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I Just Don't Understand
I'm serious. Why am I so addicted to a series of games that, by all rights, I should stay as far away as I can from?

Let's think about it.

The danmaku ("bullet hell" for you newcomers) is without number; I'm afraid that I'll start having heart problems trying to dodge them all, patterns and safe spots notwithstanding. And for a few of the games, this is even on Easy Mode.

Aside from Double Dealing Character, the plots are all instigated by those who had good intentions... and to resolve them, you must control either the hard-hitting Marisa Kirisame or the methodical Reimu Hakurei (or an occasional guest character) through six stages, blasting everything in sight in order to reach them.

The characters—-each and every one of them—-are oddballs to varying degrees. Amongst others, we have: a child-sized oni who is never seen sober (Suika Ibuki), a vampire who escapes sunlight with a parsol (Remilia Scarlet), she who adores superior firepower (the aforementioned Marisa), an amanojaku who probably took a few hints from Hunchback of Notre Dame's Clopin (Seija Kijin), and a lazy overseer who'd sic a runaway train on you given half a chance (Yukari Yakumo). The statement that there is no common sense in Gensokyo is completely true.

The artwork, especially in the older games, is rather low-quality. The gameplay (tons of bullets aside) is simplistic, for the most part. The music is excellent, but from an outsider's perspective that's the series' only real plus.

So why do I like these games? I just don't understand.

And I don't care.

Because regardless of all the negatives, the series as a whole is—I feel—second only to the NES's Super Mario Bros. trilogy as the greatest games I've ever played.
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The Popularity is Inexplicable
The shoot-'em-up genre is, at its most basic, a simple genre. You go forward on a vertical or horizontal plane, enemies swarm at you, you push a button to shoot things, and the bullets hurt things enough to make them die. It provides a nice skeleton, but it's still just a skeleton—you need to add different elements onto it in order to flesh it out into something whole.

  • Guwange used "shikigami" to add a tactical option to combat: the ability to attack in directions/areas you couldn't reach and slow down enemy fire at the cost of reducing firepower.
  • Gradius had the legendary "Option" system, which opened up hundreds of strategic possibilities—should I save this until later and get a better upgrade, or become better now?
  • Jets N' Guns allowed you to customize your ship with whatever weapons, shields, movement abilities, and even paint you wanted.
  • Twinkle Star Sprites revolutionized shoot-'em-up multiplayer by turning it into a competitive puzzler with an incredibly saccharine exterior.
  • Radiant Silvergun...well. One could go into an entire essay of what Treasure did right with the glorious Radiant Silvergun.

So...what does Touhou do to separate itself from the pack?

Nothing. It exists only as a plain vanilla bullet-hell shmup, without any real substance and trying to make up for it in sheer style. The graphics are beautiful (except for the character art), the music is wonderful, there's a whole lot of flash...but in the end, it's still just window dressing over the most basic of all staples in the video game world—gameplay.

And how does Touhou's gameplay hold up? In a word, it's lacking. In two words, it's bare bones. That shoot-'em-up basic gameplay overview I said earlier? That's it. Though there's different minor gimmicks from game to game (Undefined Fantastic Object has UFOs that start sucking up items, Imperishable Night has THE clunkiest system for swapping back and forth between people, etc), each game still has a barely-developed gameplay that focuses on nothing more than pretty lights, powerups, and points.

Fantastic for an arcade game in the 70s. Not so much now.

To call Touhou mediocre at best is being generous. With its near-ubiquity across the internet, one would expect something so popular to have more substance.

It does not.
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Why people enjoy the games
I know it must be annoying to see everyone talking about Touhou, It leads to getting sick of it, especially when you donīt see the atractive.

So, I understand that, some may not understand its popularity, the answer is actually the way the fandom behaves contributing a lot of work (but saying tha Zun does nothing is really an exageration and in my opinion a sign that research hasn't been done) but this is not about everything surrounding Touhou, because people must already understand It is what makes it famous, I'm gonna talk about what even some of the fans less care about (some) and the non fans less understand why would it be enjoyable (actually although I like the fan stuff, I rarely whatch it, the games are what I love).

The people who play the game just want some fun dodging the bullet patterns while listening to the music and getting carried away by the visuals. What's the problem with just wanting to dodge bullets? (while people exagerate when saying is the most difficult game ever, it is really challenging and fun).

But that would only say why it doesn't suck or, why it is just averrage, not "why peolpe seem to think Touhou is the mystic embodiment of art, fantasy and magic".

I can say what I feel and probably what most of the fans of the games feel: "Getting surrounded by its atmosphere when playing", It is kind of difficult to explain to people who don't feel it when playing it but is kind of like this: "to get carried away by every bullet hypnotising you and every color on te screen, listenig to the frenzy magic music while you try to gloriously battle for your life and surviving each attack dodging every bullet until you do it by reflex and find a personal Crowning moment of awesome...Yeah, thats in a nutshel what fans must feel but believe me , there are more emotions triggered by it (Probaby, later stages from Perfect cherry blossom can be a great example of what I am saying, which is the one that introduced me to the series and is my favourite).

Also, people are getting annoying with the "awful art" thing, the only game I think has weird art is Subterranean Animism (and is not really awful). just because it is not like the usual anime style does not mean it is automatically awful, I know Zun is not the best artist in the world but I think the art is simply cute and goes with the atmosphere of the game.
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Embodiment of Scarlet Devil
I thought I'd hate it.

Awful art, dubious writing, creepy lolicon subtext, no puzzles, and fans who post You Tube videos of 'Lunatic' runs of impossible difficulty, as if sinking endless hours into a game were something to be proud of. I was not raised on shooters; I am a text adventure person.

But I'd missed the point entirely. The point of Touhou, as far as I can tell, is not to win. There's no reward; nobody will write you a check for all those hours. It isn't to see the ending or follow a coherent plot. The feeling of accomplishment might be there, but it's probably going to be tinged with guilt - don't you have better things to do with your one life on earth?

The point of Touhou is to focus, and achieve moments of absolute, beautiful flow. The point is to develop absolute calm in the face of music and animation designed to throw you off, to make you frenzied and manic. Eventually, you stop seeing the spinning backgrounds and the bullet patterns that distort your motion perception. You stop seeing the bullets at all; eventually, there are only gaps. This happened to me within the space of a week-and-a-half of irregular play.

(Note: I say "irregular play," because there's no way to marathon this game, at least for me. After about forty minutes, it becomes unplayable. Focus just doesn't stay that long. I do best when I pause and do something productive for a while.)

If you are of the mindset that a game is to be BEATEN, and beaten utterly, this ain't the game for you. I'm unlikely to ever see the extra boss (though who knows? I'm getting better). If you take losing personally, or find it frustrating to lose, this game will either turn you off, or break you of that attachment to victory.

You are not there to win. You are there to graze bullets, shoot bombs, admire elegant bullet patterns, and then find gaps in them. When you are doing well at Touhou, you are not playing, but being. Your tiny shrine maiden is an extension of you.

You are the loli.

CONCLUSION: Still creepy, but in a Zen way.
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In The Throes of Obsession
Now, I've never been a fan of the moe style, and I am terribly unskilled at gaming in general, despite long years of practice. Considering that Touhou's fandom is composed mostly of mindless slaves to moe and creepily obsessive powergamers, it seemed unlikely to appeal to me. Oh yeah, and the creepy 4chan Rule 34 of the characters didn't do much to change my overall opinion of the series - for weeaboos only.

But wow. I was completely blown away by Perfect Cherry Blossom, and Imperishable Night is up there on my list of best games of all time. The music is astonishing, the gameplay is well-tuned enough that stupid deaths can almost exclusively be blamed on nerves and stupid dodges, the graphics are very pretty, and the bullet patterns are very creative, especially as new entries come out and ZUN gets the chance to stretch his creative legs. And yes, that's a "he". As in, not a "their". The entire series is made by one Crazy Awesome Japanese guy.

The story may be completely trivial, and the characters might be generic moeblobs, but I guarantee that the first time you manage to beat any Touhou on Normal - yes, even with 5 lives and the Game Breaker character - you will feel like a god. To me, the entire series is just fun. It doesn't need any of the trappings of newfangled games - just an incredibly steep difficulty curve. Yeah, you might think that you're not into hard games, but the feeling that comes with beating Touhou for the first time is one that completely justifies all the hard hours of practice you have to spend to see the credits roll.
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