All images courtesy of touhouwiki
In my ever-continuing quest to hit all the big franchises I missed growing up, Touhou is my most recent attempted conquest. Despite being the sixth in the franchise, this specific title is the first in the series anyone is able to play unless they have a working PC-98 emulator, which I don’t. Full disclosure, at the time of writing this review, I have not yet managed to beat The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, for reasons I’ll detail below. However, I’ve sunk a decent amount of hours into attempting, and I’d like to share my thoughts.
Touhou, developed by ZUN, is a Japanese “danmaku” game, or as we in the states call it, a top-down bullet hell shoot-’em-up. You play as one of two girls, Reimu or Marisa, on their quest to determine the source of a mysterious red mist that’s covering the land. Reimu, maiden of the Harukei shrine, feels a responsibility to restore the world to its normal state, and Marisa thinks whoever’s behind all this might have some valuables to loot. They’re, uh, not quite on the same wavelength there.
Although the story differs somewhat depending on who you choose to play as, you progress through the same levels and fight the same enemies. Whichever girl you plays as starts by flying over a lake, where they fight waves of smaller enemies; Rumia, a spirit of darkness; and Cirno, an ice fairy. These early bosses help introduce you to the spellcard system. Each boss and midboss has a spellcard that will activate either when their HP gets to a certain threshold, or after a certain amount of time goes by. Said spellcard will activate a fantastic bullet pattern that you have to survive while knocking out their health meter. While the bosses have a variety of spellcards, they’ll be the same every time, so you’ll get better at dodging them each time you encounter them.
It’s also worth mentioning that Reimu and Marisa have spellcards as well, but they only have one. At the beginning of the game, when selecting your character, you’ll also choose their spellcards. Reimu, who has a wider bullet spread and can take out enemies in a cone in front of her, has the choice of “fantasy seal”, which acts as a strong homing attack, and “evil sealing circle”, which is a weaker attack that wipes across the screen. Marisa, who’s stronger but has significantly less spread, gets “stadrust reverie”, which fires in a circle around her, and “master spark”, which is a powerful laser that shoots in a cone in front of her. Stardust reverie is better when you’re surrounded, and master spark is better against bosses, which are in front of you. Using a spellcard will also wipe the screen of bullets, so they’re good to use when you find yourself in a tough spot.
After the second level, the protagonist finds Meiling, (who’s clearly a favorite of ZUN as he gives her the awe-inspiring title of “Chinese Girl” and managed to spell her name wrong), and they give chase through the third level. She leads them to the Scarlet Devil Mansion, where the latter half of the game takes place. The fourth stage takes place in the library, with a minor demon as the mid-stage boss, and a sickly librarian as the stage boss, who’s defeated by the protagonist… who are the good guys here, again?
If you’ve been played the game for even a couple seconds, you’ve certainly noticed red and blue tiles dropping from defeated enemies. The red tiles are “power” tiles, which improves your capabilities. Every time you reach a certain threshold, your bullet spray will become more and more powerful, until reaching 128, at which point it maxes out. The blue tiles simply add to your score, and should be avoided unless you have the specific goal of getting a high score.
I mentioned that this is essentially an arcade game, and the score system is built in to the game. You get points by defeating enemies and bosses, collecting blue tiles, and surviving enemy spellcards without dying or using one of your own, among other things. However, your score isn’t just a declaration of how well you’ve done. The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, as well as other Touhou games in this era of the franchise, gets harder the higher your score gets. This means that if your sights are specifically set on beating the game, you should try to avoid the blue tiles and avoid getting the spellcard bonus during boss fights to make the game just that little bit easier on yourself.
As you progress into the mansion, you encounter Sakuya, the mansion’s maid. Despite fighting her a total of three times throughout the story, she ends up as a playable character in several later titles, including the very next game in the series. When you beat this stage, if you’re playing on easy mode, the game will end right then and there and tell you to play on normal or higher. If you are on normal or higher, you get to move on to the final stage. After fighting Sakuya again, you get to the end boss: Remilia Scarlet, owner of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, and the one behind the red mist covering the land. She explains that because she’s a vampire and can’t survive in the sun, she created the mist so she could go out during the day.
Once you defeat her, the mist stops and you get to see the game’s ending… as long as you didn’t use a continue. You get three continues to use throughout the game, but if you use one, you’ll just get the same ending you’d get for beating the game on easy. Reimu/Marisa fail to stop the mist, and go back home defeated. If you do truly beat the game, however, you’ll get one of four endings. To see all of them, you’ll have to beat the game four times: twice for each girl using each spellcard. While I do think the inclusion of two slightly different storyarcs with two different playstyles each is enough to make trying to beat the game over and over manageable, personally I don’t think it’s worth trying to get each and every ending.
Fortunately, you only have to beat the game once to unlock the extra level. After the mist is lifted, either Reimu or Marisa will return to Scarlet Devil mansion and discover Remilia’s little sister, Flandre Scarlet, who has apparently been locked in the basement for 495 years. Understandably, she’s a bit upset and also not quite used to social interaction, so she tries to fight you. According to the wiki, she has the ability to “destroy absolutely everything”. Despite what seems like an absurdly overpowered ability, you manage to defeat her, and truly beat The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil.
Before closing off, I want to mention the game’s soundtrack. Touhou has always had consistently fantastic music, and The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil helped cement that legacy. Although the soundfont feels a bit weird at time, the music has consistently fantastic melodies and motifs, especially during the battle themes. I can’t help but spend the first couple seconds of stage 3 enjoying the BGM whenever it comes on, and Meiling’s subsequent battle theme is just as fantastic. Hell, part of the reason I wanted to play the Touhou series in the first place was because of RichaadEB’s fantastic cover album Bullet Hell, featuring 14 themes from the series and four from EoSD alone. Even if the game’s of no interest to you, I’d highly recommend a listen. Falkonne‘s covers are pretty great too.
While it can be exhausting to have to restart and play through the entire game when you get a game over, the varying playstyles help to keep it fresh, and it’s insanely rewarding when you finally get good and beat a stage or boss that’s been giving you trouble. Add in beautifully intricate bullet patterns and a sublime OST, and Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is a great game to either make a quick try at when you want to kill time or spend a night trying over and over. Best of all, you can get the older Touhou games for free. If it seems interesting, it’s definitely worth a shot.
Max is a student at Rutgers who likes writing fantasy and playing video games such as Zelda, Mario, Undertale, Earthbound, and Stardew Valley.