released. After plenty of build-up, it finally arrived in December 2016, making it the most recent release of a Touhou game to date. But it’s worth looking at, due to a couple of small little extra features the PS4 version has, and because…well, it’s on a PS4. That’s a massive change from the norm in itself. Also, I have a PS4 now. And I have a copy of the game to play with.

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Obviously, everything in the PC version of ULiL is as it was in the PS4 version. So I won’t touch on the whole game again; you can, and indeed should, read my ULiL piece for that. Certainly, it’ll help you know some of what I’m on about here.

But, as I mentioned earlier, this PS4 version is not a direct port of the PC. And that’s because there’s a lot of new stuff in here too. So let’s see what it is.

The most significant addition to the PS4 version was one all new character, one coming hot off the heels of her reappearance in the series. Reisen was back once again, and with her she brought a new stage in Eientei, new music in the form of the ever-brilliant Invisible Full Moon, and most notably, a new mode. Although the ‘Extra’ mode wasn’t really any such thing. It was just an excuse to give Reisen a story. Specifically, one that takes place after Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom, putting a reason on why she’s in the game now. It’s also a prologue to the next game, which I’ll write about whenever it comes out.

The PS4 version upped the resolution of the game to 1080p, a first for any Touhou game. It also marked the glorious return of Arcade mode, always a fun mode in the fighting games, as well as the introduction of a tutorial. And whilst Reisen’s introduction called for new music, hers wasn’t the only new music in the game: as well as some new story battle themes, two new remixes came up for two tracks, specifically Unknown X ~ Unknown Adventure, a previous fighting game classic, and Retribution for the Eternal Night, a great song from the past.

Of course, none of this would be for much if the game didn’t translate to the PS4 well. Luckily, ULiL was a strong starting point to begin with, so moving it onto completely unknown territory by Touhou’s standards should make for another strong addition to the Touhou series.

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And I’m delighted to report that for the most part it’s all still very good, and very fun, action. But not action that’s as easy as its PC counterpart. Certainly, it seemed as if the PC version was the easiest fighting game that Touhou has had, but the PS4 version seems to bring it back into line with SWR and Soku’s challenge. This isn’t a criticism of the PS4’s controls or anything, by the way. They’re still fine, it’s just harder to make stuff happen with them. And that’s fine. Sometimes I’m up for a challenge. Sometimes I just want to blow stuff up. If I wanted the former, I’d play on the PS4. If I wanted the latter, I’d be on my PC.

And this extra difficulty also seems to do a good job in fishing out which characters are the very best. Ichirin still seems fine, but nowhere near what she seemed on PC. Futo certainly doesn’t feels as good in my hands. But Miko still seems very capable on PS4. Nitori still seems good, Koishi is still a lot of fun to use, but Sukuna seems nowhere near as fun as her awesome style on the PC, and Kasen didn’t feel all that either. As for the new character, Reisen, she was merely alright. She had some powerful stuff to take advantage of but always seemed more comfortable from range. That’d be fine in SWR and Soku where you can stand back and fire away – that’s why I relished Patchouli so much in those games. But in ULiL characters can just fly right next to you and you really can’t stay away for long. The rest I’ll reserve judgement on for now, although Mamizou seemed pretty good and I’d like to play some more with Kokoro and Mokou. Especially Mokou.

Arcade mode is as good as it ever was, and the tutorial is a useful thing to have, as you’d expect. And the new music is fine, too. The Invisible Full Moon remix isn’t the greatest ever, but it’s such a good song to remix that even this one comes out nicely. The Unknown X remix is the pick of the new songs, seeing as it’s more of a heavy reworking of the original, which was already very good.

Other than that, it’s the same good old ULiL action. It was already pretty great when it first came on the PC and now it had given Touhou a strong start off its natural habitat and onto a home console. It’s the latest version of any Touhou game to come out, and it continues its strong return to form. Of course, it shouldn’t be the latest Touhou release for too long. The next fighting game – perhaps the last of this type – has been announced, Antimony of Common Flowers. Whether that arrives on PS4 too remains to be seen. Either way, once it’s out, you can be sure I’ll be writing about it. The only question is when that will be.

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Touhou 15: Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom

Touhou was in a strange place in 2015. Its last three games had been pretty solid, but they weren’t as exciting as the series’ very best and they hadn’t done much to cover a sense that it might have been getting a little stale. Certainly, Touhou’s best years seemed to have passed. And it was being proven on a fanbase-wide scale as well, as fans took interest in more and more new up-and-coming franchises threatening to take Touhou’s spot as the creme de la creme.

It was possible that Touhou maybe just needed a new lease of life, and a revisit to the very elements that, deep down, made it so great in the first place. And so, ZUN went down his usual route for announcing a new game; after announcing it on his blog, and releasing a trial at Reitaisai 12, Touhou’s fifteenth main game – 20 years after ZUN finished his first – was released at Comiket 88. And that’s how Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom came to be.

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Gameplay had been a real case of hit or miss for Touhou’s most recent games, largely thanks to gimmicks. But LoLK’s were possibly among the biggest yet, or at least that’s how it seemed when the game was first announced. Chiefly, the discussion was dominated by the biggest shift in formula by far in any Touhou game: Pointdevice Mode.

What Pointdevice Mode was, was a mode that abolished lives and continues in favour of checkpoints you respawned from when you died. Additionally, it saved your progress if you quit and then re-selected the difficulty and characters from the menu. There are many ways to look at this huge shift in gameplay. On the one hand, being able to fail as much as you want means you should, in theory, get through it eventually and get to the end (with a guaranteed good ending, it should be noted). You get to learn each wave more and more this way, too. And there’s still bombs to keep you alive, obviously (of which, more later). But on the other hand, I just get the feeling that Touhou isn’t meant to be played in anything like this way. Not in a way that ZUN said was inspired by I Wanna Be The Guy, which kicked off the modern trend of games that let you take one hit and respawn from a checkpoint. While it’s nice to see ZUN evolving the game in line with modern alternatives, the games it’s inspired by are hardly the greatest in the world. Not by a long way. In fact, where I mostly only see them is in the hands of YouTubers screaming their dignity away in the name of views/money/etc. They’re not the type of person you want to see trying a Touhou game.

It’s not like the concept is bad. After all, Touhou was doing this in a way from MoF to UFO, by making continues infinite. But losing all your lives there put you back at the very start of the stage so they had enough incentive to make you not want to die. And the idea works well if the deaths respawn you right back where you were, so you can just give it another shot straight away. But checkpoint systems like what LoLK has are not the way to go with it. Getting stuck on hard ‘chapters’, as the game calls them, just turns them into repetitive annoyances. This is only a real issue on stages – each non-spell and spell is its own chapter on a mid-boss and boss. But, for a reason you’ll find out when I go into the game itself, this is a big issue with LoLK. So frankly, Pointdevice Mode is a sound idea, but done wrongly. So I won’t be concerning myself with it too much in this write-up. All it does, for me, is serve as part of a plot point.

Luckily, Pointdevice Mode isn’t the only way to play Touhou. ZUN was never going to ditch the good old way of playing Touhou so readily, and so, in Legacy Mode, as the game calls it, you can play Touhou in the way we all know and love. So with that nugget of relief behind us, let’s get to the actual in-game changes to LoLK.

Touhou games are often defined by one big mechanic, and LoLK is no exception. This time, the game’s big theme is grazing, which goes from a useful mechanic to a game-defining one. The most initial benefit of grazing is how it slows the fall of all point items, an effect that makes itself very noticeable on a visual level. Continuous grazing of a bullet will give you 5 extra points at a time once you do it for long enough, and finally, your graze gets counted up at the end of each chapter (the concept is still present here, but is only used in the name of tallying up your score and resources). If you earn enough graze points and shoot enough enemies down in a chapter, you get a life piece at the end of it (or a bomb piece in Pointdevice).

By the way, you only need three life pieces to get an extra one in this game (five in the Extra stage). With how many chapters there are per stage, this means you have plenty of chances to bag some in a stage. If you’re a really good player, getting lives is, if anything, far too easy. But if you’re not, like me, the grazing theme still has its positives. Mostly, it encourages you to be brave and get right next to the bullets, a habit that serves you well in most Touhou games. Of course, if you’re like me, you’ll probably just end up getting too close too often and just end up with a bullet hitting you square in the face instead, but it’s the price you have to pay if you’re aiming for the best. Incidentally, in the trial, you initially got bomb fragments in Legacy Mode as well, and you needed five of them to get another one, which made resource-getting closer to DDC than the final game. In an update of said trial, it was changed to life pieces, but you still needed five. By the time the game was out though, you only needed three. I’ll let you make up your own mind on what could have been with that simple, but critical, change.

For the most part though, playing the game was about as close to an ordinary, bog-standard Touhou game as there had been for many years. All you had to do was a little more of something that was already a pretty good thing to do anyway. So much for the “very different” gameplay ZUN touted at first – instead, he created the most back-to-basics Touhou game for a long time. Which was a very nice, and welcome, change from the last few games. DDC required an unusual approach to take advantage of its resource system. UFO had you chasing its mechanic down in all sorts of inadvisable ways. And TD forced you go in all sorts of ridiculous places. But, in spite of all the complexities around it, when you’re just pressing buttons and playing, all you have to do in LoLK is dodge the bullets and shoot up the enemies. And that can only be a good thing for LoLK. Because, deep down, that’s how a Touhou game ought to be.

But from the very start of LoLK’s life, from when it was first announced, the best thing about it was the characters. ZUN had gone back to four characters, with just one shot for them, combining all the favourite elements of their characters. He had a chance to make good shots like these in TD, but came up short. In LoLK, he absolutely nailed it. Reimu and Marisa are here as always, the former coming at us again with her amulets and needles, the latter with her lasers and missiles. And, of course, their signature bombs, the Fantasy Seal and Master Spark. Sanae made her return after missing out the last game, and after her disappointing shot in TD, she was back on form with a remix of her best from UFO. The devastating bomb-frogs were her normal shot, the homing snakes her focus shot and, for her bomb, the simply superb Wily Toad nuke made its glorious comeback. But the fourth character was in uncharted territory, by her standards. We’d played as her in shmups before, but not fully-fledged ones like this. Sure enough, a plot filled with Lunarians was enough to see Reisen Udongein Inaba make her debut as a playable character. Many of her fans, me included, rejoiced at her inclusion. The Stage 5 effect lived on, and the result was as good a roster of characters as Touhou has ever seen.

With these elements, LoLK already looked like it was to be the best Touhou game in a long time, a long-awaited return to its best form. Some of the most vital pieces were already well in place, and it gave LoLK the chance to be something truly great. All it had to do was use those pieces, and more, as well as possible.

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This is the most flat-out epic start screen music in a while. It’s not the absolute best, but it sure as hell gets you pumped up.

Obviously, I had to give this a try with all four characters. And it’s worth noting that the shot types are as widely unbalanced as they’ve ever been in Touhou, but not in a bad way. Reimu is about as ordinary as it gets in this game, but her small hitbox happens to be a very useful feature in this game, so she’s fine. By contrast, Marisa is really left wanting. Her shot hinders her horribly on stages and her hitbox really isn’t what you want most of the time.

But Sanae and Reisen are utterly incredible. Sanae has all the elements that made her B-type shot such a wonder in UFO, with a superb homing focus shot to boot this time. But there’s more to it than that. Thanks to the resource mechanics, her play style becomes even more beneficial. The focus shot can take care of the enemies, whilst her bomb makes grazing a formality. Simply go where the bullets are whilst you’re invincible and you’ll get all the graze you need to rack up life pieces. Played right, this can put the entire game into your hands. As for Reisen, her shot is quite literally a scattergun, but whilst it tries to act like a wide shot, it isn’t one really since at full power it’s just four options covering a certain spread. And when focused it’s just an unremarkable straight shot, which is nothing special. Where she earns her kudos is with her bomb. What it does, is put up three barriers which let you wall three bullets without dying. The benefits of this are obvious, although you’d think it would benefit her most in Pointdevice, where one hit does you in. But there aren’t enough resources to get there to make it worthwhile. Instead, Legacy Mode is where she benefits from it, as she can simply get her bombs back by dying. And, of course, with all the lives you can get in LoLK, you can make Reisen nigh unbeatable.

Of course, none of these elements would count for much if they were put into bang average stages. Luckily, in this regard, LoLK doesn’t disappoint. Not by a long way.

You’ll know that with TD and DDC, ZUN had edged back towards calmer Stage 1s after the action-filled bunch from the second trilogy. LoLK goes in completely the opposite direction again. It’s filled with fun and excitement from the get-go, and plenty of bullets come at you from the start, the enemies are toughened up and face Seiran twice as a mid-boss. She’s not too hard a boss though, once you get her down. She’s basically giving you a free life with her non-spells and last spell. How nice of her.

Then there’s Stage 2, which is as epic a Stage 2 Touhou has had for a while. It’s up there with IN, MoF and DDC amongst the best Stage 2s, whilst Ringo is a boss who can really catch you out at first. She’s got her fair-share of micro-dodging spell cards all over her fight, so she’s not too bad. Then you get to Stage 3, which for the most part is utterly mad. Filled to the brim with bullets, it’s the first real taste of the rest of the game to come. And the boss, Doremy, is just plain crazy. Her spell cards are of a like unlike any other in Touhou, and they’re hard. Boy, they’re hard.

Stage 4 is a slightly calmer affair, but it certainly has its moments. And Sagume can cause plenty of worry. Most of the stage is spent hoping you aren’t going to get hit in the face by a laser. But take the ‘downtime’ while you can, because then comes Stage 5. And it’s just utterly insane on every level. So many bullets fly at you at such stupendous speeds, you do sometimes wonder if you could possibly dodge them. And yet the stage is nothing compared to its boss, Clownpiece. She’s one of the most astonishing fights in all Touhou history, make no mistake. Never has a Touhou boss brought me so utterly to my knees in amazement at the sheer firepower they have. There’s supposed to be a way to dodge all her stuff…but having faced her, I don’t know what any of it is. I’m not even mad, her stuff is just amazing.

But at least she doesn’t get quite blatantly and ridiculously cheap. At least, you can’t tell with everything she fires at you. The final stage is a nasty bastard. By Stage 6 standards the stage is a long one, but not necessarily hard. It’s just an amuse-bouche before the finale, this time with Junko. Her spell cards are designed purely to kill you. They don’t look all that good for the most part, but what they do look is impossible to dodge. And so it proves to be, most of the time. Some of her stuff will at least give you a few more pixels to work with, but most of the time? Nah. And her last spell is remarkable. It seems easy enough to start, and gets nice and hard as she throws in more bullets, but then suddenly she throws in her super-fast bullets in her last phase and you wonder why on earth she had to take it quite this far. Of course, there’s a reason she does all of this (the plot)…but is it art? Not really, no. Still, it’s a very strange sensation going through her fight. It’s not the most spectacular fight, but it still feels suitably epic.

And completing the general bizarreness of this game is the Extra Stage, which is again unlike any other before. The stage itself isn’t really all that, its challenge not matching the rest of the game, but the boss fight is where things really get different. Hecatia is meant to be the boss, but she is joined by Junko who steps in for a couple of non-spells and spells. It has plenty of difficult attacks within, and whilst it isn’t the very best Extra stage in Touhou, it’s pretty good. The main game has better stages, though.

But it doesn’t really matter. Because at its very best, LoLK succeeds in the one area it matters most. With TD and DDC, ZUN had failed to recapture the feeling of playing through Touhou that made MoF, SA and UFO such great games to play through. With LoLK, he finally found it again. And in an incredible way. The main game is an absolute rollercoaster of action, the enemies come at you with full force, and you’re playing Touhou with its most iconic elements at hand. Reimu, Marisa and Sanae may not be equal as shot types, but playing as them feels so…right in this game. Or you’re playing as Reisen in a new and faintly ridiculous way, which is great too. I mean, it’s Reisen! Most of all though, the atmosphere of the whole game is wonderful. It feels epic right from the start. The middle sets you up very nicely for the onslaught to come. And the last two stages are the definition of what makes Touhou so lovably crazy. In short, LoLK has everything that makes Touhou what it is. Just playing it is an experience to relish. It’s absolutely magnificent. Brilliant. Maybe as good as Touhou has ever been…

And it helps too that ZUN went out of his way to put back in some truly, truly difficult enemies. If you take everything, the difficulty is odd to judge. If you play as Sanae or Reisen, the difficulty almost disappears if you play well enough. But if you just look at what you have to face, it’s the most difficult a Touhou game has ever been. Right from the first stage, you’ve got a lot of bullets facing you, and some strong enemies to boot. And from there on it just snowballs until you’re facing stuff that is nothing short of ludicrous. Yes, sometimes, it goes too far. But Touhou’s biggest signature, on a gaming level, to a general audience, is its difficulty. Why not demonstrate that in the biggest possible way? That’s why LoLK’s brutality does it far more good than bad. SA was the sole biggest representative of Touhou’s famed difficulty. It remains a great example, but LoLK stands as an even better one now.

But perhaps the most notable contribution to LoLK’s general brilliance is its characters. Primarily, the maddening appeal they have, especially compared to Touhou’s most recent efforts, prior to this new magnificent seven. DDC’s characters weren’t particularly bad, but by Touhou’s standards they were incredibly plain. This lot…really aren’t. I mean, just look at Clownpiece. She’s wearing the American flag. When everyone found out about her, the Western fanbase lost their shit over her completely. I mean, that’s what a Touhou character should be like. Not a plain Jane like the lot that had been thrown up recently. The significance of her appearance and personality is also not lost in today’s world, especially since ZUN seems only too happy to bring ‘the Outside World’ further into Touhou’s canon. Elsewhere, there’s Junko, who comes not only with a wild Chinese outfit, but also a backstory deeper than any Touhou character seen for a long time. There’s Hecatia, who is an implausibly three-formed goddess with clothes straight from Hot Topic, and even Doremy looks pretty funky.

In amidst all the wild new characters, the most popular character from the game actually turned out to be its most ordinary, comparatively speaking. Sagume Kishin’s design is simple but very, very sweet. She’s great and her one-wingedness brings to mind lots of silly stuff to do with other supposedly one-winged beings. Even her last spell’s called ‘One-Winged White Heron’. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it… Mind you, FF7 isn’t the Final Fantasy I’d compare this to. But I’ll save that for the end.

And finally, rounding out a great game, is some great music. It took me quite a while to warm to it, if I’m honest. But that’s probably just me having to get used to it. Once you listen closely enough there are some fantastic songs here. The first two stages have some particularly excellent themes. Both of Stage 1’s songs are full of joy, and both sound terrific when you’re playing the game with them on. The Lake Reflects the Cleansed Moonlight is arguably the best Stage 2 theme in Touhou, with its epic tones. That’s one of the best the game has to offer. Stage 3’s songs aren’t the strongest, but Stage 4 gets a good pair. The last two stages get some of the best, though. The Stage 6 song is awesome, whilst Pure Furies is a strong final boss theme.

But it’s Stage 5 that gets the best of the bunch. Faraway 380,000-Kilometer Voyage is already epic enough by itself, but like the stage itself, the boss music overshadows it by being completely brilliant; The Pierrot of the Star-Spangled Banner is the best theme any boss has had for years. Not only does it capture the mood of the battle, and Clownpiece herself, perfectly, it even brings to mind somewhat the days of PC-98 music with its composition. In particular, I think it’s the closest song yet to another Stage 5 masterpiece, Doll of Misery, the best song of the era. But actually, if you listen closely, a number of the songs take themes from the past and apply it to LoLK. The Rabbit Has Landed is filled with old-school ZUNpets, Pumpkin of September uses several familiar instruments, and The Frozen Eternal Capital mixes a whole range of old and new instruments in. But there’s a lot of new styles in there too, reserved for significant songs like Pure Furies. The one slight letdown is the Extra Stage’s songs, which are relatively unremarkable, but the good songs throughout the soundtrack are so outstanding that they cover up any real weaknesses.

So, the result of all these brilliant elements is a brilliant game. Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom is the best Touhou game since UFO. And yet it’s so much more than that. There’s no denying it: Touhou needed a game like this. The series’ best form had passed it by and it had showed with its last two main games. Time had seen Touhou’s popularity start to slip, not helped by the rotten spell its games had between 2011 and mid-2013. Touhou had seemed nigh-untouchable for years, but new pretenders to its throne were coming along and actually knocking it off its perch.* Touhou needed something big to stop its decline. And it got something big. It got LoLK. And it’s one of the best things to happen in the series. Which puts it on a par with the best games in the series.

Mind you, it’s not the very best game in the series. That’s still SA, because that was the crown jewel of Touhou’s peak. LoLK is nowhere near as perfect as SA, not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, while everyone mostly found it great at first, there are actually plenty of black marks that hurt it, in some people’s eyes. The immense difficulty is clearly fake in places, especially Junko, who takes her fair share of cheap shots. The characters are perhaps an acquired taste to some now, great as they were when they were all new and fresh. And there’s even a couple of bugs within, which has caused some to question whether ZUN properly tested the game ahead of time, coupled with the considerable difficulty.

But all of those flaws are put behind you, by how wonderful it is to just sit down and experience LoLK for yourself. Before LoLK came about, I thought ZUN wouldn’t make a Touhou game as good as his best again. I thought he was past it, too occupied with other things to really concentrate on making the games great again. LoLK proved me so, so very wrong, and I love him for it. Everything just feels right about it, deep down. Even if it isn’t all fine behind the scenes. But look. Final Fantasy 8 had a lot of bizarre stuff in it, and it too was flawed in several ways. And yet not only did many people still love it, it’s my personal favourite in the series. It’s one of my very favourite games ever. LoLK is kinda like that. Yeah, it’s got its problems, but when was anything ever perfect? It’s the heart and soul that counts. And that’s why I love this game. In fact, this game reminded me of why I love Touhou. And for that, I give ZUN, LoLK and all of Touhou my ever-loving praise. Long may it continue…

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*I’m not naming names. Only one that begins with K and ends with antai Collection.

Touhou 14½: Urban Legend in Limbo

ZUN released a teaser to his next Touhou game in November 2014, at Digital Game Expo. A month later, he confirmed its identity, and it was, yes, you guessed it, yet another side game. This was the second incarnation of the current fighting game era and a chance to redeem itself after the shitshow that was Hopeless Masquerade. After a trial version was released at Comiket 87, the full game was released at the traditional time for a fighting game – Reitaisai 12. There, Urban Legend of Limbo was released.

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The concept was the same as HM, but ULiL sought to fix the jerkiness of its predecessor’s fighting, first of all. That was already a strong enough start, but with a new game came all new mechanics and this lot seemed better than what HM had. Chiefly, getting rid of popularity was one great big plus that no longer had to worry us again.

Not only were the new mechanics much less definitive, they were clearly a lot simpler to understand. The biggest factor was the Occult Orbs, central to the gameplay and plot. They appeared gradually over the course of a battle and you had to outdo your opponent in hitting them to acquire them – the one with the most hits on it in 10 seconds gets it (if it gets hit equally by both fighters, neither gets it). Getting an Occult Orb allowed you to use your Urban Legend, and collecting four of them gave you the chance to unleash your Last Word. The Occult Orbs also caused on-field effects when they appeared, in a manner identical to the weather of SWR and Soku.

Other than that though, it’s all just about the fighting for the most part. There’s a spell bar which fills up and lets you use your spell card, and a change-up in health which shows you how much you heal yourself when applicable. The big mechanic is crucial, but not utterly dominant over the fighting itself. And that’s good. This seemed a sign that Touhou was now out of its gimmicky phase of the past few years, which could only be a good thing at the end of the day.

Each of the characters from HM were back, naturally, and fortunately there were plenty of good additions this time to bring the roster up to a respectable level. New to this game were Kasen, out of the manga Wild and Horned Hermit, with Sukuna representing the newest of the new and a shocking return for IN’s Extra Stage boss, Fujiwara no Mokou. Many were pleased to see her return, but the new character for this game also raised plenty of interest; Sumireko Usami, sharing a surname with music CD protagonist Renko Usami. Her arrival brought the Sealing Club to the main games for the first time, and one wonders if the exact relation with Renko will be revealed… Either way, she was one very interesting new character.

But it had more than just the mechanics to fix from HM – there were plenty of other flaws that game had which ULiL simply had to better. So, had it worked?

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Weirdly, there’s not much of an intro to speak of this time. But at least the menu music is positively spooky this time. Certainly it’s rather atmospheric, though the character selection music is infinitely more epic.

I noted with HM that the number of patches it got through was pretty ridiculous, and all thanks to all sorts of stupid reasons. ULiL actually nearly got to a similar version as HM – the current version is 1.32. This time though, it wasn’t down to it being unfinished. Mostly, these were all just little updates throughout. The bigger updates merely made small, but important, changes to some of the gameplay, graphics and balance, although the netplay was cut off for everyone not in Japan after v1.30. Which is a shame. (The netplay was updated to a lobby system, and apparently it went a bit wrong.) These updates actually carried on for quite some time, thanks to factors I’ll explain at the end. Actually, the game is still being worked on even today. Hence why a beta for v1.40 is out right now. Pretty mad given that this game’s sequel has already been announced anyway.

But enough about the game’s history. The here and now is what I’m looking at, and in that regard…it’s pretty damn good.

It’s still not perfect. The flying feels slightly more natural, but sometimes it still doesn’t feel quite free enough. And I suspect the AI might be a little softer than games past. Either that or I’m just really good with most of the cast. But I can’t imagine that being the case, to be honest. But ULiL has some factors that maybe contribute to that. It’s not a very defence heavy game, and the controls are far more user-friendly than what HM had. That’s where the game’s many positives begin, and there’s much more besides.

The clock is no longer a factor, as it stops when an occult ball is about to appear and when it’s on screen. So whereas all the battles tended to go the distance in HM, forcing the popularity to come into play, each battle in ULiL gets decided simply on who beats up who the most. Which is how it’s meant to be. And the occult balls aren’t too intrusive a mechanic either. You can get away without picking one up, but it helps if you do. Urban Legends are just extra attacks for you, although a Last Word is obviously big if you get it. The effects are mostly fine, although the Yomotsu Hirasaka effect can be almost too game-shifting if you make the most of it.

Most important of all though, the action is properly good stuff. As I said earlier, defence takes a back seat in this game and so it’s all about giving the opponent absolute hellfire. In this regard ULiL is perhaps the easiest of the fighters to pick up, especially since spell cards are at their most prominent here as well. While it doesn’t feel quite as slick as Soku does, this is a good starter for the fighting games if you haven’t played one before. The controls cater very well to the style of play that works in this game, much unlike HM. Against the AI, it’s also the easiest fighter of them all.

Unfortunately, that last factor also makes it hard to judge just who the best character in the game is. In my hands, they all seemed terrific. I was winning with all of them. Apart from Byakuren, for some reason. And Sumireko, who didn’t seem all that good either. It’s a shame about Byakuren because her Urban Legends are among the game’s most legendary.

577She’s on a bike and it’s all good. It’s also fanservice up the wazoo but HM started that off so that ship had already long sailed. Most of all, Ichirin seemed the most capable of absolutely murdering an opponent, but it’s hard to say because my main test of her was against…Byakuren. So she could be hopeless, for all I know. And Mokou’s Resurrection factor seems perhaps a little broken, even though it’s balanced out somewhat nicely. Either way, all the fighters have all their goodness and fun attacks to hand so there’s something for everyone here.

The action rivals the very best that any Touhou fighting game has ever offered, on a par with what Soku can manage, but while ULiL is a lot of fun to play, it’s just let down by the ever so slightly imperfect movement. Make no mistake, though, it’s vastly better than what HM could muster up. Fittingly, given their relative positions in the fighting game hierarchy, ULiL makes HM redundant in the same way SWR made IaMP irrelevant. Except whilst IaMP was still a decent game, HM was nothing of the sort. You have no reason to touch it with ULiL around.

Even the little things HM got wrong were done rather better this time around. Regarding the art, Alphes paid the price for the utterly bizarre eyelashes present in HM’s art, and Moe Harukawa, she of Forbidden Scrollery fame, was put in charge instead. Her stuff is pretty cute. Certainly, the expressions she draws are very lovely indeed. Mind you, this writer would like to see another Touhou manga artist have a crack at some portraits for the characters… But with Moe’s stuff, a lot of the art you see in stuff like the cutscenes is really nice. By the way, about the cutscenes, it helps that the dialogue seems to be very good again. That makes it all a little sweeter. Meanwhile, the in-game models are taken from HM for the characters originally in the game, which is mostly fine. I still have my qualms with some of it, but most of it is fine really. And there’s nothing wrong with the new ones.

There was always going to be one strange decision in one quarter though, and this time it came in the form of the music. ZUN and U2 Akiyama did something unusual for ULiL. What they actually did, was get several doujin artists to make remixes of a large majority of the fighting songs in the game. The only arrange U2 provided was the Little Princess remix, and they provided all the out-of-battle music too, whilst ZUN kept his tradition of making the new original songs, in this case themes for Kasen and Sumireko. The fan-made remixes are an interesting one to judge. On the one hand, it can be seen as ZUN finally embracing the biggest legacy Touhou has left in any way, shape or form. On the other, you have to wonder why U2 couldn’t be arsed to make more remixes for songs this time around. Even though SWR had much the same themes as IaMP, they felt it right to remix those songs again. So why not HM’s for ULiL? Mind you, it might not have mattered if most of the arranges were really good, but by and large they are just plain average. Emotional Skyscraper ~ Cosmic Mind and Hartmann’s Youkai Girl get the best remixes, but they have the advantage of being really good songs to start with.

Oh yeah, and that thing about having to use low specs because of my laptop still applied here for ULiL. But it makes a far smaller difference than before. The backgrounds are less notable this time, so I’m fine with them standing still and not looking that good. Mind you, there is one thing that would make all that redundant…and that’s because of what ULiL has become beyond a simple Touhou fighter.

Strangely, rumours of ULiL coming to the PS4 appeared to be realistic. What? Touhou, on something other than a PC?! What is this?! In February 2016, ZUN confirmed that it was indeed being worked on. Some time after the original release, yes. But, on a series-wide scale, any date was good for a flashpoint of this magnitude. It took a long while for it to be released, but eventually, in December 2016, it arrived, in Japan only. And it wasn’t just the bog standard PC version…it just so happened to have a new character come with it too. For the PS4 only, Reisen Udongein Inaba became playable. This was all very significant for a reason I haven’t yet written about yet, but her appearance also prompted the arrival of an ‘Extra Mode’ to be her own story, a new stage in Eientei, some new music, new modes and the arrival of 1080p resolution, the first Touhou game to support it.

Coincidentally, I just happened to get a PS4 a little while ago. I think I’ll give it a fresh ULiL disc to play with. And maybe I’ll write about it a little here, too. As I mentioned, there has also been a v1.40 beta released very recently for the PC, which I’ll touch on along with the PS4 version too. It’s less than a month old as of this writing.

As for ULiL itself, it’s safe to say it was a resounding success. It brought back the fun to fighting games that HM had taken away and continued Touhou’s track back to glory, the sort that resulted in fighters as good as SWR and Soku. This isn’t as good as those two, but it’s still a strong game. It’s just a shame that it, too, is soon to be made redundant by a new fighter, coming to us soon…maybe, though, ULiL will still be worth playing even after that’s out.

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Touhou 14¼: Impossible Spell Card

Having taken something of a scattergun approach to release dates of late, ZUN had resumed a more normal schedule now, as he announced a game for the next realistic time after DDC’s release – at Reitaisai 11, in May 2014. It was yet another side game, but Reitaisai is traditionally a time for side games anyway so it’s not like anyone was complaining.

This side game was another unique spin on Touhou as we know it, and this was perhaps its maddest twist yet – and it came in the form of a name that summed it all up; Impossible Spell Card.

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The character was an unexpected one, especially given how recently she’d come about. Seija Kijin put herself forward as a playable Stage 5 character in a way no other had before, and her power provided the perfect ploy for the game, which is to find a way to dodge impossible spell cards. (PS. They aren’t actually impossible, but you try and tell the average player that…)

To dodge these supposedly impossible spell cards, Seija uses nine different “cheat” items to get away from all those nasty evil bullets trying very hard to kill her. You unlock each as the game goes on, and you equip one as a main item and one as a sub item. The main item is the actual ability you can use to dodge the bullets, whilst the sub item gives an added effect to the ability.

Among the items Seija gets to use are a yin-yang orb which puts her in front of the enemy (or makes her hitbox smaller), a camera like Aya and Hatate’s (which can also increase her speed), an umbrella giving the same ability as ReimuA in SA to move to the other side of the screen, a Miracle Mallet to damage the boss (or increase the times you can use an item, or its proficiency), a substitute Jizo to let her take one hit, a decoy doll to lead bullets away (or widen your shot), a bomb that removes bullets around its explosion, a lantern to make herself briefly invincible, and some fabric to hide in for a short time.

The great thing about all this though, is that unlike most of the spinoffs of normal Touhou before this, you can actually shoot normally. In fact, you have to shoot the boss down anyway, before you time them out. If you run out of time, they laugh in your face and piss off, meaning you lose. So in spite of all these variables, it’s actually closer to normal Touhou than any spinoff before it. So the result, all told, should be pretty impressive.

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This start theme is actually really damn good. Sounds so much cooler and more action-packed than most. ZUN actually meant that, citing how often you spend in the menu as the reason. Good job he did, because this is great stuff. Even the menus themselves are all funky with the arrows in the background, even the silly ones falling in the back.

And the good news is the game is as fun as it should be. All the items have their use once you get them down, and are all fun to use in their own cool little way. The Yin-Yang Orb is sweet once you get it down, the camera is always there for guys who liked StB and DS – except you don’t have to hit the enemy this time – the umbrella is a lot of fun, the bomb is cool, the fabric is limited but solid if you know just how to use it. My personal favourite is the decoy doll, which can really screw some character’s spell cards over. The doll’s wide shot is also perhaps the best sub-item effect. The substitute is obviously cool for scrubs like me, even if it can leave you feeling very helpless as you have to concentrate on dodging with it. The lantern is possibly the best of the bunch, though, with its long invincibility time and giving you a free chance to shotgun the boss. Just make sure you know where you are once it’s gone, though. The Mallet, though, I can’t see much use for that at all. If you use it and it hits the boss it causes considerable damage, but you never seem to be in front of the boss long enough to make it useful, especially given its long delay. And it’s not like it helps you dodge stuff, either. The sub-item is nice, though.

But the spell cards themselves are all sorts of wonderful. Obviously ZUN was free to go mad with what he had here, and he sure made the most of it. Some are cool to look at, some are great concepts, some are just plain ridiculous, some are actually quite funny, but mostly they’re all vaguely terrifying in some way or another. Just as long as the spellcards were almost impossible, but not quite, you feel he put it in no matter what. The key thing there though, is ‘not quite’. Many players have tried their hand at using no items on every spell card in the game, and they’ve met with success. There’s a trophy for it, and everything. This is the cool thing about ISC. StB and DS were based around super-hard spell cards, but the unusual required method of attack tended to dominate more than anything else. Here, if you forgo using items, it’s just you dodging what gets thrown at you. And that’s great. (Just so long as you can beat the boss in time!)

And unlike StB or DS before it, beating each stage feels like it matters because the story is much more involving here. Seija’s speeches help to convey that along with encounters with her former allies, Raiko and Sukuna, as well as the strength of the characters you actually face. And by the end, ZUN isn’t pulling punches with who you face. The last day has you facing Byakuren, Miko, Tenshi, Remilia and Yukari. Before them, the cast is a litter of stars from Touhou’s past, and it’s all very excellent in that regard.

Even the music here sounds better than it should do for a simple side game. Quite apart from the nice start screen, Cheat Against the Impossible Danmaku from the first stages is a terrific song, and the final stages song, Eternal Short-Lived Reign, sounds good as well. Of course, Reverse Ideology reappears in all its greatness, and even The Youkai Mountain ~ Mysterious Mountain reappears once again.

I think Impossible Spell Card is comfortably the strongest shmup-based side game in the series to date, because it feels closer to Touhou at heart than the ones before it, and also because it happens to be a fantastic twist on the formula without reinventing a bit chunk of the formula entirely. Make no mistake, this is one cool game to play through. If you want a test of your Touhou skills, this is the one to go for. Maybe even a no-item playthrough, if you so choose…

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Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character

With two pretty terrible games being the last additions to the Touhou series, you could be forgiven for thinking the series was past its prime in 2013. Certainly, this seemed to be the case in terms of the fanbase. Whilst the old fans were still very much there, it didn’t seem to be getting as many new ones as it had in the glory days of Touhous 10-12. Mind you, when Hopeless Masquerade came out it probably didn’t seem that way. And that’s because ZUN had actually announced the 14th main game in the series, two weeks prior. A three-stage trial had been released at the same Reitaisai where he released HM, and less than three months later, at Comiket 84, the newest Touhou game was out and ready. This was Double Dealing Character.

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Right from the outset, things looked good for DDC. That’s because ZUN had learnt from the gimmickry filled disaster of TD and gone for far more simplicity, to the level of something like EoSD and SA. Really, this was just the same old Touhou as we knew it now. Just firing bullets and hitting stuff. And that’s good. Nothing wrong with that at all. 3 life pieces made an extra life, 8 bomb pieces an extra bomb, and unlike TD this never changed over the course of the game. And it was an actual piece now like everything else, not a bloody spirit as it was made into in TD.

Of course, there had to be at least one notable mechanic, but again this one was just plain simple. When you auto-collected by going into the PoC, using a bomb, or reaching/defeating a boss, you got bonus points and resource pieces based on how many point and power items you auto-collected. Getting at least 20 got you a bomb piece (but every fifth bomb piece was replaced by a life piece), and getting at least 60 got you a life piece.

Among other little things, the native resolution was doubled, from 640×480 up to 1280×960, as Touhou’s in-game visuals improved ever more.

Meanwhile, on the character front, the choice was more plot driven than it ever had been before. Mostly, this applied to the shot types more than anything, but it also allowed for the unlikely reintroduction of a long neglected character in the shmups; tagging along with Reimu and Marisa, Sakuya Izayoi was back! The last time she was around in a proper shmup was IN, which was a whole 9 years ago. Naturally, her many fans rejoiced at the news. She was a welcome re-addition to the series. Additionally, with only three characters playable, they all had two shot types once again, having been limited to just the one in TD.

So all this was looking very good for not just this game, but Touhou as a whole. It’d had a rough ride of late, but DDC seemed like the kind of game that would get it on the right track. So, would it?

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This start screen theme is rather calmer than most of its past variants. It’s also a little boring to be honest, even if it does pick up later. It’s a good tone-setter for the game, mind you.

I had a go with all six shot types on this occasion, partly because most of them are really very interesting in some way. Thing is, whilst the unfocused shots of each of them are the same for all the characters – Reimu has her amulets, Marisa her lasers and Sakuya her great, great wide shot – the focused shots and bombs are where things really get interesting. The B type shots have more conventional focused shots – Reimu has her needles and Marisa the Magic Missile, whilst Sakuya has a simple straight shot which just so happens to steal green score items. But the A types all have some damn cool features. ReimuA’s focus is a homing, spinning wheel of death. MarisaA gets something along the lines of the frost-throwers she had in MoF, but this one throws fire, travels with her, is all by itself and, naturally, reaches a lot farther. SakuyaA’s focus shot is particularly brilliant. She fires silver blades which home in on an enemy, slow them down and then explode.

But it’s the bombs where things really get unique. The only one out of the ordinary in this game is ReimuB’s, which is the classic Fantasy Seal. Mind you, MarisaA’s is basically the Master Spark, except in this game it’s all dark, which makes it even cooler. But the rest are really worth noting. ReimuA’s bomb is a swinging rod which murders everything at close range. MarisaB’s bomb is a magic circle which generates power items for every 5 bullets it touches. If it absorbs 300 of them, it gives you a life piece. If that sounds implausible, bear in mind how long it stays on the screen. You can stay inside it for a long time and stay protected, and makes a mockery of dense bullet patterns. The only exception to the bullet rule is during enemy spell cards. The spell itself looks like a compact version of one of MoF’s bombs. It’s slightly difficult to use it well, but if you can get the most out of it, you can basically get resources like no tomorrow.

Sakuya’s bombs are especially noteworthy, and not just because they both do no damage at all. SakuyaA makes a barrier around you, like in PCB, whilst also clearing bullets around you. If you get hit with it up, every bullet on screen vanishes (by the way, auto-collection is triggered both when you make the barrier and when it get hit). If you keep the barrier up for 10 seconds, it gives you three bomb pieces back to pick up yourself. This is a brilliant bomb, and simple to use as well, and when combined with her shots SakuyaA can be a masterful character for survival. Not surprisingly, she’s my favourite to use in this game. SakuyaB’s is a weird one, which freezes every bullet in place, then turns it into a point item. You can still graze the bullets whilst they’re on screen, which counts for your score even more. It’s a bit like the Perfect Square bomb in PCB, I guess. And in case you couldn’t tell, SakuyaB is designed solely to be a scoring machine.

Anyway, the stages themselves. Stage 1 is about as calm as one has been for a while, continuing the sea change towards simpler Stage 1s after the action-packed ones of Touhous 10-12. This one’s fine though, albeit nothing too special. Stage 2, though, turns up the ante considerably. The music feels more befitting of Stage 4 than Stage 2, and the action is turned up noticeably as a result. Sekibanki has some tricks with her head as well which make her a fair old nuisance, too.

Stage 3 is in the classic location of the Bamboo Forest, and the stage itself is suitably epic. Filled with action and with rocking music, it’s a strong point for the game. But the boss rather isn’t. For some reason, Kagerou’s non-spells are really non-threatening, but some of her spells are just plain annoying and she can be a troll as well. She does weird wolf things which also happen to be too dense for comfort sometimes, and her last spell can have her just run right into you. Which is cheap. Also, the wolf noise is just annoying. So she’s getting no love from me.

Stage 4 gets it back in the best way possible, though, as it’s a top-class stage. It’s built-up all very well, the bullet patterns are great but never unreasonable, and the atmosphere is the best in the game. The boss again lets it down just a little, though – or at least, the one I played against twice was. Thing is, the boss changes depending on what shot type you have. A-types face Benben, whilst B-types face Yatsuhashi. Alas, both my main playthroughs were with ReimuA and SakuyaA (although I really should’ve reached the boss with MarisaB if I even remotely knew how to use her properly), so I haven’t taken in one of the boss fights for this. Oops. Yatsuhashi would probably be a damn sight better than Benben, mind. Partly because she’s much cuter. And partly because Benben has some annoyingly trolly lasers that will come out of nowhere to kill you towards the end of her fight.

The rest of the game is mostly fine, though. Stage 5 has a pretty good atmosphere, and is a really nice stage, plus Seija is a strong mid-boss in it too. Then you get to actually fight Seija herself and face a return against a long, long forgotten Stage 5 boss staple – a gimmick. In this case, you see your screen flipped over, and your controls with it. Horizontally, vertically, sometimes both, and sometimes flipping constantly in the middle of spellcards. It’s a real challenge to navigate and makes for a fun fight. And Stage 6 is a decent finisher too, the short stage being a strong one as well and Sukuna having both some unique spellcards and her own gimmicks as well, chiefly making her bullets bigger and you bigger as well. So the main game is pretty nice on the whole. And then there’s the Extra stage to finish up, which is a pretty good stage to go through as well, an atmospheric one as well, and then finishing up with a fight with Raiko, a very good boss to face off with some wonderful spellcards, particularly her time-out spell.

Thing is, though, whilst all the stages are very good fun to play through, most of them don’t feel quite as special as some of the past Touhou games. Sure, it has its moments, with Stages 2 to 4 being particularly strong, but none of the bosses stand out from that lot. Stages 5 to 6 are pretty good all around, but not in the top rung of stages at that level. I just think it’s something to do with what you’re facing. It all feels a lot less threatening. And that’s probably cause it is. The difficulty has been upped from TD but it’s still far from the hardest game in Touhou. Mind you, that’s only with Normal, which I played. Lunatic difficulty is supposedly a madness, although obviously I didn’t dare go that far. Some of the dominant shot types might have something to do with that, except they’re not that broken. MarisaB can be really, really good, whilst SakuyaA and ReimuA are both great shots period, but ReimuB is mostly bang average and MarisaA is a poor shot, whilst SakuyaB is designed solely for scoring.

Mind you, the whole PoC thing is both a blessing and a curse for someone like me. I love heading up to the PoC as much as I dare, so a game that relies on that is plenty of fun to play for me. But when I just have to go for it at times it can also be my downfall sometimes. I’m not sure why, but DDC really likes spawning shit right next to me or right on top of me. It’s an awful way to blow so many resources and it’s the only real qualm I have with the gameplay. That’s just me, though. Overall, the game still isn’t as big a challenge. But it’s not just the difficulty factor in play here – I think the characters have something to do with it as well.

Some of the characters are rather good – I personally like Yatsuhashi and Raiko, and the latter, along with Seija and Sukuna, has retained a decent following. But there’s also some characters I really don’t like – Kagerou and Benben come to mind. On the whole, though, this lot just don’t feel all that special. Yes, they are working up against seven previous games’ worth of characters, so they’re up against it from the start – but that still hasn’t improved their fortunes. The big problem I have with them is, I don’t think they make particularly convincing antagonists in terms of this game’s plot. This lot are all fairly plain compared to some of what we’ve had in the past, and it says something that we haven’t heard much from them in the three-and-a-half years since they were introduced. Yes, one of them got their own side game, and another appeared in a different side game. But I think ZUN knows he could have done better with this lot. The dialogue isn’t helping matters either – it’s just all too simple, again too far a cry from past Touhou games, which were filled with it to really give each character some personality to behold. This lot don’t say much of anything at all.

The music is interesting to evaluate. For the most part, it’s pretty strong, and especially so from the start. But it has a couple of duds as well. Stage 1’s themes are both pretty strong, whilst Stage 2 has two excellent themes, and Stage 3’s theme is an absolute thriller. But Kagerou’s theme is the first big miss of the lot, so that’s a black mark. Luckily, its best showing comes immediately after, as Magical Storm is my personal favourite from the soundtrack, and not only does it match up very well with its stage, in a way no other Touhou song has really done, it even sounds epic by itself. Sadly, it too is rather let down by the Tsukumo Sisters’ theme, another unremarkable song. From there on out it rather balances out, as most of the songs from there are merely pretty good. Reverse Ideology is a standout though, and Raiko’s theme, Pristine Beat, is another top-drawer theme. Again, like the atmosphere of the game on the whole, the music has its immense high points and its brooding lows.

Which means DDC, on the whole, is a very odd game to judge. At the start, the stages are as good as any in all Touhou, but the bosses are unusually poor. Towards the end, the two are about as good as each other, but neither end up being that spectacular. So in the context of every other Touhou game, DDC is still pretty good, but left wanting at times. It’s not a bad game to play, but others do much the same thing better.

But look at it in the context of its release. Touhou needed a good game to get it back on track. This wasn’t its strongest showing, but it was good enough. Good enough to catch more outside attention, anyway. Indeed, the game would later get a digital download from Playism, initially made available in Japan in August 2014, before being brought to the west in May 2015, albeit not in an actually western language. However, whilst DDC might have done a good job in terms of keeping Touhou alive and well, had it been good enough to keep Touhou relevant amongst a plethora of other up-and-coming works from elsewhere…?

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Touhou 13½: Hopeless Masquerade

Ten Desires had anything but the desired effect on Touhou’s legacy, and a fast fix was needed to repair some of the ills it had provided. ZUN didn’t give us one. Instead, it was over a year before any announcement on another game came through. And, having seemingly found his penchant for side games between UFO and TD, the next game announced was…another side game. This time though, it was another fighter, which at least promised much. Twilight Frontier were back and its new game, Hopeless Masquerade, was announced in October 2012, to be released at Comiket 83 two months later.

One month prior to that, a trailer for it announced that the Comiket 83 release would be nothing more than a demo. Not a strong start. And it would be some time before it would be brought out in full. In fact, another trial was brought out in April 2013, before the game was finally released, one year and nine months after the last instalment, at Reitaisai 10.

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Touhou had taken some big risks for Ten Desires, and Twilight Frontier carried that on with HM by changing up its fighting platform: now, the battles were all aerial. While the attacking and spell, skill and item cards were much the same as before, they now relied noticeably more on combos of buttons, with variants of skills appearing depending on how you mapped them. Each skill, spell and item added points to the character’s faiths, which was any one of Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism. Getting one up to four points would give bonuses to the character’s bullets: Shinto gave more range, Taoism more speed and Buddhism close combat boosts.

But the biggest shake-up was the popularity system, and the timer on battles. Now, each battle was timed, 99 seconds per round, and if neither fighter was knocked out by the end, the more popular fighter won the round. The popularity meter at the corner of the screen changed depending on the attacks and spells you used, and by getting hit. Getting to 100% allowed the use of a character’s Last Word. Meanwhile, the stun meters from SWR and Soku remained here, and each character packed their own unique mechanic, represented by an icon next to their stun meter.

Speaking of the characters, there weren’t many to speak of, certainly not by modern Touhou standards. And the roster we were given just seemed to give prominence to how out-of-hand the religious plot of Gensokyo had got. Apart from Reimu and Marisa, nobody from before MoF is playable in this game, and even then it’s just Nitori. Even SA only gets Koishi as a representative, whilst UFO gets Ichirin and Byakuren and TD gets Futo, Miko and Mamizou. Hata no Kokoro was the game’s obligatory new character, but this roster really goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Reimu and Marisa are obviously excellent, and so too are Byakuren and Koishi, but Nitori and Ichirin seemed pretty bad choices. And again, like I said, it’s not like there weren’t a bunch of other characters ZUN was free to choose. Maybe if Twilight Frontier weren’t quite so keen on reinventing the wheel there’d have been a bit more to behold. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the series’ characters were relegated to the background of each stage. A great shame.

And it’s not like Twilight Frontier had gotten it right in the first place – but I’ll get to that very shortly. In theory, though, the gameplay all seemed fine. Executed right it would probably go down as well as the three grounded fighters before, in spite of a worrying lack of depth in terms of characters. Still, they’d had a good deal of time to get it right, so you’d think the result would be impressive.

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This start music isn’t all that bad, although the character select music replaces it just about instantly. Which is alright too, I guess.

Before beginning on the gameplay, if you ever play HM, you might notice the version number right at the top, and you’ll think “1.34? What?!” This is because the game has needed many an update throughout its time, and for good reason. This is because it wasn’t released very well by Twilight Frontier.

Mostly, the updates came from a constant need to fix the crashes the game suffered from far too often. So even after a long delay the game wasn’t particularly well built. But they weren’t the most immediate problems. Rather, the most prominent issue was that Kokoro was unusable outside of Story Mode, because her moveset was also incomplete. As in, she had no spell cards or specials. Yes, really. Amazingly, this would not be fixed until v1.20, where she also got one extra special and spell than everyone else. That version also added notifications about big rises and falls in popularity, and added the popularity max themes and the character select theme (the title theme just kept playing before). To compensate for Kokoro’s bonus, v1.30 gave everyone else an extra special and spell, too. But a version number as high as .34, I think, says it all. No game has a right to end on a number like that. Trust me, I know. I’ve played Gran Turismo 5.

So Twilight Frontier took a while to actually finish their game after it had actually been released following an actual delay. That’s already a shocking start for this game. But when you take a look at the finished article itself…it’s still not even close to good.

The flying is nowhere near as free as it might seem, and the fighting is awfully jerky. The popularity system penalises you far too heavily for certain styles of play, and 99 seconds never seems quite long enough to knock someone out properly, meaning you can be well and truly on top in the actual fight and yet still ‘lose’ easily. Judges’ decisions are not fine like this. I mean, you should be allowed to defend as nicely as you damn well please. Otherwise you just end up with an RPG where each fighter takes it in turns to pick up hits. (Or a modern day NBA All-Star Game, for that matter.) Frankly, you might as well move the auto-shield button (that’d be C), and A and B buttons, as far away as possible, to avoid defending more than you need to.

Still, there is at least one character capable of fighting out the popularity nonsense. Miko is the best in that regard, being able to charge her popularity up and get more of it with her attacks than most as a result. Luckily, she also happens to be pretty good as an actual fighter. So she is comfortably my favourite fighter in this game.

There are at least nice turns in the action when it’s properly going, but that’s as you’d expect in a fighting game. At least there’s something there, but, while the game encourages you to go balls to the wall, like you did in SWR and Soku, the controls, and how they’re linked to the mechanics, don’t cater very well to it. My chief gripe is not being able to attack properly out of your shield – you have to actually press to deactivate it again, which is just annoying really and only serves to make it all even jerkier.

So in the end, it’s actually not the most spectacular fighting in the world. Sometimes though, that’s fine, for the most part. Not every fighting game is 100mph, even if it’s more attractive to have them that way. But it tends to be the little things make a complex fighting game, like this one, great. This fails on so, so many counts in that regard.

The first thing you’re gonna notice wrong with this game is the art. Realistically, this shouldn’t be so bad, because it’s the same artist as the last three fighters, Alphes. But for reasons known only to the artist, each character has huge eyelashes. This is honestly such a prominent factor it kills the art, no matter how good the rest of it might be. Aside from that it’d be alright, but seriously. Everyone has massive fucking eyelashes in the art for no reason at all. What the hell happened here? And while we’re at it, Twilight Frontier should have had a word with whoever was drawing and animating the in-fight models as well. Some of it is awfully questionable. In fanart, some degree of fanservice is fine – after all, it is fanart. But it is very un-Touhoulike in canon terms. Byakuren’s boobs should not be jiggling like she’s in Dead or Alive when she’s idle, no matter what the fans think. This is canon, you’ve gotta stay subtle. Mamizou gets this treatment as well. Frankly, bad marks all round here.

The music isn’t exactly sparkling either. The way they’ve done the music is the same as what the previous three fighting games got, in that U2 Akiyama remixes tracks that already exist, whilst ZUN makes his own tracks for new, important stuff. Problem is, most of the remixes are mostly unremarkable. And ZUN only made two of his own tracks for this game, one of which was an arrange of another and the second of which is Kokoro’s theme, The Lost Emotion, which isn’t particularly notable either. The only truly great song in the game is Hartmann’s Youkai Girl, and that had the advantage of being one of the best songs in all Touhou to start with.

Lastly, a very personal qualm. I had to turn the settings right down to get the game to run well on my (admittedly shit) laptop. And even then the lowest resolution didn’t fit properly, because I was playing it windowed. I can’t be having full-screen stuff for the most part. When I’m playing a game, I wanna be able to do other shit as well. But when the game’s windowed, the native resolution means the bottom disappears behind the taskbar. This is all just personal stuff, of course.

Still…at least the newspaper stuff at the end of battles is nice, I guess?

In case you couldn’t tell from all of this, on the whole, Hopeless Masquerade lives up to its name – it’s pretty much hopeless. It needed too many updates to get it fully finished, the fighting is no good, the roster is no good, the plot is no good, there’s only one good song in it and the decisions taken with the art are just flat-out awful. This didn’t fix anything Ten Desires damaged. It just amplified it, for the most part. And, may I remind you, it took over one and a half years for it to come out after TD. And even longer than that for it to be finished properly.

The best things I can say about HM are two things that have happened since it came out, which aren’t exactly positives on its side. Firstly, new fighting games have/are to consign HM completely to history, much as IaMP is nothing more than a footnote now in Touhou history. Secondly, the religious nonsense seemed to be driven home to such a breaking point that, since this shitshow, it has pretty much gone away. So I suppose that’s a macabre positive about HM. In bringing Touhou’s games to their lowest, it ultimately proved what was needed to bring them back up again.

I’m sorry, though. No. This is a game that is just wrong on too many levels. So much so I’m glad it’s out of the way now. It’s the last bad thing I have to touch on for a while now. Bad enough that it took me this long to write about it. If anyone asks you about HM, just tell people about what’s come ever since it came about.

hopeless-masquerade

My favourite Touhou music from the second Windows era (10-12.8)

A God That Loves People ~ Romantic Fall: What a dramatic song this is for an opening stage. Right from the start of this, you can tell how ZUN was able to evolve his music with this new engine, and the series’ music has been better off as a result. The opening notes and the ZUNpets in this are particularly strong points.

Because Princess Inada Is Scolding Me: This is damn short, but even so the main beat of it is still really very good. There’s not a lot of time to take it in, but you’ll be hearing this and its accompanying stage theme over again as you play MoF – and every time it still seems really very good.

Path of the Apotropaic God ~ Dark Road: MoF’s dramatic start continues apace with this fantastic Stage 2 theme. This always sounds good no matter when I play it. It’s a song that’s clearly composed magnificently. The ZUNpets are at full pelt here and show off some of their best qualities in this stage. This is a top, top song.

Fall of Fall ~ Autumnal Waterfall: If you can pay it any attention within the god-awful stage this song is on, you’ll notice this song is really quite magical. A riveting song for a bright scene, it’s as atmospheric a Touhou song as you’ll ever see. Unfortunately, MoF’s Stage 4 isn’t even long enough for the song – just as its finale starts the stage ends! God’s sake, what the hell is wrong with this stupid stage?

Cemetary of Onbashira ~ Grave of Being: I heard this song a lot in my attempts to beat MoF and each and every time it didn’t even slightly disappoint. In fact, this song is wonderful. It captures an unbelievable amount of action in just one minute of music, and the instrumentation and composition is done perfectly. It feels damn incredible, the stage matches it perfectly – make no mistake, this is one incredible song. It’s in my top 5, even.

Mystic Oriental Love Consultation (SWR): Yay, more PC-98 comebacks! And this is a fantastic remix from U2 Akiyama, with an incredibly exciting tone to it all, fast tempo making it feel even more action-packed, and some terrific instrumentation going on. Reimu’s got a lot of themes, and remixes to those themes, but this is probably the best of the lot.

Hiroari Shoots A Strange Bird ~ Till When? (SWR): U2 Akiyama really mixes it up with a lot of SWR’s arranges, and this one of Youmu’s theme is another great sounding track. The piano adds a little bit of light drama to it all, and even with some rather experimental instrumentation, the song still manages to fit SWR’s action very well.

Lunatic Eyes ~ Invisible Full Moon (SWR): I said Invisible Full Moon had a ton of great remixes, and this is one of them. This is a nice, intense spin on the original with all kinds of befitting instruments doing the job of carrying out this brilliantly composed song. The piano-first bits are my personal favourite sections of the song, but it’s all great really.

The Sealed-Away Youkai ~ Lost Place: SA’s soundtrack is damn near perfect, but it can’t hog this entire piece, so I’m just going with its best five. And first of all is first stage boss Yamame’s theme, which again manages to cram a lot of song into very little time, whilst still being an incredibly effective song. The tone this sets is awesome, and you can feel drama all around this song.

A Flower-Studded Sake Dish on Mt. Ooe: An upbeat and very highly-tempoed song, highly befitting of some of Yuugi’s mad and magnificent spell cards. It’s action all the way through for this song, and the dramatic little intro beat, which reappears soon after, captures the intensity of this song right from the start.

Solar Sect of Mystic Wisdom ~ Nuclear Fusion: When I heard this song for the first time in the midst of Reiuji Utsuho’s fight it was something truly special. Even by itself, the drama this song gives off is almost indescribable. Put to Reiuji’s utterly magnificent fight, it not only makes the song even more special, but makes the fight one of the best things to behold in the entire series. This is a truly stunning song, and by far one of the best in the series, but even more stunning is the fact it isn’t even my favourite song in the game.

Last Remote: Normally it’s always boss themes that take prominence in Touhou, due to the sheer occasion of them all, but allow me to argue my case for Last Remote. Because the song is just perfect. There isn’t a bad note in it anywhere, the tone is magnificent, it fits the stage so, so well, all the instruments are right – especially for the entire first section of the song – and the song builds-up to a most terrific crescendo. This is about as good as a video-game song can really get, and it’s my favourite in the entire series. It is a big part of what makes SA’s Extra Stage my favourite in Touhou, among its many other positives. Another big part comes straight after Last Remote.

Hartmann’s Youkai Girl: This is another stormer of a track, and one that will always be associated to me with some of the greatest spell cards Touhou has seen thanks to the terrific Koishi fight this goes with. But the song does its part in conveying the terror of it all, changing tone all the time, capturing the relative creepiness of its character in spite of it seeming all comparatively ordinary. Of course, the song itself is also magnificently composed as well, and lends itself well to a considerable number of arranges. This is another big favourite of mine. It’s worth noting that perhaps my three favourite songs all come in three consecutive places. That’s just the kind of game SA is. It speaks volumes as to just how brilliant and incredible the game is.

At the End of Spring: Yet another strong start, but this one feels lighter than the two Stage 1 themes before it, yet is still a rhythmic song all the same. It does a great job of capturing the feel of UFO right from the start, letting it be known that it is a rather more joyful game than the tense affairs that were MoF and SA. The start and end of this song are my personal favourite bits of it all.

A Tiny, Tiny, Clever Commander: A surprisingly upbeat song given its composition, and a surprising diversion towards rock for the Touhou series. Either way, one thing’s for sure: this is an action-filled song, and it gets a lot more time than its two direct predecessors did. Which probably makes it even better.

The Sealed Cloud Route: Another strong theme right at the start of the game, this one takes a surprising turn compared to the stage before, one towards a great deal more drama, most of which comes about after the strong intro to the song. The crescendo to the song is also really rather epic, and it’s fair to say this is a song quite unlike any Stage 2 song before or since.

Interdimensional Voyage of a Ghostly Passenger Ship: No other Touhou song sounds quite like this one, and yet it still manages to capture the totally frantic action of Stage 4 thanks to its intense second half. But the first half is still a lot of fun too, a section of Touhou music notable simply for its fun-loving sound. I’d probably call this my favourite from UFO, largely through its sheer quirkiness.

The Tiger-Patterned Vaisravana: Shou’s theme cranks up the drama to 11, in large part thanks to some very strong instrumentation, most specifically the heavy keyboard sounds through the majority of the song. But in between the main sections of the song, the composition does it a lot of favours as well. This is a strong piece of music.

Memory of Foregathering Dream (Soku): I got away with the character select theme in PoDD, and Soku has another brilliant one. It’s a remix of IaMP’s menu theme, but done much better, thanks to an incredibly intense sounding instrumentation and tone. Again, it’s worth noting that this is a song for nothing more exciting than selecting characters. ZUN gives a damn about everything, no matter what it is.

Beloved Tomboyish Girl (Soku): I said Beloved Tomboyish Girl condoned itself well to arranges, and this is conclusive proof of that. This is one fun-loving song, and when that keyboard drops…oh yeah, that’s the most awesome part of this whole thing! Yeah, this is a damn cool song. And not just because it’s Cirno’s theme. This really does fit a fighting game like Soku very well.

Unknown X ~ Unfound Adventure: It’s the dramatic opening beat (which shows up again soon after) courtesy of the ZUNpets that makes this song most of all, setting the tone for what is a highly charged, intense final fight with all three of Soku’s playable characters. Throughout, it’s a well composed song, and they even went and brought it back for ULiL on PS4.

Youkai Mountain ~ Mysterious Mountain: This song was already a pretty good one in MoF, a dramatic piece that was once again dominated by the fight it was paired with (Aya’s in Stage 4). The reason it’s down here is because of the simple, but effective touch-up it was given for Double Spoiler, used in shoot-outs with Hatate. It takes out a little of the sheer action from the original and replaces it with a considerable amount of atmosphere, which makes the track a whole lot better. The composition already lends itself to action anyway, so this is a nice spin on an already very good song.