It’s probable no one would have guessed that ZUN would wait three and a half years to make another Touhou game after Mystic Square. The most he’d done before then is contributed to the Seihou Project with some art – but that’s something for another time. When it did come back, in August 2002, the whole scape of Touhou had been changed – and not just because it was on a new OS. The resulting game was a clean slate for the series’ entire canon, opening up the doors to what would become something truly great. Touhou’s course would now be changed forever – and the game that did it was Embodiment of Scarlet Devil.
Two things were still recognisable from what was now the era gone by – the main characters. Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame remained and their characteristics also returned. Aside from this, little was the same as it was from the PC-98 era. The gameplay was much the same, but it looked a whole lot different on a graphical level. The layout you’d have recognised, but otherwise it was all new. And the gameplay was the same genre, but it hadn’t been left just the same as before.
Three notable new changes came about from this game. First was the introduction of automatic item collection, which let you collect all items on screen when you moved into a certain zone in the screen’s upper half, although it was only available at full power. Then came what is now known as the ‘death-bomb’ – if you bombed in the split second you got hit by a bullet, you would live to fight another day and save a life, and the rest of your bombs with it. Last of all was a big one; shift now focused your shot into a tighter, more concentrated area, making use of the command more strategic than before. The changes would hardly stop there throughout the series, but this is unmistakably the point where Touhou started to look like it does today.
And now the music was sounding like we all know Touhou music does today. And you hear this right from the title screen. I know plenty about each title screen theme and this one is still one of the best. That epic drop still gets me every time. It really does tell you, this is a new Touhou. Not just a new game, a new start for a series.
One thing’s for sure when you play EoSD – it is harder than the PC-98 games. The better software opens up the possibility for more bullets, coming at you harder and faster, and it shows. Even in this first version of the Touhou engine, a simple thing made in DirectX from scratch, this is a game that makes you properly feel the Touhou difficulty factor. It’s a nice gauge for the whole series, although despite this games’ position in the series’ chronology, I wouldn’t suggest you start with it. More on that later…
Anyway, the game itself. The first stage is really quite low key, actually. Not something that any of the PC-98 games had, really, but starting off slow has its own benefits and it shows here. It’s really just a starting mark, nothing more. Not as special as the PC-98’s openers, but that just makes the rest stand out more.
But even the second stage feels a little more difficult. Not too much, and the atmosphere is still relatively simple at this point. Again though, it’s only the second stage. I mean, MS had a good one but…
The third stage is where it does really pick up. Not just because in a canonical sense it really is where the story kicks off, as you face Hong Meiling, the first line of defence for the enemy. That said, it doesn’t quite feel that way when you’re playing through it. But the music sells it incredibly well. That’s another thing to bring up later – because this is the time we start to remember a lot of the music from. And more, as it turns out…
The fourth stage is where the difficulty often spikes in the Touhou games. This is the game that started that trend most of all. Suddenly, the bullets you face in the stage are massively upped, and you are under huge pressure from all corners. This is where the game really earns its money, from this side of the coin anyway… Mind you, I don’t like the stage itself very much. Not just because it doesn’t really capture my imagination, but for other, more personal reasons. Which will be for a separate time entirely.
Then we get to the fifth stage where the game now really, really starts to show what it’s all about. What a stage this is, with perfect music on both sides and the start of another Touhou tradition – a gimmick within the fifth stage boss, in this case Sakuya Izayoi. She does not let up at all. She is not easy. And she is very brilliant to fight.
One thing they did bring back for this was LLS’ mechanic of not letting you to the final stage sometimes. However, EoSD was more forgiving. LLS didn’t let you through if you’d even continued. EoSD only stopped you if you were playing on Easy. Just as well I play these games on normal, then…I wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Then of course we get to the grand finale, the final stage which of course is all about its boss. Never mind that Sakuya actually gets a look in as a mini-boss, Remilia Scarlet is one heck of a fight. Still one of the hardest final bosses around, with one of the all-time great Touhou soundtracks backing her up. I came within the last spell card of beating her and missed out. It left me wondering if I’d just managed to get a few more bombs off before I’d gotten hit…I didn’t land one of those deathbombs once. Or maybe, if I wasn’t within a few hundred points of an extra life right before Remilia hit me, forced me to use my last continue and wiped my score…such is my life as a Touhou player.
But of course Touhou games don’t finish there, if you aren’t like me. The Extra Stage was still around and it had an actually new character as a boss. Even I would consider EoSD’s Extra Stage one of the all-time greats to this day, and Flandre Scarlet is one of the best, most difficult bosses still with the series’ most iconic music. It’s a wonder how they got so popular…
You can see how EoSD really kicked off Touhou as a series. Because there was so much to be attracted to. Who knows what could have been the biggest contributor to it all? The sheer difficulty of the thing*, the magnificent music…or maybe it was just the fact it was a lot of awesome things in the game at once…but they were all being done by girls, wearing silly clothes. Maybe ZUN would still have made all the other games for a select few fans, maybe one of those games would have been the big catalyst instead. But then again, maybe if EoSD didn’t get quite as popular as it did, he wouldn’t have done quite so much more afterwards. Or indeed anything. Instead, it hit the mark right away, at the start of a new era, and we have to thank it for everything that has followed since.
That said, because of what has followed since, it seems more ideal to compare it to everything else – which I haven’t spoken about yet, but will. See, with PC-98, the way the games went is easy. HRtP is a completely different kettle of fish so it’s very much the odd one out, but with the shmups it’s easy to jump to a conclusion of how its games went. SoEW was a simple start, LLS improved on that eventually and MS was the culmination of it all. MS is quite simply the best of the lot. PoDD is harder to compare being what it is, but on its own that was also just a great game. Don’t worry, another Touhou game has that problem when compared with the rest of the series too. That’s for another time.
But in short, because of what Touhou has become it isn’t as clear-cut as ‘every game is better than the last’. So I’m rating each of the shmups now against the rest of the series. And it’s fair to say that next to them, EoSD feels every one of its 14 years.
It was the first time on Windows so there was obviously going to be some experimentation, but EoSD just hasn’t aged well. It suffers as a result, and it also lacks some pretty crucial factors that would be introduced in short time – and that can throw off some players who might see this as a good starting game. I actually think these missing factors make it less ideal to start with, and also rather more antiquated. And it’s hardly the sharpest game in the world. I mean, even Marisa’s Master Spark looks pretty crap. However, it’s hard to explain exactly how other games are better in this regard, until I actually get to them. So stay tuned for those as well.
Still, that’s just the game itself. The legacy it has left behind on the Touhou series is still felt to this very day in so many ways. Quite apart from what the series has to owe it, it introduced some of the series’ most popular characters of all. That’s hardly surprising, as the seven bosses in the game were the first of the Windows era, and the first that most Touhou fans will remember as a result. But the fact remains that of the 7 bosses, 5 of them are still some of the most popular in the entire series. Cirno, Patchouli Knowledge, Sakuya Izayoi, Remilia Scarlet and Flandre Scarlet are all some of the most popular in the entire series, all for many and varied reasons. Even Hong Meiling has a fair old fanclub…and then there’s Rumia. My feelings for most of the Windows characters run far deeper than what the PC-98’s characters managed, and it really shows with EoSD’s – I really like some of them, but quite dislike some of them as well. But describing each and every one is a task for another group of pieces entirely – never mind the fact there are so many characters in the series now. And I suspect that I am some way off writing pieces about the characters. Sorry.
The characters themselves also packed a lot more personality than the ones gone past. Mostly this came through conversations packed with references that are difficult to get, but this was the time when ZUN really did put the effort into making conversations long and interesting. This was just the start of such a trend, and we’d see it carry on for a few more games yet. Maybe that’s what sold the game some more, actually. These were characters people could, and do, love even more as a result.
But if you really want to talk legacy, you can’t get better than the music this game left us with. To this day, Septette of the Dead Princess and U.N. Owen Was Her? are possibly the two most beloved pieces of music in the series. The other songs that get the most love are Lunar Clock ~ Luna Dial and Beloved Tomboyish Girl. I enjoy most of the soundtrack myself, but my personal favourite is probably still Shanghai Teahouse ~ Hourai Tea. I also enjoy both the Scarlet Sisters’ music, although I’ve heard both their songs to death in times gone by. But even today U.N. Owen Was Her? remains an attractive song.
Touhou now finally had its big start. The three and a half year break had been more than worth it – because now ZUN had on his hands what could become something truly great. All he had to do was carry it on from here…how hard could that be?
*If EoSD came out tomorrow, I bet only screaming YouTubers would ‘love’ its sheer difficulty.