ZUN had improved Touhou as a game immeasurably with the release of Mountain of Faith, but the new engine still had a few cracks within. Now though, he had a chance to paper them over, not leaving MoF’s success lying for a second and going back to his typical yearly output of new Touhou games. And so for his release at Comiket 74, he turned back to a concept already present in probably his most successful game of all – Imperishable Night – to form the concept for his newest game, Subterranean Animism.
That concept came in the form of the return of a partner system – although it manifested itself in a vastly different way to IN’s. Chiefly, this was because Reimu and Marisa were still the only playable characters around this time. They also had three shot types each again, but they all were mated to another character, who communicated them in unique dialogue for each of the shot types, a first for the Touhou games. The second character’s shots manifested themselves in Reimu or Marisa’s shot, and this included most notably their bombs – this time all related to their partner’s ability, which not only brought back unique bombs for each shot type but fixed the problems with the bomb system from MoF in a pinch. The power system remained effectively the same as before, but the maximum was 4.00 this time (with one exception), removing the free bomb MoF gave you as well. And sure enough, the concept of ‘options’ was what the power system affected most of all. As a general rule, there were much less power items to go around in this game, further helping to alleviate the issues with the previous bombing system.
Meanwhile, the scoring system was now based more than ever around grazing, which would prove to be crucial in terms of the game itself. The most notable gameplay change was the introduction of life ‘pieces’, where collecting five of them would give you an extra life. Mostly they came about after you beat bosses’ attacks without bombing, but they could pop up elsewhere too.
Incidentally, Reimu’s three partners for her shot types were Yukari, back again to partner her, Suika, in her first appearance in a full-on Touhou game, and Aya, somehow in Touhou for the fifth game running now. Marisa’s partners were Alice, again back from IN, Patchouli, another of Marisa’s mates, and Nitori, a surprise addition perhaps having only come in from the previous game. They brought their own special characteristics to each shot type, quite apart from just the shots and bombs themselves. And since I’m having a go with all their shot types once again, I’ll explain them all as I describe the game. Let’s see just what all those changes from MoF had done for Touhou – and indeed, what was lying within all the new stages…
Now this is yet another top-class start theme. It’s not as atmospheric as other menus of the past, but it’s just plain action-packed. A perfect tone-setter for the game as a whole, as it turns out.
Working out how to play with each of the shot types is very awkward. Mostly this is because, whereas there seemed to be a clear best each time for the past games, there isn’t a clear favourite to use here. ReimuA (Yukari), going against the grain for Touhou, is actually effectively the needles shot, and is probably the most efficient, probably because it’s also the least spectacular. ReimuB (Suika) is the homing shot, and seems perfect for me on paper, but some of its characteristics hamper it in practice. ReimuC (Aya) I had a clear idea what to do with though – but my idea for it was mostly very silly. And as for Marisa’s shot types…well, god knows how I was gonna go with them.
In the end I went for my biggest playthrough with ReimuB, but first, I had a good go with ReimuA as well. With ReimuA, your options wrap round to the other side of the screen, and you can warp to the other side of the screen – just like Yukari could in SWR. However, her bomb, far from being useful, is more offputting with how it changes the background completely. With ReimuB, simply doing nothing will make you collect all items on screen at the time. But her bomb is not very good either, not clearing anywhere near enough bullets for comfort.
ReimuC’s perk is moving at hyper-speed when you aren’t shooting or focusing, as you’d expect from someone partnered with Aya. Obviously, this is the perfect perk to have for a pacifist run…apart from in every single way. So that’s what I did with it, obviously. However, it does have some massive advantages in some places, and in particular it makes Stage 2 a doddle. As a shot it’s one where your options move about the same way as you do and stay in place when you focus, so it can be a difficult one to use. The bomb meanwhile, is just a circle, surrounding Reimu completely. I think I know the proper way to use it, but hey. Even if ZUN didn’t get rid of the circles after all, at least he’s putting them to better use than MoF.
MarisaA is the most awkward shot. Its power goes up by approximately .08 every time, not .05, because MarisaA can have 8 options/bombs at once. Obviously though, they’re weaker bombs, don’t last as long and are much harder to utilise, plus those options are mostly forward-focusing. And there’s no good trade-off for any of this either. MarisaA is just no good. But MarisaB, as in MoF, is the most interesting shot again. Not because she’s overpowered this time (although I think there’s a rare and odd situation where it can do as much damage as MoF), but because Patchouli’s ‘formations’ make for an incredibly fun shot to use. Pressing shot and focus switches between a full-frontal, wide, front-‘n’-side, side-on, and back-‘n’-front shot, in that order. Tactically it’s the most interesting shot in all Touhou, although its bomb is also weak and again, it’s just five circles that stay in place. Still, if you can get it down, it’s an immense shot.
MarisaC is my favourite of her shots, mostly because it encourages much the same behaviour as PCB. The actual shot is basically Marisa’s Magic Missile, but the bomb is the same sort of barrier you got in PCB. However, if you keep it up (you have to for a long time, mind), you get half the power back. If you get hit, it does much the same thing, although I think I should remember more often that I need to get back on my game as soon as I do lose it, rather than trying to make the most of the last of the invincibility you get. Like MarisaA, it’s nowhere near long enough in that regard, but if I learn it, I might just get somewhere with MarisaC one day.
In fact, I might come back and give it a go with some of these shots again after writing this. Partly this is because I want to have a go at playing SA as well as I possibly could. But mostly because it is a game I simply don’t want to stop playing.
Stage 1 keeps up its improvements from the past by giving the game its atmosphere straight away. Additionally, it’s in a place relevant to the plot, another welcome plus compared to previously, where they were just sort of there to get you warmed up. This is still just a warm-up too, mind. Yamame is not too hard, but you’d better be ready for what comes afterwards.
Stage 2 is way, way above anything you’d expect from this level normally. The bullets in the stage themselves are already way above average, but Parsee has some spells that can really shake you. Her non-spells are actually a piece of piss, but Green-Eyed Monster is terrifying if you can’t get it down properly, and on her second boss spell, if you shoot her clone…you can kiss yourself good night. Her other spells are more interesting though, and set a tone for some of this game’s attacks: they’re more mazes than attacks, and they’re good fun in that regard. Indeed, you might notice that you can graze entire waves of attacks in stages, and on some bosses as well, whether it’s because they home in on you or because the gap between living and dying is just that tight. It’s a theme that ultimately works wonders for SA.
Stage 3 is a pretty mad one, although it doesn’t properly pick up until you fight Yuugi. Her fight has some incredibly epic moments, even if her first spell is basically a freebie. Her Storm on Mt. Ooe, though, is absolutely brutal, as is Knockout in Three Steps. That’s the spell that really tells you what you’re in for afterwards: lots and lots of ‘micro-dodging’.
Stage 4 though, is where the atmosphere really begins to pick up and tell, and put you into an experience that defines the very nature of Touhou itself. The stages are still getting harder, and then there’s the boss, Satori. Describing her is a real challenge due to the fact her fight completely differs between the shot types. She’s a mind-reader, and she takes cues from the partner you’re with and steals all their spell-cards. Some are far more unforgiving than others.
Also, she has short arms.
By his standards, ZUN’s art is actually rather good, if a little odd, in this game, but if you want anything to judge his standards by, this art is it.
And then there’s Stage 5. Now I wrote chapter and verse on what a horrible stage MoF’s Stage 4 was, but if that isn’t the most terrifying stage in Touhou, SA Stage 5 is. The stage is already unforgiving enough, what with all the spirits exploding in your face, but Rin, the cat, is absolutely destructive as a mid-boss, and even more so as a boss herself. And she doesn’t even have a gimmick this time, again. I know people who say Stage 5 and their bosses are harder than final stages and their bosses. Mostly, they don’t know what they’re talking about, but in this case it really does hold true. To be honest this is the final boss’s fault as much as it is Rin’s, but still. This game will tear you apart.
Do not think though, that despite what I just said about the final stage, it is a damp squib. For one, ZUN actually made a real effort with Stage 6 for once, and it does present a challenge, mostly in the form of Rin being a mid-boss again, and providing you with a horrifying non-spell again. But it all pales into comparison next to the final boss, Utsuho Reiuji. Her attacks look simply astonishing, way beyond anything that has ever come before, with biblical waves of sun bullets coming your way in non-spells and simply immense stars coming your way in all her spells – so much so she requires CAUTION!! before each spell. Ironically, the extravaganza of it all rather sacrifices the need for such caution, because in some cases her attacks are not that hard to get by. If anything, what will kill you most of all is the terrifying spectacle of it all, the sheer intimidation of it. But still, some of her attacks are genuine challenges, and she keeps you on edge for the whole fight. And with the music playing its unbelievably dramatic song, the entire fight is just utterly, utterly awesome. It is the greatest Touhou fight there has ever been…bar one.
The Extra Stage is a far cry from the underground madness you just went through, and it’s somewhere we’ve been before – in fact, the Moriya Shrine was where the last Extra Stage took place as well. But in its own sense it is something absolutely incredible. The stage itself is as mad as every Extra Stage around, and Sanae gets a place as the mid-boss, proving the Stage 5 boss returning isn’t completely dead in a sense (and it wouldn’t be for a while yet, either). The stage is special, but Koishi, the boss, is simply stunning. Her attacks are all just what you want at first – fun, challenging, action-packed and good-looking. But as you get towards the end, the spellcards become…indescribable. From Rorschach in Danmaku onwards, Koishi’s attacks are absolutely merciless. That spell is already a serious challenge, but then she turns it into Genetics of the Subconscious – a spellcard that is utterly gruelling in every single aspect. Every single thing conspires against you there and I feel that it is amongst Touhou’s hardest attacks ever. From there, her spell-cards change from pure savagery to absolute terror. Her time-out spell, Philosophy of a Hated Person, looks absolutely mad, and the way it follows you around all the time is absolutely petrifying. But the grand finale is the best of all. Subterranean Rose is bewitching, beautiful and beastly, all at once. The way those roses can come up at you, out of nowhere, and swallow you right up, is a constant threat and one that can end it all in tears for you, coming so close to victory for so little reward. There is no better sequence of spellcards than this…
Add all of this together, plus two of Touhou’s best ever songs, Last Remote and Hartmann’s Youkai Girl, and you have yourself Touhou’s greatest stage. Its finest moment. And the climax to what is still the best it has ever been.
If you name me an aspect, any aspect, of the entire game, I’ll tell you that SA has it better than any other Touhou game. Because on virtually every level, it beats everything that came before it, and it has beaten everything else since too. The only question mark might actually be over its famous difficulty – there is one game we’ll get to eventually that might have it beat in that regard now, but that takes a couple of very cheap shots to get there. So in terms of genuine difficulty, SA is probably still the best there as well.
The gameplay is perfectly done, the diversity of each shot type is incredible, the game has just the right balance in terms of resources, and that helps just as much as the attacks themselves contribute towards the immense challenge SA presents. If you need to show anyone what Touhou’s difficulty is all about, this is the game to show them.
And going through the game is all helped by an absolutely astonishing atmosphere. All the way, the underground essence is captured magnificently, and once you get to the heated outlook of Stages 5 and 6 it becomes simply majestic. But, once again, it’s likely none of it would have been possible without that new, infinitely better engine ZUN made for the last game. He’d made real improvements to that and it showed, big time, here.
But adding to the brilliance of it all is some magnificent dialogue. Six different dialogues make for plenty of humour and character-building all around, and all the shot types have their moments. The Extra Stage gets the best of it all, just to make that even better, and just to make you beat this game even more, if you can…and you know you want to.
And the new characters for this game were also simply brilliant – most of all Satori, Rin, Utsuho and Koishi. I’ve never been that keen on (O)Rin, but the other three are some of my very favourites. Satori and Koishi are both great by themselves, but Koishi’s stage and her battle in this game make her even better. And, as it turns out, she is now astonishingly popular…although this game might not be the reason. You’ll find out what that reason is in a handful of games’ time.
As for Reiuji (as I always call her, because her surname rolls off my tongue better than Utsuho, and I prefer it over her nickname ‘Okuu’), I can safely say I owe my place as a Touhou fan to her today. To be fair, it’s probably not just her – it’s this entire game. But her final boss fight, when I saw it the first time, was what made me the Touhou fan I am right now. I hadn’t heard of her or this game when I got into Touhou, and I didn’t take it onboard for nearly a year and a half. When I finally went and did it, what I saw was something special. For that, Reiuji will forever be one of my very favourite Touhou characters.
And this game’s music… Oh. My. God. There is not a bad note in the entire soundtrack. It is blessed with something that is almost impossible to get in the entire world of gaming – a perfect soundtrack. And three of its songs in particular stand out as some of Touhou’s greatest. Nuclear Fusion and Hartmann’s Youkai Girl are two of those songs, but at the pinnacle of it all, to me, is Last Remote. One of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, any time, anywhere. All the music is either non-stop action packed, or fills its stage with an incredible ambience that just adds to the mood of the entire game even more. It just does not get better than this.
I can safely say Subterranean Animism is one of the best games I’ve ever played. In literally every single way you can think of, it manages to be an incredible game. It was the result of ZUN being at very much the peak of his game-making ability, and it’s very possible he’ll never make something quite like this again.
Now, Touhou was in probably the best position it had ever been in. The fanbase was thriving more than ever, the games were perfect, there were more and more great characters coming along, and ZUN didn’t look like he was going to stop any time soon. Sure enough, he was now off and ready to try and bring Touhou even further, to keep the success rolling on…