Friday, 10 May 2013

What I like about the Touhou games part 1

Over the past couple of years I've been working my way on-and-off through the Touhou scrolling shooter series of games, created by Junya Ota (more commonly known as ZUN). Recently I beat the 10th numbered iteration, Mountain of Faith, and started on the 11th, Subterranean Animism, and they got me thinking about why I enjoy these games so much. I figured I'd write a bit about it.

Phantasmagoria of Flower View is not included because it sucks I don't like it.

The Touhou games occupy a distinct sub-category of scrolling shooters that's mostly called either "bullet hell" or "danmaku" (lit. bullet curtain) depending on how weeaboo/actually japanese you are. The distinction is a bit fuzzy, but in general a bullet hell game will have a smaller player hitbox and higher bullet density than a game like Gradius or R-Type. I've enjoyed examples of both types, though Touhou is the only bullet-hell series I've played extensively. Cave's Donpachi is apparently credited with codifying the tropes of the subgenre, though the one time I tried one of them (I think Do-Don-Pachi Dai-Fukkatsu) it proved thoroughly too hard for me. The only other ones I can think of that I've played are one-offs: Treasure's fantastic Ikaruga, and a relatively little-known doujin shooter called Samidare.

One of the reasons I find scrolling shooters appealing is the simplicity of their mechanics. The controls and victory conditions are easy to understand: you move in whatever direction you press, and if you touch anything you die. I also enjoy plenty of games with rich, nuanced, subtle workings (the Sonic games come to mind; Starcraft is another, different example; Dota is an extreme case), but I feel there's a nice purity to uncluttered mechanics. As well as making a game easy to understand for a new player, it provides an obvious, direct measure of very basic skills like hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and concentration. Bullet-hell shooters basically exaggerate the principles of traditional scrolling shooters. Rather than your character's hitbox taking up their entire graphic, it will be a much smaller area in the centre of their sprite. Accordingly, the attacks that enemies fire at you can be much more densely packed before becoming impossible to dodge. On a basic level, this means that the action is more intense, and your precision and reactions are that much more taxed. I wouldn't necessarily say that the skill ceiling is always higher as a result (I'm not well-read enough to make blanket statements about the whole genre) but it feels that way, and even though I'm not actually that good at these games, it's gratifying.

This is an exaggerated comparison.
 Of course, individual series or titles add their own specific mechanics on top of this central core. Some will be relevant for the layman just trying to survive all the stages, while others may only relate to the scoring mechanics, and thus only the most hardcore will concern themselves with them. However I feel the best are those that are important at all levels of play. As a good example, Ikaruga's dark/light polarity switching mechanic is central to the entire game: it is practically impossible to survive even the first level without using it, but knowing how to exploit it allows for an extremely high skill ceiling.

This is epitomised by the last boss. If you just gun it down as quickly as possible, it's not too challenging. If you want a high score, however, you have to milk it for bullet absorption, waiting until the last second on the timer before killing it. Which means doing this...

...for 50 seconds.

The Touhou series's signature mechanics are rather modest in comparison. The blue point items dropped by enemies are almost always worth more the higher up the screen they are collected, maxing out at the "Point of Collection" about 1/5 of the way down. Moving above this also usually causes all items on-screen to gravitate instantly towards the player. Most games also feature a "Graze" mechanic, whereby the player is rewarded in some way for passing close to, but not touching, bullets. Combined, these offer incentives for risky, aggressive play. However, they are generally "scoring only" features, and do not hold any inherent relevance for the casual player, outside of possible extra lives at certain score intervals, or game-specific mechanics.

Where I feel the Touhou games excel is in their level design. Although in this case it might be more relevant to call it "pattern design". The actual levels have their own strengths, but it's when the bosses appear that I think the real design happens. As you might surmise from my most recent posts, I like it when design elements work in multiple ways: I like a character design, for example, to look good, but it should also immediately suggest things about the character's personality, their place in their world, their role in a story and, if they're in a game, how they play. The bullet patterns employed by Touhou's bosses touch on this idea, and I feel they're actually getting better with each game.

The patterns are well designed on a basic "gameplay" level. ZUN is pretty good at balancing their difficulty, while making them distinctive and varied such that a player will need specific skills to beat specific attacks. It's not all just twitch reaction or rote memorisation: you need pattern recognition, concentration, patience, endurance, and even planning to get through a whole game's worth of Spell Cards (the series's name for character's special attacks).

They're also pretty just for prettiness's sake. Fitting for a series where all the characters are cute girls.

A boss will generally have overarching themes to their attacks, which helps give each one a distinct identity outside of just their design and personality as written in the dialogue. The enemies aren't nondescript monsters or spaceships, they're characters. Sakuya in Embodiment of Scarlet Devil uses waves of knives in tandem with time-stopping, a likely reference to Dio Brando from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure.

Sanae in Mountain of Faith uses bullets densely arranged in pentagram formations that then gradually unfold and invert in various ways.

However, I feel ZUN is at his most ingenious when he communicates a specific idea through his patterns, especially if it relates directly to the character using them. A very simple, early example is Cirno's "Perfect Freeze" spell card in Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. She sprays bullets rapidly across the screen, freezes them in mid air, then allows them to thaw so they slowly disperse in random directions. Cirno is an ice fairy, so this is thematically fitting for her.

Nitori, the stage 4 boss of Mountain of Faith, is a kappa, thus many of her patterns suggest jets or streams of flowing water in some way.

Even though it was Mountain of Faith that prompted me to write this post, I actually think the following game, Subterranean Animism, has the best bullet pattern design in the series. There are two characters that perfectly sum up what I'm talking about.

In stage 4, a red and black cat appears multiple times as a sub-boss. It assualts you with highly aggressive, screen-filling patterns.

It hounds you again in stage 5, attacking even more ferociously.

 Even though it's just a cat, you get some idea of its personality, just from how it fights you. Then, at the end of stage 5, it appears again, assumes a human form, and finally talks to you... and this cat, Orin, turns out to actually have a very friendly, outgoing, almost cowgirl attitude.

It seems her aggression was more akin to boisterous playfulness. When I first saw this, I thought, "Oh... that makes complete sense too." My perceptions weren't refuted, merely recontextualised. And in this new context, the rest of her attacks, no less vicious than before, make sense in a different way.

The last boss, however, is a work of genius. Reiuji Utsuho is a hell raven who consumed a Yatagarasu, a sun crow, and has thus attained the power of nuclear fusion. She is determined to use this to turn the surface of the earth into an extension of hell. However, even if you skip through her dialogue, her very first attack instantly tells you exactly what she's like, and suggests how the rest of the battle is going to go.

It's simple and not particularly difficult, but also violent and very fast. She's a creature of no great sophistication, but with massive power. She is simple, but brutal - and so are all of her attacks.

Many of her subsequent spell cards involve massive blazing fireballs as projectiles. Their sheer size, orders of magnitude larger than the bullets you're used to seeing, hints at Utusho's bloated, overloaded power.

Spot the miko.
They're so huge that they often mercilessly restrict your available space. It induces a feeling of constriction and oppression in the player... and this is exactly what the character you're controlling would be feeling, fighting in a swelteringly hot environment, with walls of flame in every direction. Just through level design, ZUN manipultes the player's emotions to connect them to their avatar. That's clever.

And her final card is the cleverest of all. Utsuho spawns bullets all over the screen. She then creates an artificial sun in the centre, which begins to gravitate all the bullets towards itself... along with your character!

And it only gets worse, as sunlight starts streaming outwards, and the pull of gravity intensifies... all while the sun gains mass and expands, restricting your movement even further.

Your enemy's power is so great that not only does it violate the physics of the world, but it even directly affects the way that you, the player, interact with it. This isn't suggested by some corny dialogue (the Touhou games do, admittedly, have plenty of corny dialogue), you aren't just told "Her power is too great! She's sucking in everything!" You are made to feel it in a visceral way. One might be reminded of the ending of Shadow of the Colossus, and that is also a fucking amazing game. Of course, games have interfered with a player's controls before, but Touhou's language is so refined, so limited, and so well established that it's a shock to have this happen, for the first time in eleven games. And it's perfectly placed: a fantastic climax to an intense final battle.

Comparing Utsuho to earlier final bosses, she just seems clearly more sophisticated from a design perspective. Remilia's okay. Yuyuko's patterns are absolutely gorgeous, extremely fun to play against, and she's actually one of my favourite bosses in the series for how well she brings together so many secondary elements like pacing and music. Kaguya's spell cards are ingeniously patterned around elements from the story of Kaguya-hime, on which she is based, and takes the game's Last Spell gimmick to a satisfying conclusion. Kanako uses a bunch of very clever and enjoyable patterns. But I don't think any of them approach the level of sophistication of Utsuho's attacks. None of them are so refined and thematically tight: none of them so completely describe the character's personality.

In a way, bullet pattern design like this is the most pure and perfect form of level design. Aesthetically, they're almost like abstract geometric patterns, which is the most basic kind of visual design possible. Functionally, however, they're able to be as complex and nuanced as a designer's imagination can fathom, as the rules of the game itself are so simple that there's almost no way to create something unintuitive or convoluted within it.

There's more to Touhou's clever game design, but I want to save those thoughts for another post.

(By the way, all the GIFs are from my own play on Normal mode.There are two more difficulty levels above this, Hard and Lunatic. And Touhou games are apparently not even considered hard by the shooting game community at large. On that note, if somehow a person who is actually familiar with games like Donpachi and Mushihimesama reads this post, and it turns out that those games do all this stuff but better, I apologise: I just haven't played them.)

Also I offer no apology for the tons of massive GIFs.

Mountain of Faith took me a very long time to beat, so I drew a picture to commemorate the fact. It's just fanart of the dodgy character designs and has nothing to do with what I've gone on about in this writing, but I tried to make it look nice, at least. I made it a bit of an exercise in colour and composition, though I still have lots to work on. Many sincerest thanks to Joe Sparrow (again) for giving me advice and generally being a bro.

More soon (actually never). Also I got sick of the X-Large image preview size being just slightly too wide for the default layout so I actually started dicking around with my blog design finally. I'll probably get rid of that cluttered sidebar at some point, as well as actually maybe concocting a background. It'll be a treat!

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