Welcome back to Games That Time Forgot, where we look at the games that nobody talks about. So let's talk about danmaku or bullet hell, as it's often called. A sub genre of the shoot 'em up, which is a niche genre in and of itself, the point of these games is to dodge an array of bullets, often in fancy patterns, where it's less about taking out the enemy and more surviving and not getting hit. There are a surprising number of games in this genre, but today we're looking at the game that not only helped make the genre popular, but also made its series and genre a huge deal in the Japanese indie scene: Touhou: The Emodiment of Scarlet Devil.
Right now there are probably a few questions going through your head right now. For those of you who have never heard of this game are asking "what the hell is a Touhou?!" For those of who know what this and are of a certain age, you're having memories of hearing a certain part of this soundtrack with a video of Ronald McDonald, and I promise you we will talk about that. And to everyone else, you're probably asking "man, screw this, where's Big Chungus?!" But regardless of where you fall, the one question I'm sure you're all asking is also "why?" After all, even among indie games, Touhou is a series that is still pretty obscure even among indie games. And yet despite it being unknown to your average gamer, the series has a had an incredibly long shelf life, ranging from multiple games (with the 18.5 one releasing recently, and on Steam no less), various fan projects, and has been the inspriration for a couple of big indie games, I think it's only fair that we take a look at Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, the game that kicked off the Touhou series as we know it, as well as the game celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
So with that all established, let's put a giant ribbon in our hair, hop on our broom, and blast some killer tunes while dodging pretty patterns of bullets, this is Touhou: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. Oh and for those of who want Big Chungus, here you go. Don't say I never did anything for you.
Embodiment of Scarlet Devil was released for the PC on August 11, 2002 in Japan, and......wait actually that's it. It never got an official release outside of Japan. Huh. Anyway, the game was developed by one man Jun'ya Ota, who also goes by the psuedonym ZUN, and who I'll address as such for the rest of this. Now, unlike previous games, where there was an interesting backstory to the game's development, Embodiment of Scarlet Devil doesn't have anything like that. Instead, most of the interesting stuff comes from ZUN himself, so I'll use this time to talk about him. Because while there were things about him that I knew about, there were others that I wasn't, so now you get to learn with me!
ZUN was born in Hakuba on March 18th, 1977, and described himself as a "normal countryside boy". He was raised mostly by his grandmother who was strict about playing video games, but when he did play, he was impressed and inspired by the likes of SonSon, Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter II, which if you play any of the Touhou games, are influences you can totally see. He was inspired by shoot-'em-ups, but instead wanted to make one which starred a miko, or a shrine maiden, akin to Pocky & Rocky. He joined his high school's choir, and it inspired him to get into game music. Keep those last two points in mind, because they'll be on the test-I mean play an important part of Touhou.
ZUN worked as a programmer for Taito from 1998-2007, where he worked on a few decently sized games, his most famous being Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color, as well as its sequel Graffiti Kingdom. None of the games he worked on were huge, at least not as big the series he would be famous for, but it was enough to keep the lights on while he was doing other stuff. Speaking of other stuff, he also made five Touhou games for.....the PC-9800 series computers. Yes, while they aren't talked about that much these days and have been mostly swallowed up by time, Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is actually the sixth game in the Touhou series. I'm not going to talk too much about those games, because to be blunt, I don't like them, but they are important because they were the first games that ZUN made that would help shape the future games that would make him famous.
Which is funny, because he initially ended the series after the fifth game, and was content to stay as a developer at Taito. But the itch to go independent again popped up in 2001 so he applied to have some of his music sold at that year's Comiket event, a convention that happens twice a year in Japan to promote smaller indepedent doujin creators; he was rejected. So he decided instead to make a game and put his music into that instead. And so, at Comiket 62, ZUN would release a new Touhou game, and as they say, the rest is history.
Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is a game really brought back memories. The first Touhou game that I played was the seventh game, Perfect Cherry Blossom, and I didn't play that until 2009, which by then made the game about six years old. I did play this one and bunch of others later, but despite not having played these games in years, there was still some good memories that came rushing back to me when I booted this up. Memories of joy, because I was playing a great game, sadness because I am older and time doesn't slow down for any of us, and anger because a game starring a magical shrine maiden was kicking my ass on a constant basis, which lead to a lot of swearing. A lot of swearing.
Embodiment of Scarlet Devil has a plot, but it's not the focus. In the land of Gensokyo, where humans and youkai co-exist, there's a shrine maiden named Reimu Hakurei, who's job it is to often fix problems when things go to hell in Gensokyo, which is every day that ends in 'y'. This game is no exception, as a mystery mist is coming from the Scarlet Mansion, making the land dark and causing youkai to be a bit more aggressive than usual. Reimu and her best friend, a witch named Marisa Kirisame, go to investigate and get to the bottom of this mysterious red mist. Along the way they meet a ton of youkai who imepede their process, include the ice fairy Cirno, who claims to be the strongest fairy but is more the franchise equivalent of Krillin, the mansion's guard Hong Meiling, the mysterious mage Patchouli Knowledge who lives in the mansion library, the knife throwing time stopping maid Sakuya Izayoi (yes, that's a motherfucking JOJO reference), and finally the head of the house, the vampire Remilia Scarlet. The story itself isn't that deep, but to the game's credit, it goes a long way in making things more interesting, and in a weird it helps you know when to focus and get serious, since you only interact with characters that are going to be boss fights and thus know when you should really focus.
The game is broken up into six levels, with an extra level unlocked after you beat the game without getting a game over, where Reimu or Marisa fight waves of weak enemies in elaborate patterns and that show up on the screen. They'll shoot at you in different patterns but for the most part they aren't too much trouble; just shoot them to get power-ups, points, extra lives, etc. You can take one hit, and when you lose all your lives, you can use a continue, and when those are gone, your game is over. All pretty standard stuff that you would see in a top down shooter, but what sets Embodiment of Scarlet Devil and the rest of the series apart is the danmaku portions, or bullet hell. And let me tell you: if you've never played this game, you aren't ready for what you have to deal with. Seriously, just take a look at this:
After your character and the boss chat, the fight begins. Normally, the fight starts off pretty basic with said boss throwing projectiles at you, shooting at you in some unique and difficult patterns at first, but then things get serious when the boss' portrait appears and they fire off an even crazier pattern, which fills up the screen and is borderline impossible to dodge. So how do you beat this game then? Well you're not completely doomed, because as part of the game's controls you have a special button that lets you strafe. You see, hit boxes work a bit differently in Touhou games, in that they aren't on your whole character, but rather a dot in the middle. This enables you to be able to pass through bullets and not die, and you even get points based on how much you graze bullets. As an added bonus too, when you strafe, your shot changes to the front of your character, thus dealing more damage to enemies, though you of course move a lot slower. It can be a little hard to tell what hit you, though thankfully later games did fix this by having a dot show up on your character. But even if you knew what was coming out and what to avoid, it isn't going to help you out that much.
Let me be very clear here: Touhou: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, and well the entire series in general, is hard. Really hard. Like easily one of the hardest games and franchises that I have ever played. Pick the hardest game you ever played, multiplied it by 100, and it still probably isn't as hard as this series. The patterns are insane and are as beautiful as they are dangerous. I know that video I showed you earlier was the lunatic difficulty, a.k.a the hardest difficulty, but even if it wasn't, this game is still really challenging, and will hand you your ass over and over again, until you, as the experts say "git gud". You do have continues, but if you use one and beat the game, you automatically get the bad ending, and playing it on easy mode will just lock you out of the final level entirely. So yeah, this game is hard, it doesn't care about your feelings, and if you want to get the best ending and unlock the extra stage, you're going to have to suck it up and learn everything about the game.
And I totally love it.
Let me tell why that's a big deal: I'm not someone who plays games necessarily for their difficulty. I'm not ashamed to knock the difficulty of a game down if I feel it's too hard, most older games from the NES and SNES era I've beaten through emulation and save states and rewinds, and I feel absolutely no shame with using a guide or a walkthrough for a video game. Here's my hardcore gamer card back if you want it, though if you must know, I never once used the Super Guide or any other hint system in any Nintendo game that had it; even I have some pride. That's not to say that I don't hate hard games or that I've never played or beat them "legitimately", since I love games like Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts, Donkey Kong Country 2, Super Castlevania IV, Devil May Cry 3, Mega Man X Zero, and Bloodborne to name a few difficult ones, and I've even done some really tough in game challenges, like fully completing all three Donkey Kong Country games, 100 percent clearing Yoshi's Island, getting all the Chaos Emeralds AND Super Emeralds in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, getting all the stars is Super Mario 64, etc., so I can and have done it.
But the thing is that I did all of that not on my first run, but rather over time, learning tricks, and yes occasionally looking up guides for stuff I forgot. But through all of it, I found myself having a great time, and Touhou taps into that same design of "hard but rewarding" gameplay that while isn't for everyone (I admit I can be the same at times), is just the right amount of that makes you want to come back. It also doesn't hurt either that the music in this game, or really the series is incredibly badass.
Yes, to the three Touhou fans who are reading this and were screaming at their screens when I could get to it, here we go: the soundtrack from Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is fantastic, and has some of the best music tracks in any video game. Everything from the first stage theme, up to the infamous theme of the hidden boss, every track really pumps you up and makes every encounter feel intense, especially the final boss theme really absorbs you into the world of Touhou, and it is easily the stand out part of any game in the series. The music is up on YouTube and Spotify so if you take nothing else from this, listen to the music; you won't regret it. The graphics, especially in this game......aren't as great, specifically the character portraits, but come on. It was a game designed by one person, so of course something had to come up short.
Just be glad it wasn't the gameplay.
So for a game that isn't as well known in most circles, Embodiment of Scarlet Devil had a major influence on the Japanese indie scene and the Comiket convention scene as a whole. I don't know if I'll be able to cover all of it, because there is a lot, but for now let's see what impact this game had.
While it never got any big reviews here nor are there any sales numbers, Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is reportedly still the best selling game in the series, even getting physical copies sold as recently as 2021, and is listed as a big influence by Undertale designer and Pokemon composer Toby Fox, because of course it did. The characters have gotten numerous fan works and games that have spawned from this, including two Castlevania style games (you know, because vampires), a couple of fighting games, remixes of the music (including one big one, which I will get to) and even a couple of animes, on top of the games' various sequels and offical spinoffs. A lot of the fan work is thanks to ZUN's rather lax policy on fan works, which is as long as no one tries to take sole credit for them, is fair game, which has seriously helped the series survive as long as it has. ZUN has said that he never intends to localize the main games, since he trusts the fans over the localizers, and there are plenty of fan translations to use if you're interested.
Speaking of ZUN, this game and the series are big names in the Japanese indie scene, with the games being huge sellers at every Comiket event that they debut at. While he isn't a household name, the games have done well enough that he can basically make whatever he wants for the rest of his life, like reviewing Japanese beers. No I'm not kidding. He even got married and has a kid, so he's clearly doing really well for himself. So why is this game, and the series as a whole are still somewhat obscure?
I think we all know: it's a bullet hell shooter, an obscure sub genre of the shooter genre. Of course it isn't going to be that big! Normally when I do this, there's a lot to got through as to why a game is forgotten, but I think in this case there really isn't that much to figure out: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is a bullet hell shooter, which is an obscure genre of the mostly out of date shooter genre, which is why the main games almost never get localized but the spin off games like the fighters and the platformers do. It's like asking why your skiffle band isn't being played on the blues station. At the same time though, I do also concede that due to the influx of fan art and works that there's a very strong possibilty that there are fans of Touhou who never played the games and only know them from dojins and the like, much like how there are fans of Super Smash Bros. who have never played the games that are represented and Kingdom Hearts who have never seen a Disney movie that are in the games (yes, those people do exist). Heck there's even a possibility that your first exposure to the series was some of the memes, which segways perfectly into what some of you may be looking forward to. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you without context, McRoll'd:
I think if you're a fan of tough games, side scrolling shooters, or both, you owe it yourself to play Emodiment of Scarlet Devil. As for whether it deserves better? That's a tougher question to answer.
I think if you asked ZUN himself if thinks Emodiment of Scarlet Devil deserves better, he would laugh and ask you to get him a beer. This game and the rest of the series have done well enough that he can make whatever he wants and not have to worry about working for anyone else, and that is incredibly respectable. On the other hand, I also wouldn't be opposed if this game had been released outside of Japan in some form. I don't know if it would have been a big deal, since again it's an obscure game in an obscure genre, but still. It's not like these games aren't hard to find if you look for them, especially since a couple are on Steam, but it still would have been nice.
Since Halloween is coming up, I'm going to have to do a game that is a lot more spooky this time to get into the season. But what will it be? I won't say it here, but it has something to do with a game made by legendary horror game developer Shinji Mikami. What can it be? You'll have to wait and see.