The Touhou Project is a series of “bullet hell” shoot-em-up games. In these games, the player controls a character within a 2D plane and needs to dodge large quantities of bullets. These games tend to be fairly difficult, testing players’ reflexes and in some cases logic as well (for example, many patterns are aimed at or relative to the player’s position; misdirecting such patterns can be useful).
I wouldn’t say my reflexes are very good. Nonetheless, good progress can be made using careful resource management; players are given tools in the form of lives (extra chances after getting hit) and bombs (single-use abilities that clear the screen and deal damage to enemies). The eleventh installment of the series is called Subterranean Animism (SA), and I’m choosing to look at it for this post because it is widely regarded as the hardest game in the series to clear on normal difficulty. For most of these games (on normal), I can just sit down, play the game, dodge bullets and win. There were two exceptions – the fifteenth entry Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom (but even then that only took about five attempts), and SA. SA required a nontrivial amount of planning – I had to learn some of the specific patterns, and also chose a shot type I wouldn’t normally pick.
I generally play Touhou games on normal with an aim to complete the game on a single credit; this is called a “1 Credit Clear” or 1CC. I’m generally somewhere in between difficulties; I’m fairly comfortable with Normal in most cases, but Hard is hard (the game also has an even harder Lunatic mode). I’ve successfully completed 1CCs of most of the games in the series on Normal, and a few of the easier ones (7, 8, 10) on Hard. SA was the toughest game in the series for me to 1CC; it is also the last one I did, at least from installments 6 through 16.
Touhou games usually start the player with two spare lives; this is true in SA as well. However, the bomb mechanic is different from other games, which give the character a fixed number of bombs per life. In SA, players sacrifice some of their shot power when using a bomb. A character’s shot power usually ranges from 0.00 to 4.00; this is increased by collecting powerups when fighting stages or bosses. Firing off a bomb costs 1.00 shot power (and cannot be done if one is below 1.00). This can be frustrating, as some patterns become more than proportionally harder if the player’s shot power is low. When a character is hit, she (the games feature an all-female cast) will drop powerup items such that shot power will be reset to at least 2.25 (higher if shot power was at least 3.00). There is an exception – if it is the character’s last life, a full powerup item will drop that sets shot power to maximum.
The game also has mechanics for earning additional lives. In SA, boss enemies have a staged health-bar with multiple patterns; if the player defeats a pattern within the time limit and is not hit, a life fragment will drop; five life fragments result in an extra life. Bombs are allowed.
A Touhou game is divided into six stages; typically stages 1 through 3 are mostly a non-event for me. That said, for SA, the boss of Stage 3 has a few fairly nasty attacks. Most of my aforementioned “blind” or casual 1CCs involve racking up large stocks of lives and bombs on these stages, and then utilising these aggressively in the later stages. We can see this on SA, as well as on what is often regarded as one of the easier entries in the series, Imperishable Night (IN); the first death on SA is at the end of stage 4 while that on IN is at the end of stage 5. That said, I’m actually already failing to dodge patterns as early as stage 3 or 4. It’s important to be willing to use bombs to deal with difficult patterns, as they are much easier to recover (by subsequently picking up powerup items) in SA. This becomes even more important in other games like IN, where bombs that are unused when a player is hit just go away.
Touhou games usually give the player a choice of multiple player characters, and sometimes for each character different weaponry. Typically, different characters have different movement speed and possibly some other advantages or disadvantages, like having a smaller hit-box or extra bombs. In terms of weaponry, players may select from different normal shots and bombs, which usually have balanced trade-offs. For example, one may pick a homing shot which does less damage but can hit enemies anywhere on the screen, or a shot that only shoots straight ahead but does more damage.
Earlier, I mentioned being able to sit down and just play the game; in most cases this involves the main character of the series, called Reimu, who usually (and in SA) has relatively slower movement and a small hit box. I also normally use her homing shots for a first playthrough, even though I usually prefer straight shots after I get more comfortable with the game. These don’t quite exist in SA.
Apart from slightly different shooting and movement mechanics, many Touhou games also feature a medium to late stage boss (often on Stage 4) which adapts her patterns to the player’s character selection. This is on full display in SA as well; the Stage 4 (out of 6) boss has a relatively easy warm-up battle that is static, before reading the player character’s mind and creating patterns from that (which differ depending on the character and shot type).
Most of the time, the different variants of patterns the boss uses are quite balanced. However, this isn’t the case in SA and thus influenced my selection. Although I find ReimuA (with straight shots) is best equipped to handle the Stage 5 and 6 bosses, the Stage 4 fight one has if one makes this choice is extremely difficult, I’d say possibly even harder than the later bosses. Pictured above is Double Black Death Butterfly; it isn’t apparent from the picture, but some of the butterfly bullets are rotating inwards (and so one needs to dodge bullets possibly coming from behind as well). I thus picked ReimuB (which has a weakly homing shot, a relatively easy Stage 4 fight and a special ability to gather powerups from anywhere on the screen) for my 1CC.
Learning the Patterns
Of course, even with careful resource management it’s unlikely that one can perform a 1CC if one’s dodging skills are too far below the bar. While some of the patterns are random and/or based mainly on reflexes, others have a certain trick to them that makes the pattern a lot easier once figured out. With experience, one can figure out common elements and ways to deal with them (for example, a stream of bullets fired at the character’s position; move slowly, but to change directions make a sudden quick movement to open up a gap in the stream) – this drives most of the “sight-read” clears.
In a sense, good resource management is less critical (consider that one can completely ignore the resource system if one can reliably dodge every single pattern in the game) if one can dodge the patterns. That said, it’s actually possible to clear one these games even if one is quite poor at dodging them, if one makes good use of the resources one has.