Having been on a roll for the past four years, ZUN took a break after Shoot the Bullet. He waited in 2006, and tried to see if Touhou’s now vast fandom would start dying down at this point. And…well, I’m still writing about this in 2016, so you can be sure as hell it didn’t go away in 2006. And so ZUN started work on another, new game.
In fact, for his new game, he started from scratch to make his new Touhou game, to prevent the previous system from getting overly complex. This new engine kicked off a new era for the entire Touhou series, and its debut game finally came about in August 2007, at Comiket 72: Mountain of Faith.
The gameplay was still very much the same old vertical danmaku genre, but ZUN had taken the time to shake up many elements. First, in regards to items, the character now had a ‘box’ where items would gravitate towards them and be collected, a ‘box’ which increased in size when focused. Additionally, the automatic item collection point, previously only available at full power, was now available at all times.
By far his biggest reinvention came courtesy of power and bombs. The power system, rather than going between 0 and 128, now went between 0.00 and 5.00 (going up in increments of 0.05). But that wasn’t all. Now the bombs themselves were tied to your power level, and using one bomb cost you 1.00 power. However, the bombs themselves were no longer personalised between the characters; they were now just generic circles of power. That was rather boring and disappointing, but we’ll be back on those bombs at some point in this piece.
Reimu and Marisa returned for this new game, but only them this time. However, they now had three shot types to play with, rather than the two they were previously stuck with. The key feature of them was ‘options’ in their shot types, which increased in number with their power. Some options would freeze in place when focused, some would merely shift position. They did have differences in their otherwise generic bombs; Reimu’s bomb was wider, Marisa’s smaller but longer lasting. so even if we were back to just the two of them, the shot types they had were more than varied enough to enjoy separately.
So then, a very much all new Touhou; was it better off for it? Let’s find out.
Ah, what a beautiful start screen theme. Admittedly it’s not up to much most of the way, but when the sound effects of the water come in it’s just so good. It’s so cool, and very genuinely atmospheric. Shame ZUN’s drawing didn’t get any better in his year and a half away. This is one of his weakest games of all artistically.
Since as I said, all six shot types are so varied, I went and tried out all six. And I had a very different purpose with each, for reasons not entirely limited to the shots themselves.
ReimuA is the homing shot so, as ever, I did my most normal playthrough with her. That normal playthrough was the reason why I only decided to give ReimuB, ReimuC and MarisaC a try on certain stages. Because bloody hell, it was hard. Well, one specific bit turned out to be, anyway. I’ll tell you about that later. But to be fair, my cause was not helped by another change ZUN had made – to continues. They were now unlimited, but put you back at the start of the stage you died on with 2 lives and 4.00 power. Needless to say, some points were basically a case of me running into a brick wall, so to speak. It’s a double-edged sword because I get as many goes as I want, but I end up stuck on some stages forever.
ReimuB is the needles shot, which I hadn’t really played as up to this point but I thought this was as good a place as any to test out for this piece. The effect of them hitting enemies is quite cool in this game, you can quite visibly see it, and the shot power is noticeable. It’s worth a try in this game, for sure. However, it does make your life harder on stages.
ReimuC is a wide shot, although it is a rather odd one, since it starts out as just a straight-out wide range shot but becomes more of a spread shot when focused. MarisaC has options that freeze in place when you focus – they’re frost-throwers that can do real damage to a boss up close and are just plain cool in general.
MarisaA isn’t that interesting, as her options follow her around unfocused then stay locked in the position while still following Marisa when you focus. She’s not a good shot type, so I decided to test out the bomb system with her. The new bombs are rather broken; as long as you never hit 5.00 power, there will be more than enough power items to make it through virtually anything. The bombs are very large, very powerful, and grant both autocollection and invincibility throughout without any real downsides besides the power drop. So I tried to use MarisaA to get through them. It didn’t go that well. You still have to time when you use the bombs, you see. I wasn’t that good at it. However, in normal play, a well-timed one can give you a huge edge, as I found myself at times.
But the most interesting shot of all is MarisaB. It’s one of her fairly unremarkable laser shots, except for the fact that it does absurd damage firing unfocused between 3.00 and 4.00 power. By absurd damage, I mean killing bosses before their bullets even approach Marisa. This was never patched. So MarisaB, by virtue of getting rid of just about all bosses, is my best real shot at beating this game. I did beat it with her long before I made this piece, but this time I tried for something I’d never achieved before – a 1cc. This was also where I actually discovered the bomb system’s silliness. Since you have to bomb to achieve optimum results with MarisaB – and since you never reach max power, which would stop power items appearing – you can just tactically launch bombs and keep your gross power up.
Stage 1 gives you an immediate idea of some real improvements to the game. It’s clearly much more atmospheric than previous Stage 1s, and more enemies actually try to come at you with attacks. It’s still not that hard, but it makes a much better first impression than previous Touhou games.
Stage 2 isn’t that relevant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hardly a bad stage in any way. Certainly it bears witness to some awesome music, and Hina has some fairly nasty ways of attacking you. Again though, it feels more epic than previous Stage 2s of its kind, more fast-paced as well. Perhaps the extra power you get right from the start helps with that, or something.
Stage 3 has some themes people consider to be top-class, although it’s not the most perfect theme in my opinion. It’s still a strong stage, mind you, perhaps quite an iconic one too, but Nitori does a lot of things to try and ruin your day. She’s a bit of a bitch in this game, I find.
And then there’s Stage 4.
Now perhaps this little waterfall wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t so irritatingly, annoyingly, maddeningly, horribly, flipping difficult. This is a stage which finds a way to make everything go wrong for you. Every single wave is designed specifically to try and make your life hell on earth. Maybe you’ll get the hang of some of the first bit after a while, but then you get to Inubashiri bloody Momiji, the miniboss. The one who just seems to wall all your bombs by just putting more bullets in the way, forcing you to hit X over and over again, because her bullets are coming at you too fast, too much. And then when she explodes, everything else on the mountain is calling for your head. Firing maddening patterns of bullets, either in massive numbers or at massive speed. Every single time you seem to move somewhere and a bullet is there to try and get you. And those big fairies, coming at you in threes, just make your life even more difficult, and the bats afterwards aren’t giving you any power and their bullets are coming out of nowhere to kill you. Many a life has been lost here, many a continue used trying, and failing, to beat this level yet again. It’s like banging your head against a brick wall. And what’s your reward for getting past this? A fight with…Aya Shameimaru.
Yes, ZUN has brought her girlfriend back again because evidently she hadn’t annoyed us enough in PoFV, where she was a bastard, or StB, where she was hopeless. In MoF, she’s back to being a bastard. She’s firing an awkward non-spell to start with, confusing crossroads, and then large rings of bullets at wildly varying speeds. Maybe you’ll get through them just fine. Maybe you won’t. Similarly luck seems to come into successfully beating her Wind God Hidden Among Tree Leaves spell card, as sometimes it opens up fine for you and sometimes it doesn’t. And then you get to Illusionary Dominance. Nothing can save you from this spell card. You can’t hit Aya in the middle of it, she becomes a blur, and you just have to survive it. This is the only spell card MarisaB can’t save you from. You’ll be using bombs as you can’t work out where to go among all the bullets, and once you do beat it, hey, no more power for you! And that means you’re helpless to defend against Aya’s other brutal spell card, Mountain God Procession. The only way to beat this is with reactions, nothing more. The time is so tight, and if you miss it, you hit a bullet, blow a life away, blow all your power and bombs away, blow your chance of beating this horrible stage at the last hurdle. With ReimuA, I played as well as I could, and still this spell card beat me in the end. Maybe, with MarisaB, if the spell hadn’t lost me two lives, I would have 1cc’ed the game after all. Aya is a bitch. Stage 4 is a bitch. I’m sure if it wasn’t, it’d be an enjoyable stage. But it isn’t. It’s my worst nightmare in Touhou.
Fuck Stage 4.
It’s almost impossible to think that Stage 5 is actually easier in every way than the stage before it. The attacks are slower, more predictable, you can get two lives from it, not just one, and Sanae’s attacks are more often actual puzzles as opposed to luck or reactions. However, unlike any Stage 5 boss before her, she has no gimmick. That’s probably for the best, really.
Stage 6 is a fitting end to it all. The music is miles better than any Stage 6 song that’s come before, and it does feel like a properly epic stage, not just a set-up for the final boss. It wasn’t where final stages would peak in Touhou terms, but it was a start. Really though, it was still all about the final boss, Kanako. She’s a difficult one. MarisaB won’t save you against her for the most part, either. She has ways of attacking that put her out of your range, and attacks that come at you fast enough to make you bomb and lose your great power. But all of it is dwarfed in comparison to her final spell, Mountain of Faith. You can hardly bomb against this as such – it’ll make you invincible to bullets, but it won’t clear them out properly, and it makes Kanako invincible too, so it doesn’t help against her. And she’s launching so many amulets you have to be at full concentration to try and dodge any of them. You won’t be staying at a good rate of power for long, maybe not long enough to beat her. You might run out of attacking power with Reimu or Marisa, and staying power with yourself to keep dodging, somehow. It’s a brutal finale, one fitting of one of the longest slogs of all Touhou games.
Despite this, the Extra Stage isn’t the most special of its kind. The music is actually a rare ‘miss’, in my honest opinion, although the boss, Suwako, has a fine song in Native Faith. However, nothing Suwako has looks very threatening, and indeed she only has a handful of attacks that threaten in general, unlike Extra bosses before who are loaded with multiple attacks to terrify and haunt you.
The one all-pervading sense about the new engine is that it let ZUN make things much more difficult. He could do more with bullets, and indeed make more bullets to fire at you. And he proved it straight away with MoF. But crucially, starting afresh also let him work on just how good the game felt. In short, it felt a mile better than the first trilogy of games that had come before. It made them feel dated immediately.
With this instalment the action felt faster, and more frantic, keeping you more on the edge – and sometimes pushing you off it. And graphically it looks more gorgeous than the games that came before it. They could be a little rough around the edges in places, but here it all just seemed so nice and smooth. Aesthetically, shots looked a whole load better too. You only need see some of Sanae’s attacks to prove that point.
The crucial factor, I think, with MoF, is that it made Touhou more like people perceive it to be. It was a more defining image of just what Touhou was all about, on every single level. ZUN had set a new benchmark in this regard, and had a new bedrock on which he could now do yet more with Touhou, something even better. He could now go really big with his games and we have MoF to thank. It was the start of what would be Touhou’s finest years.
That said, the characters from this point on would not quite reach the popularity of what the characters before managed – with a couple of notable exceptions. But then the previous characters gotten anything up to a 4-year headstart, so they were always going to be hard to top. Aya is one exception, but she debuted in PoFV so she doesn’t count. However, ZUN putting her in the game associated her with MoF very much, at least to me. And again, ZUN still wasn’t done with Aya yet. The other big exception to the popularity rule wasn’t an exception at all at this stage. So I’ll mention when she did become as popular as she now is. Certainly the Aki Sisters and Hina have never been up to much, although Nitori would get her days in the sunshine – one almost straight after this, actually. However, you’d never guess from her appearance in this that Momiji is quite as popular as she is, being a humble miniboss who hasn’t even done much since this game. Sanae, meanwhile seemed very plain at this point, even putting aside any rivalry with Reimu…although Kanako and Suwako seemed pretty cool together. They’d all get their days in the limelight later on, too.
There was one thing that might have benefitted most of all from the new Touhou engine, though…the music. Put simply, it was transformed. If you listen to music from this point onwards, then go back to music from before this point, the older music seems to have something missing, like one extra beat, or instrument, or note. Just something. And the music from this era is all the better for it. It feels so much more rhythmic, and atmospheric. Better on every level, really. Mountain of Faith’s soundtrack is therefore filled to the gunwales with magnificent tunes. The first two stages are perfectly great in terms of music, and Stage 3 benefits from a good tune as well. Aya’s theme in this game is the best she ever got, I feel, even if her fight overshadows it. Stage 5 also has two magnificent songs, but the best in the game is Stage 6’s short but magnificent burst, Cemetary of Onbashira ~ Grave of Being. This is a long way off the Stage 6 tunes of the past which were never up to very much, because they didn’t need to do very much. Even though this Stage 6 isn’t very long, its music here is just magnificent, and the uptempo in the stage’s pace is matched by the tempo of the music, and its superb rhythm. Kanako’s theme after it isn’t the best final boss theme ever, but the aforementioned Native Faith for Suwako makes up for it very well.
ZUN had taken some gambles with Mountain of Faith – waiting to start working on it, starting it from scratch, and testing the conventions of Touhou he’d set down. The gambles had paid off. Touhou was now back in the big time, and ready to become something even greater than it already was. Touhou was in its best stride now. True brilliance was in its grasp.