If you frequent anime-centric groups online, you might’ve heard of the Japanese indie series Touhou. The Touhou Project (or Touhou for short) is a bullet hell series created by Jun’ya “ZUN” Ota, the sole developer behind Team Shanghai Alice. The amount of depth that goes into Touhou in terms of character designs, stories, and levels have popularised the series in Japan. However, it’s hard to get into for a couple reasons.
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First off, many of the games don’t have official translations. The Touhou community relies on patchers like Thcrap for translating games. The games themselves are also pretty difficult—or, at least, a good chunk of them are. The setting and characters, though compelling and unique, also suffer from a lack of exposition in most of the main games. A “very Touhou” thing to do is drop the player straight into a scenario without much explanation about the world at all.
Most consider Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil (the sixth Touhou game) as the series’ starting point in terms of story. However, it’s not available on Steam. In fact, the first five games need an emulator to play, and games before Touhou 10 (Ten Desires) haven’t been released on Steam yet. That being said, these few games should serve as reasonable starting points for any interested parties looking to get into Touhou. Take a look at the best Touhou Games for beginners:
Touhou Fuujinroku ~ Mountain of Faith
Mountain of Faith (MoF) serves as a “soft reboot” of the series, with Reimu and Marisa starring as the only two playable characters. Reimu receives an unsettling visit from a stranger who offers her an ultimatum: close the Hakurei Shrine or wait for the god of Yokai Mountain to take it over. Players trek up the mountain as either Reimu or Marisa to face the god and save the shrine.
MoF simplifies bombing mechanics with a meter that stores up energy as players collect power items. Players are locked at three lives, which might make later levels more difficult if they don’t earn enough points for extra lives. Despite that, the lack of score systems makes it a more accessible point for beginners to enjoy even if it isn’t as challenging for veterans.
Touhou Shinreibyou ~ Ten Desires
Ten Desires is one of the easiest in the series—both a good and bad thing, depending on the player. Reimu and Marisa notice more divine spirits creeping around Gensokyo than usual and decide to investigate. Secondaryr characters like Sanae and Youmu add their own motivations to the plot; Sanae seeks to harness the spirits’ power while Youmu wants to eliminate them.
Players must collect spirits that come in four colours (blue, gray, green, and purple) to fill up their “trance gauge,” which lets them enter an invincible state once filled. Patterns tend to be slower and easier to dodge, though some argue that the boss patterns vary enough to keep challengers entertained. However, the spirit collecting mechanic isn’t definitive of Touhou games as a whole, so it might throw off beginners who want to focus on the basics.
Touhou Tenkuushou ~ Hidden Star in Four Seasons
Hidden Star in Four Seasons (HSiFS) stars Reimu, Marisa, Aya, and Cirno in their investigation of the shifting seasons in Gensokyo. Locations are unnaturally split into different seasons, with the Hakurei Shrine stuck in springtime and more. HSiFS also marked the series’ Steam debut (a couple months after its initial release), ending the need for fans to pirate games.
Instead of spirits like in Ten Desires, players use a “sub-season” system that involves seasonal themed items like cherry blossoms and snowflakes for boosts. These items, also known as sub-seasons, can be released as a bomb to clear multiple enemy projectiles at once. HSiFS and its successor, Wily Beast and The Weakest Creature, embody beginner-friendly gameplay with slower bullets and forgiving hitboxes.
Touhou Kikeijuu ~ Wily Beast and Weakest Creature
Wily Beast and Weakest Creature incorporates a mechanic unique to the game with animal spirits replacing shot types. Reimu, Marisa, and Youmu find out about animal spirits supposedly planning to overtake Gensokyo and travel into the equivalent of hell to stop them. Wolf, Otter, and Eagle spirits appear to aid them on their quest.
Players choose between three animal spirits—Wolf, Otter, or Eagle—to take advantage of their distinct abilities. These animals also change the personality of the player character depending on which one they equip. For example, the Wolf spirit increases damage when the player is in focus mode and changes the character personality to be more aggressive.
Honourable Mention: Touhou Lost Word
Touhou Lost Word is actually a fanmade game even though it has an official license from Team Shanghai Alice. While not a bullet hell, Lost Word is an easily accessible mobile gacha RPG that faithfully represents the Touhou world and its characters. It introduces the setting and main characters, a boon to players new to the series, before kicking off the game. It unfortunately doesn’t embody the essence of Touhou gameplay because it’s not a bullet hell game, but it’s good for lore exposition.
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These are just a few recommendations out of many. If you end up liking Touhou enough to want to know more, but either don’t have time to pick up the games or find them too difficult, you can read the manga or wikis to learn more about the story. Some Touhou fans even suggest this as the main mode of teaching beginners about the thread of stories behind the series, because it’s quicker than traversing through the games themselves.