The Touhou Series

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Yet another venerable indie game, or in this case, series of indie games is the Touhou, or Shrine Maiden series by Zun. The Touhou Project consists of several games, mostly made by Zun, a one-man programming machine from Japan. There are also several fan-made games, but for this review I'll be focusing primarily on Zun's games, and specifically on the shoot-em-ups for PC.
EOSD Screenshot

A simple bullet pattern in Embodiment of Scarlet Devil.

As a bit of history on the Touhou Project, the first games were released by a small gaming company long ago on the Japanese PC-98 computers. Eventually, when the PC-98 computers declined into obscurity, Zun, the creator of the project, turned his focus on the Windows platform. Currently there are 7 games in the series, but the main ones consist of the shooters Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, Perfect Cherry Blossom, Imperishable Night, and the newly-released Mountain of Faith.

The gameplay of each of these games is more or less the same, that being to shoot down as many enemies as you can while dodging obscene amounts of bullets. Along with the usual shoot and bomb commands, you're also able to go into "focus" mode by holding down a button. During focus mode, your character moves a bit slower and has a more powerful and cohesive shot. This makes dodging between the hordes of bullets a lot easier, especially if they're tightly packed. Since the Touhou games are doujin-soft shooters, you control a girl instead of a space ship or jet. Each girl has their own style of attack, whether it's a wide spread or accompanied by homing shots, so there's a wide variety of play styles that differ between characters. There are also some minor features in the games that are quite nice, such as automatically collecting all the powerups on screen when you fly to the top of the screen, and being able to use a bomb to save yourself in the last moment before you die, after getting hit by a stray bullet.

PCB Screenshot

A fancy bullet pattern from Perfect Cherry Blossom

The main feature of the games though, is the beautiful bullet patterns. Each wave of enemy bullets isn't just a challenge to navigate, but also pleasing to the eye. (Something that can be quite distracting at times, as you end up looking at the neat patterns rather than dodging the bullets.) But despite these complex patterns and the sheer number of bullets on screen, the games aren't so hard for beginners to jump in and play. It's a pleasent surprise to find yourself surviving longer than you expected, even if you're only playing on an easier difficulty. And for those who want a challenge, the games can be quite difficult, especially at the higher difficulties.

Graphically, each game is quite beautiful, with smooth artwork that doesn't distract the eye from the important things, like the bullets. In fact, the backgrounds are muted and the player's bullets are slightly faded for the express purpose of making the enemy bullets stand out better, and that's a very important thing when there are so many bullets to keep an eye on. Of course, the graphics get better as the games progress, but overall even Embodiment of Scarlet Devil (the oldest of the bunch) looks quite nice.

IN Screenshot

One of the early bullet patterns in Imperishable Night.

The sound is also done well. The effects are crisp and clear, and more importantly they provide audio cues as to when an enemy is attacking, which is quite helpful if you're focusing on a different area of the screen. The soundtracks are all very well composed. They all have a mystical, ethereal sound that accentuates the atmosphere of the games. For being independant games, the Touhou series has very professional music, and I think that makes an important contribution to the overall feel of the game.

The plot of each game is relatively interesting, I am told. Sadly, the versions of each of the games I played was in Japanese, so I couldn't understand a word of what was going on. There is a translation patch available, but I haven't tried it myself. From what I gather, each story revolves around strange happenings in the land of Gensokyo (which seems to be populated entirely by girls), ranging from odd occurances in the Scarlet Mansion (EoSD) to an issue with the moon and a neverending night (IN). There are enough details to have spawned tons of fanworks (some very, VERY disturbing), but if you aren't interested in such things, the game plays perfectly fine even without the translation patch.

So if you want a huge challenge and some very enjoyable games, check out the Touhou series. They aren't free, but they're relatively inexpensive, so I recommend picking them all up. If I could recommend just one, I'd say to choose Perfect Cherry Blossom, as it's slightly more polished than Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, yet slightly less complex than Imperishable Night (making it more accessible.)

As a final note, I generally try to post games that are either free, run nicely on Linux, or both. Though the Touhou games are not free, most of them run nicely on Linux using Wine. At the time of this writing they aren't perfect, as Imperishable Night has a few graphics glitches (but runs well) and Perfect Cherry Blossom suddenly doesn't work with the recent Wine update, but at least they're on their way.
Info on running the Touhou games on Linux.
Information about buying the games.
Zun's website, where the demos can be downloaded. (Translated via Google Translator.)

Rating:
Highly Recommended