With Touhou getting its big start from Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, ZUN had to keep that up. One year later, he went and did just that with the seventh Touhou game, Perfect Cherry Blossom. And it took Touhou even further than before.
ZUN didn’t feel the need to change from what had clearly been a winning formula with EoSD – PCB had the same goals in mind, of high speed danmaku made from somewhat abstract constructs. But whilst the engine was the same as before, ZUN had touched up the game a bit, for the better. The game was graphically a far cleaner affair, notably more impressive than the first attempt of EoSD.
And the gameplay wasn’t standing still either. In what would become a staple of the series, ZUN changed up the core system behind the game for the first time. Perfect Cherry Blossom’s new wheeze was the ‘Cherry’ scoring system, where your Cherry points increased by shooting enemies and decreased by dying or bombing. Getting 50,000 would give the player a temporary shield against one hit. Getting more and more increases the Cherry Gauge, giving more points from point items and the potential for more resources.
The largest change mechanically was to focusing shots again. In addition to the shots differing more clearly when focused and unfocused, focusing now presented a red dot where your character’s hitbox was, a seriously useful feature no doubt. The other big change came in the form of another very helpful addition; a cursor along the bottom margin during a boss battle showed the bosses’ location, helping seriously with aiming shots.
Reimu and Marisa returned yet again for another round, and this time they were joined by a previous enemy from the last game – Stage 5’s Sakuya Izayoi. This would start something of a trend in itself which leads many fans to believe some of their favourite characters will one day be playable too, but that’s by the by. Sakuya was much like Yuuka from MS, with slower movement and seriously wide range attacks covering virtually the screen’s entirety. And of course, she was just as human as the other two, so it’s of course completely valid she should be playable as well.
Again, the title screen music is just perfect here. But this time it’s of a different sort to EoSD. While that was just plain epic for something like it, this feels more like something to start a game off.
Those simple changes to the mechanics make a world of change to the difficulty. Seeing your hitbox and where the enemy is are infinitely useful factors. And the focus shots add serious variance to the shot types, which are otherwise the same as before. I played my main attempt, once again, as Reimu’s amulets. The difference in what the focus shot does isn’t that big a deal, but the bombs also make a difference. I had a habit of lifting off the focus button just before pressing bomb sometimes, and her Spread bomb is weaker than what you want to see, the Concentrate bomb, which does more to a boss and lasts longer. Aside from my bad habits, she mostly passed with flying colours, as she would with me given I am most competent with her by far.
Marisa gets one powerful laser out of her focus shot, as well as her Master Spark bomb, which looks infinitely better than in the last game. If you didn’t think the graphics here are a massive improvement from EoSD, just use the Master Spark. It looks like a proper laser this time around.
Sakuya is of course the newcomer here, and she packs two shots that make her the game’s best. Quite apart from the fact she starts with four bombs (Reimu has three, Marisa just two), her A-type homes in when focused and has that big, wide range. SakuyaB, on the other hand, is just plain cool with her Misdirection, as it moves about like you do and the angle locks on when you focus. The only disadvantage she has, I’ll talk about in a moment.
So anyway. The first stage starts nice and simple but the music here is already very nice and tone-setting, and I’ve always liked Letty’s theme. She is, as a Stage 1 boss has always been, no real trouble.
The second stage does feel very good though, better than last time’s effort thanks to properly atmospheric music, plus Chen is a nice fight as well.
Then the mood changes right up for the third stage. It’s got some great music, and heralds the return of a former PC-98 character, Alice Margatroid, back once again as a Stage 3 boss. She’s not doing much here, despite being reasonably challenging, but this was far from the last we’d see of her. Also, whilst her stage music is fantastic, she does expose one flaw in the early Touhou games with her boss track – the soundfont. The ZUNpets are a famous meme around the community, and this is where they are at their most irritating. That’s a shame because Alice deserves so much better.
Then the mood changes up once again for what is a monster of a Stage 4. The great music here highlights one of the most marathon stages in the series, and it’s still one of the hardest. And the prize at the end is a unique fight for Touhou at the time, a fight against not one, not two, but three bosses at once – the Prismriver Sisters. While you get all three on screen at once eventually, what isn’t unique is that the one you first face depends on what character you faced – of course, Patchouli used different spell cards for different characters last time. Of the lot, Merlin was the least favourable, and Sakuya had to face her. Also, she could go mad for some reason. Still, it is a properly fun fight.
And then Perfect Cherry Blossom gets serious. Stage 5 isn’t as long as a stage, but it presents a brutal obstacle in Youmu Konpaku. She’s also a bitch, spawning bullets on top of you without warning and wasting all your bombs. That totally happened to me when I faced her as a mid-boss. No wonder I don’t like her…she also, like Sakuya in the last game, packs a gimmick to her style of fighting, though it’s not too dissimilar to what Sakuya could pull off – Youmu slowed down time, which actually let you get through her bullets easier. What an idiot.
But the sixth stage is magnificent. It feels even better than EoSD’s already rather good effort, and the fight at the end is so worth it. You get a properly nice challenge from Yuyuko Saigyouji, which is all very well and good…but it’s the ending that is always the best with Yuyuko. Once you beat her, you have a few seconds of rest, then BOOM! Back she comes, you can’t hit her – you just have to survive a little over a minute of her final spell. And I did that. Praise be to PCB for giving me one last extend and one last border in the final seconds to get me through it all. Bombs don’t work as normal on Resurrection Butterfly, they’re weaker, and PCB is now the third Touhou game I’ve beaten, having come just short with EoSD. Actually, I might have beaten it once before, but I’d be amazed if I’d forgotten about doing it. I don’t tend to forget me clearing Touhou games, because the moments when I do that are few and far between for me. Then again, I reckon there’s more to it that got me through PCB…more on that later.
The Extra Stage this time presents us with Ran Yakumo, a rather fun and spinning fox who brings Chen with her for some spellcards, albeit not into the battle itself. We’d be waiting a while for something of that caliber.
…But wait, what’s this? Why, ZUN had changed up the Extra Stage formula once again…this time by adding a second Extra Stage, named the Phantasm Stage. At the end of it was Yukari Yakumo, who presented one of the all-time great Touhou fights. Her music is magnificent, some of her spellcards are simply legendary, and even now, most go to her when they say who the most powerful character in the series is…she could alter the boundary of absolutely anything. The grand prize of superpowers. And you’re being asked to beat her…what a fight that is.
On the face of it, a lot of PCB’s different elements in the stages, and the way it jumps so often, particularly at the start, probably shouldn’t work in theory. And yet the atmosphere all comes together to make sure it does. And helping its cause is the loud and clear improvement its gameplay has over its direct predecessor. All the most important bits are there – the hitbox, the enemy, the great looking bullets, and there are few thrills or spills to it. Only the border that is there to actually help you out, when you do get it. It’s Touhou in its purest form. To be fair, the difficulty is perhaps lower than what EoSD presented though…and yet that’s fine too, because it still packs challenge in all the right places. It’s the defining Touhou original game.
That’s why, when asked to answer the most asked question in Touhou – where do I start? – I always answer “Touhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom”. Though, to be honest, I suspect deep down, it might be because I started with it too…and the only reason I started with it is because I thought the Phantasm Stage would make it the hardest game in the series.* I was wrong about that – whilst the Phantasm Stage has an incredible aura about it, it wasn’t even the hardest challenge yet presented in a Touhou game. And yet it happened to be the right choice anyway, somehow. EoSD might have been the first game for Windows, but there’s a good reason I wouldn’t start someone with that…
See, PCB made EoSD feel antiquated all by itself with its new graphics. Whereas, as we’d find out later, PCB’s graphics were so well done, even ZUN wouldn’t feel the need to change them up at first. That alone probably makes EoSD’s age felt more by itself. PCB isn’t quite perfect nowadays, but you can’t possibly start someone off with a game later than it – it’d be too soon. And I’m including the final game most recommend starting with in this as well – we’re getting to it soon, but without giving too much away, handing it to a new player also introduces too much, too soon.
In any case, PCB was a great thing to go through, and I dare say the fact I started with it meant I had the most experience on it with which I could go on and beat the game, like I did. So I’m always gonna have something of an attachment to it. But even then it just feels so right for a Touhou game. It’s still great.
And PCB would once again leave behind a legacy of characters that continues to this day. It isn’t as strong as EoSD’s, but then nothing would be ever again. My view of the characters is very odd – they were the first I properly discovered, and I like Yukari a lot, whilst Yuyuko might have been the first ever Touhou character I really, properly liked. But I see Yuyuko in a less good light now, though I do still like her. Those two also have the best personalities in the game, I feel. Of all the characters, my favourite is Alice actually, though you would never guess it from this game. Alice is my favourite for reasons rooted well outside this game. I quite like Lyrica and Lunasa from the Prismriver Sisters too, but really I don’t mind any of PCB’s characters. Except Youmu. I never liked her much anyway, but what she did in my run through angered me to the core. It’s just as well I picked myself up before I self-destructed and completely lost focus, because I played some of the best Touhou I’d ever played that entire run, and especially from Stages 1 to 4, where I went without a single continue. Youmu wrecked all of that and I hate her for it. Fuck Youmu.
Finally, the music was once again seriously strong. The opening stages had superb music, although as I mentioned Alice’s theme was a rare miss on the musical side. Then Stages 4 and 5 had the best of the music, as well as Yukari’s magnificent theme, Necrofantasia. Yuyuko’s theme, Border of Life, gets much praise as well, unsurprisingly.
Now Touhou was really ticking. ZUN was really starting to set up something magic, and now had the way paved for something even bigger and more epic…as well as something different, too. Not a full change to the series, thankfully. But a nice twist that has stuck around with Touhou even today.
*Also, I’d heard about and seen Boundary of Life and Death.