With Touhou at an all-time high in popularity, ZUN kept on going and going, aiming to make the series’ peaking popularity rise further still. Subterranean Animism was always going to be a hard act to top, but a year later, at Comiket 76, ZUN had not just one, but two new games out and ready. One of them was the next of the shmups, Undefined Fantastic Object.
Whilst the gameplay had now reached a very solid stage, and ZUN hadn’t changed it much on the face of it, some change, to differ from before, was inevitable. But in this case, the big change actually turned out to be a reversion to the old-school power/bomb system – perhaps the most contentious issue with Touhou’s new gameplay since MoF. Bombs were a completely separate entity once again, and got their own pieces to collect in turn. Power, meanwhile, now went up 0.01 at a time, which turned that element right on its head as well. There were more power items than before, but they meant an awful lot less than MoF and SA. To make up for this, ZUN did something he hadn’t done for a while, and in his most drastic way ever – threw a gimmick in.
The UFO gimmick is undoubtedly a big question mark on what is otherwise a very fine gameplay system for Touhou’s standards. Collecting three of one colour (or three different colours) gave you the chance to get bonus power, points and/or bombs and life pieces. And they could change colour as well when you least expected it, and you had to go and get them yourselves. And you had to let it suck in other items smaller enemies had dropped once it showed up, then blow them up in time. I won’t call it bad, because it isn’t, but it’s certainly divisive. Certainly, if it wasn’t quite so in-your-face, merely about the level of other gimmicks from Touhou’s past, it wouldn’t be such a talking point in this game. But it does overshadow the rest of the gameplay, which would otherwise be a lovely mix of old-school and new-style Touhou. At least it wasn’t completely ruinous, not by a long way. You could even call it inconsequential if you don’t really bother yourself with what you’re doing with them. Sort of like I do when playing UFO, really.
Aside from this, the playable characters was another big story with this game – because there was a new one. Reimu and Marisa were their everpresent selves, but, seemingly out of nothing, a new character to play as came, in the form of…Sanae Kochiya? Stage 5 characters being playable had been a tradition, but after MoF and SA, which had gone back to just the two main stars, it might have seemed dead in the water. Certainly, it meant Sanae had been relatively ordinary in terms of popularity, but her appearance as a playable character here sent her popularity soaring. Oh, and it also helped that she was the star of the other game ZUN had made for C76…but that’s up next. Of course, the fact that Sanae is a shrine maiden like Reimu probably helped, and the general sense was that she was not going away. In gameplay terms, her addition meant that each of the characters was back to two shot types – Reimu back to an amulet and needles, Marisa a laser and a front-and-back shot. Really, all this reversion to the old-school seemed to give off a sense of real tribute to both Touhou’s and ZUN’s past…and this wasn’t the only example.
Of course, all of it wouldn’t be for much if what lied ahead wasn’t as special as Touhou’s past. The pressure was on to make something as good as what had come before, but ZUN was well into his stride by now. So UFO promises much, even before a bullet has been fired…
Another thing ZUN had been getting right a lot of lately was the start themes. This was another brilliant one, a gorgeous theme that really did set the tone of what this game was all about.
I gave this a go with one shot type per character. With Reimu and Marisa I just went with my personal favourites with them – the amulets and laser respectively. As for Sanae, I went with her B type, which is basically as good as a shot can be without being broken. The range you get is wide, the focus shot helps a ton, the frogs do massive, ranged splash damage, and her bomb gives long invincibility and deals huge damage while looking really cool. She would have been my main playthrough – except I could never really get such a thing going with UFO.
Mostly this is because it’s easily the Touhou game which I’m worst at. There’s just so much on screen to distract me that I never know what to go for. Of course, the most important thing of all in Touhou is to dodge the things everything is firing at you – and yet even I can never remember to do this. It’s why I’m a bad Touhou player in general, really. And UFO has plenty of bullets to worry about – but not enough in the first three stages to overcome the problem. However, I played the ones I couldn’t get to in practice, and by that point there were so many bullets that nothing else really mattered. It’s not UFO’s fault, it’s mine.
But my own personal lack of ability with Touhou games doesn’t disguise the difficulty of this game. It wasn’t quite SA but there was still huge challenge wherever you looked. So, make no mistake, the Touhou magic was still there alright.
Stage 1 fires more bullets than it probably has before here, but the stage itself feels surprisingly light-hearted – the music is upbeat, the sky is clear, it’s all pretty sweet. Stage 2 is a rather cloudier affair but the music makes it quite a bit more epic. The stage itself is cleverly done too, filled with mines which you have to be careful with, picking and choosing your moment to clear them. The stage is great, even if Kogasa’s fights are just plain.
Stage 3 is the weakest point of the game, with no real good music to speak of, and a rather plain boss fight even with Unzan looking all big and menacing. At least it’s still difficult up to this point, although there aren’t many positives in that difficulty itself, or even aside from it. It’s a rare misfire by ZUN’s standards, but the rest more than makes up for it.
And it all starts with Stage 4, which is brilliantly quirky in its own special way. The stage is all bullets, and is a lot of fun, with all the mechanics just sort of blending into the background at this point. The music, while great by itself, feels really silly here, but hey. Murasa’s fight, meanwhile, is as badass as the girl herself. Playing chicken with her anchors is just too much fun, and her big anchor flinging spell is an absolute joy of a challenge. I had to face up to that thing with no bombs, and every time it looked like I might die, I somehow lived. I held up for damn near 30 seconds on that thing, but the way the spell works makes it almost effectively a time-out spell. Still, it’s great. As is her actual time-out spell – Sinker Ghost. It’s like a puzzle, only Murasa’s sounds and teleporting are there to make it even spookier. Arguably, this is the best Stage 4 ever, maybe even topping SA’s effort.
After that, Stage 5 is just brutal. The bullet patterns are rather prettier than the last stage, which just flung it all at you, but even so it’s all a bit mad. Shou, meanwhile, is a terrifying prospect. The curvy lasers really are as scary as everyone says they are – and some of her Light Sign spells are just as mad. I always quite like the visual spectacle when a mass of lasers are put on the screen, but the bullets thrown in between don’t make those easier. And then there’s the Most Valuable Vajra, which is just ridiculous. Maybe too much so, as once again it might as well be a timeout spell, although I’ve always liked a spell that will chase me down.
Then the final stage is just standard affair for its kind, a small buildup with what appears to be the drumbeat from We Will Rock You in the background (someone make that remix please), before you get to the big star of the show, Byakuren. While some of her spell cards are amongst the hardest seen from a final boss, some of her attacks also seem a little too easy. She also takes an attack from Shinki and uses it on you, so make of that what you will. Really, she’s probably a more epic fight on Lunatic, but there was no way in hell I was going there. Either way, there’s some pretty awesome moments within her fight, so she goes down as one of the better final bosses ever. And the extra stage is a nice cool bonus to it all, and I do really enjoy Nue’s fight, even if she’s not the hardest of extra bosses. But I do really like her timeout spells.
Overall, the atmosphere of UFO felt rather lighter than the two games that had come before it, and perhaps slightly more refined, but ultimately not quite as epic. That’s no bad thing as long as the game is awesome but it didn’t perhaps feel quite like what I think a Touhou game should. It doesn’t feel bad, mind. Just a bit odd. With a title like UFO, that was probably part of the point.
And the dialogue was still strong as ever, even without the benefit of three characters at once as SA had. Just the right balance of getting-to-the-point combined with effectiveness, rather than the dawdling pace earlier games sometimes exhibited, or MoF’s relative lack of dialogue. Helping its case even more was each of the six shot types having different dialogue, again. All six have their moments, but just as SanaeB’s shot is the best, so is her dialogue. It’s just so, so funny all the time. That said, while it did define her character somewhat, most tend to focus on her A type’s killer instinct which she brings up mostly due to that shot’s mission – just get into youkai hunting. Frankly, SanaeB speaks much more of her. Her dialogue is the best in any Touhou game, and judging by what dialogue in general has become, hers won’t be topped, ever.
The new characters were all, for the most part, fine, but they were starting to suffer from the sheer number of characters they were having to stand up against. It’s telling that UFO’s biggest character legacy is bringing Sanae, who’d been around for two years already, to prominence. Mind you, Byakuren has earned plenty of much deserved popularity, even if I question who it’s coming from sometimes. The rest of the characters haven’t fully taken off, although Murasa definitely deserves better and Nue probably does too. These characters would also start what I think has become something of an issue with every brand new character since, although by themselves they’re all fine (well, OK, I’ve never really liked Kogasa or Shou) and anyway, when they first appeared, that issue hadn’t manifested itself.
Lastly, the music was, on the whole, very strong yet again. Certainly, Stage 1 got a good deal with two great songs, and I like The Sealed Cloud Route a lot. Again, Interdimensional Voyage of a Ghostly Passenger Ship is great on its own, if wholly unfitting for Stage 4, and Stage 5, Stage 6 and the Extra Stage are all blessed with two great songs. Yet again, it’s worth admiring just what brilliance ZUN seemed to be able to make in all aspects of Touhou in these years, probably his best of all. It’s as if the trajectory of Touhou itself has been like a rock band. Both in good ways and bad, but we’ll get to those later.
That said, if you’ll forgive the mangled music band cliches, UFO was, in this ‘second trilogy’ of MoF, SA and itself, very much a ‘rocky third album’. But not so rocky it turned anyone off. Indeed, UFO is still very much a great game in its own right, still amongst the series’ best, even if some of its elements might be acquired tastes, compared to what had come before. But make no mistake, the whole package was another delicious Touhou offering. ZUN had greatness in his hands – now he just had to keep it rolling on and on.