Having taken something of a scattergun approach to release dates of late, ZUN had resumed a more normal schedule now, as he announced a game for the next realistic time after DDC’s release – at Reitaisai 11, in May 2014. It was yet another side game, but Reitaisai is traditionally a time for side games anyway so it’s not like anyone was complaining.
This side game was another unique spin on Touhou as we know it, and this was perhaps its maddest twist yet – and it came in the form of a name that summed it all up; Impossible Spell Card.
The character was an unexpected one, especially given how recently she’d come about. Seija Kijin put herself forward as a playable Stage 5 character in a way no other had before, and her power provided the perfect ploy for the game, which is to find a way to dodge impossible spell cards. (PS. They aren’t actually impossible, but you try and tell the average player that…)
To dodge these supposedly impossible spell cards, Seija uses nine different “cheat” items to get away from all those nasty evil bullets trying very hard to kill her. You unlock each as the game goes on, and you equip one as a main item and one as a sub item. The main item is the actual ability you can use to dodge the bullets, whilst the sub item gives an added effect to the ability.
Among the items Seija gets to use are a yin-yang orb which puts her in front of the enemy (or makes her hitbox smaller), a camera like Aya and Hatate’s (which can also increase her speed), an umbrella giving the same ability as ReimuA in SA to move to the other side of the screen, a Miracle Mallet to damage the boss (or increase the times you can use an item, or its proficiency), a substitute Jizo to let her take one hit, a decoy doll to lead bullets away (or widen your shot), a bomb that removes bullets around its explosion, a lantern to make herself briefly invincible, and some fabric to hide in for a short time.
The great thing about all this though, is that unlike most of the spinoffs of normal Touhou before this, you can actually shoot normally. In fact, you have to shoot the boss down anyway, before you time them out. If you run out of time, they laugh in your face and piss off, meaning you lose. So in spite of all these variables, it’s actually closer to normal Touhou than any spinoff before it. So the result, all told, should be pretty impressive.
This start theme is actually really damn good. Sounds so much cooler and more action-packed than most. ZUN actually meant that, citing how often you spend in the menu as the reason. Good job he did, because this is great stuff. Even the menus themselves are all funky with the arrows in the background, even the silly ones falling in the back.
And the good news is the game is as fun as it should be. All the items have their use once you get them down, and are all fun to use in their own cool little way. The Yin-Yang Orb is sweet once you get it down, the camera is always there for guys who liked StB and DS – except you don’t have to hit the enemy this time – the umbrella is a lot of fun, the bomb is cool, the fabric is limited but solid if you know just how to use it. My personal favourite is the decoy doll, which can really screw some character’s spell cards over. The doll’s wide shot is also perhaps the best sub-item effect. The substitute is obviously cool for scrubs like me, even if it can leave you feeling very helpless as you have to concentrate on dodging with it. The lantern is possibly the best of the bunch, though, with its long invincibility time and giving you a free chance to shotgun the boss. Just make sure you know where you are once it’s gone, though. The Mallet, though, I can’t see much use for that at all. If you use it and it hits the boss it causes considerable damage, but you never seem to be in front of the boss long enough to make it useful, especially given its long delay. And it’s not like it helps you dodge stuff, either. The sub-item is nice, though.
But the spell cards themselves are all sorts of wonderful. Obviously ZUN was free to go mad with what he had here, and he sure made the most of it. Some are cool to look at, some are great concepts, some are just plain ridiculous, some are actually quite funny, but mostly they’re all vaguely terrifying in some way or another. Just as long as the spellcards were almost impossible, but not quite, you feel he put it in no matter what. The key thing there though, is ‘not quite’. Many players have tried their hand at using no items on every spell card in the game, and they’ve met with success. There’s a trophy for it, and everything. This is the cool thing about ISC. StB and DS were based around super-hard spell cards, but the unusual required method of attack tended to dominate more than anything else. Here, if you forgo using items, it’s just you dodging what gets thrown at you. And that’s great. (Just so long as you can beat the boss in time!)
And unlike StB or DS before it, beating each stage feels like it matters because the story is much more involving here. Seija’s speeches help to convey that along with encounters with her former allies, Raiko and Sukuna, as well as the strength of the characters you actually face. And by the end, ZUN isn’t pulling punches with who you face. The last day has you facing Byakuren, Miko, Tenshi, Remilia and Yukari. Before them, the cast is a litter of stars from Touhou’s past, and it’s all very excellent in that regard.
Even the music here sounds better than it should do for a simple side game. Quite apart from the nice start screen, Cheat Against the Impossible Danmaku from the first stages is a terrific song, and the final stages song, Eternal Short-Lived Reign, sounds good as well. Of course, Reverse Ideology reappears in all its greatness, and even The Youkai Mountain ~ Mysterious Mountain reappears once again.
I think Impossible Spell Card is comfortably the strongest shmup-based side game in the series to date, because it feels closer to Touhou at heart than the ones before it, and also because it happens to be a fantastic twist on the formula without reinventing a bit chunk of the formula entirely. Make no mistake, this is one cool game to play through. If you want a test of your Touhou skills, this is the one to go for. Maybe even a no-item playthrough, if you so choose…