It has been roughly a month since the momentous end of Comiket 88. The event happened during the weekend starting on August 14th, 2015, and it gave us a glimpse into the grassroots dōjinshi movement in Japan. Most importantly perhaps, Comiket 88 marked the release of the fifteenth installment of the Touhou series: Touhou Kanjuden (Ultramarine Orb Tale): Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom. I have talked about the Touhou series before, and it’s my sincerest hope that the reader will forgive me for repeating myself so soon; but having only recently finished the main scenario of Lunatic Kingdom in its entirety, there’s this feeling that the game demands to be looked at in a very careful and meticulous way.

As mentioned before, the Touhou series are a franchise comprised for the most part of shoot ‘em up games. Touhou is famed for being the work of a single man named Jun’ya Ōta, also known as ZUN. Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom is no exception; every single line of code, pixel, musical note, etcetera were created by ZUN himself, which makes Lunatic Kingdom maybe a bit more impressive overall. As a friendly reminder, this review contains spoilers, as it encompasses the almost the entire game. Sparse as the story in the Touhou mainline games may be, the reader has been warned. Special thanks go to Pazzy, for providing the gameplay screen captures.

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The cover art for Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom.

At the start of Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom: our two perennial women of the hour, Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame, are joined by up-and-coming nouveau-protagonist Sanae Kochiya from Mountain of Faith, the tenth Touhou game; and by Reisen Udongein Inaba, stage 5 boss from Touhou 8: Imperishable Night, who makes her debut as a playable character in Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom. This unlikely quartet of heroines discover that a strange extraterrestrial probe has crashed into a nearby mountain in the land of Gensokyo. Suspecting a possible invasion from powerful beings that dwell in the moon, known as “Lunarians”, the girls go investigate this incident. And in this ominous tone, the game starts.

As usual, the player has to pick one of the four protagonists mentioned above. Each one of the girls has different bullet patterns and bomb properties that might make the game easier or harder depending on preference. Sanae is generally considered the “easier” way to beat the game, while the rest are roughly equal in terms of difficulty, with Marisa slightly edging everyone out in terms of challenge. After that, you are given another selection between “Pointdevice Mode” and “Legacy Mode”. Legacy mode functions similarly to the previous Touhou games, where you have a limited amount of lives and there is no way to save your progress other than finishing the stage you’re playing. Pointdevice mode removes lives entirely from the equation, instead opting for adding chapter checkpoints throughout the stages. When hit by an enemy in Pointdevice mode, the player is returned to the latest checkpoint, and the game resumes as normal. This was a much debated addition, as Pointdevice mode supports the suspension of play sessions, and allows you to continue right where you left off the last time you closed the game in frustration due to being stuck in a particularly tricky part.

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The cast of playable characters. From left to right: Reimu Hakurei, Marisa Kirisame, Sanae Kochiya, and Reisen Udongein Inaba.

Finally, after much ado, you’re placed at the start of stage 1. There’s a beautiful background of greenlands and a forest, along with a charming, extremely energetic tune called That Unforgettable Greenery of Connection which completes the setting marvelously. Typical for a stage 1 theme, That Unforgettable Greenery of Connection, is incredibly upbeat, and ignites these feelings of adventure and wanderlust inside the player. ZUN’s trademark trumpets roar stridently and powerfully in the refrain of the song, following the playful beat of the drums and snares. The stage is as short as the song itself, but regardless of length, you’ll soon find yourself bobbing your head to the quirky melody.

It’s over too soon though, and the boss of the first stage appears. Her name is Seiran and she’s a Lunarian; a creature from the moon, specifically a moon rabbit. Our heroines question Seiran’s motives for coming to Earth, and the only thing she reveals is that she’s with the Lunarian Military Infiltrators. Seiran works alone and she’s tough as nails, wielding her fearsome mochi mallet as a form of intimidation. As the conversation between Seiran and our heroine winds down, her theme begins playing and battle begins. The Rabbit has Landed is the name of Seiran’s song, a reference to the phrase uttered by Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon in the Apollo 11 mission: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”. Clever references aside, the piece is fantastic, it exudes a cool confidence and has a certain frisky tone that is generally present in stage 1 boss themes. The fight in itself is fairly straightforward, but by no means easy. There are no remarkable patterns to see here, nor does Seiran have a gimmick like some Touhou bosses seem to have at times. It’s pure concentration and pattern memorization cranked up to eleven in the higher difficulty levels. Seiran doesn’t give you a whole lot of room with “easy” bullet patterns, also called “Spell Cards”, a staple of the series at large.

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“This is Seiran. I’ve made contact with a belligerent earthling.”

For veterans of the series, the first thing you may have noticed is that if you selected Pointdevice mode, the game is significantly harder than its predecessors. You may not have to worry about lives, but the game is not a downhill cruise down leisure lane. ZUN himself has stated that he implemented Pointdevice mode as a way of making the game as challenging as it could be, and he delivers fully and convincingly. This is where some people might find fault with Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom, as the game sometimes feels as if it is now to be an exercise in frustrating trial-and-error gameplay, much like Super Meat Boy and the Souls series among others.

Once Seiran is defeated, she reveals the fact that she’s part of an invasion force sent to Earth from the moon, and points our heroines towards one of her superiors. And so stage 2 begins, the scenery changes to a blood red moon reflected over a dark body of water, and before long the name of the theme for stage 2 makes perfect sense. The Lake Reflects the Pure Moonlight is a much more serious piece when compared to the previous theme, the intro gives off this feeling of pure determination and unflappable resolve. The instruments may remind you of a fanfare, the brass is incredibly pronounced and there’s an almost royal tinge to the notes in this stage 2 theme. The tempo increases as the stage progresses, highlighting the large amount of bullets being sent your way. And just as the notes of the song are about to hit a crescendo, you get a hint of what you’re about to face as the boss appears throughout the stage to remind you of her presence until it’s time to face her.

Ringo is the name of the boss of stage 2, and she awaits at the end of the stage when the heroines finally manage to defeat her minions. After a short conversation, Ringo reveals she is in charge of “Information Management”, which is a way of saying she’s a spy for the Lunarian Military. The moon is no longer only visible on the surface of the lake, and is clearly and prominently displayed above the horizon. Ringo’s theme, Pumpkin of September, begins playing, and Ringo begins her attack. There’s a bit of an interesting contrast between The Lake Reflects the Pure Moonlight and Pumpkin of September, while both are much more refined and less exuberant than their stage 1 counterparts, Pumpkin of September feels much more delicate during the intro, the piano notes to begin the song give it an unearthly inkling. The fight against Ringo gives the feeling to be orchestrated against her theme song, as the tempo seems to increase whenever she launches a barrage of bullets your way, and goes back to the piano riff whenever there’s a lull in Ringo’s attack. Pumpkin of September is a excellently characterized song, because through it we can see that Ringo is more of a thinker as opposed to a fighter. If one listens closely, you can feel the doubt plastered all over the song and during the battle. It’s very likely that Ringo ponders whether invading Earth is the right thing to do. This hesitation is what ends up being Ringo’s downfall, our heroines defeat her, and she tells them that the shortest way to the root of the problem is through the Dream World. Our heroines are going to the moon to try to end this invasion once and for all, but first, they’re gonna need to have a nightmare.

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The red circles are bullets from the enemy, homing into the player to attempt to score a hit.

Stage 3 is a major thematic disconnect from the rest of the game so far. Since our heroines are walking the path to the moon through the World of Dreams itself, dream-like scenery is to be expected, but it’s jarring all the same. The background of the stage is a strange square grid of contrasting colors: red on black, and pink on blue for the most part. The curiously named theme, The Mysterious Shrine Maiden Flying Through Space, is a delight to listen to. The bright piano melodies, along with the synthesized drums come together extremely well in a most ZUN fashion, and create a beautiful harmony with the rest of the instruments used in the song. As the stage progresses, you’re assaulted by beautiful patterns of bullets that form stars and flowers. The background evolves to show the shadows of cranes taking flight, much like our heroines flying through dreams to get to their destination. Throughout the stage, the “manager” of the World of Dreams, and boss of stage 3, appears every so often to shoot bullets at you. However, she doesn’t fully reveal herself until the moon shows up in the background, gigantic, looming and ominous.

About as foreboding as the moon on the background is the stage’s boss, Doremy Sweet. As soon as Doremy introduces herself as the overlord of the Dream World, the music changes from the relatively placid stage song to her incredibly agitating theme, Eternal Spring Dream. From listening to Doremy’s theme, you can feel as if it’s almost a warning of what is to come. A sense of apprehension and dread hangs heavy in the air as she launches her opening salvos at you. Doremy has a set of beautiful bullet patterns, complemented perfectly by Eternal Spring Dream, making this particular boss fight the high point of the game thus far. The absurdly frantic pace that Doremy sets with her attacks is unrivaled in terms of stage 3 bosses in the entire franchise. The stage 3 boss one of the most difficult fights in the game overall to go in blind, as some of her patterns need either a ridiculous amount of brainpower to read properly, or knowledge from previous failures.

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Doremy Sweet really doesn’t like trespassers coming into the World of Dreams.

Eventually, Doremy relents, and lets our heroines through to the passage that leads to the moon, but not without a warning that the difficulties to come might be the most trying yet. On that note, our heroines arrive at the Lunarian capital, only to find it completely abandoned, seeming even frozen both in time and temperature. The song for this stage is called The Frozen Capital of Eternity, explaining perhaps in part the appearance of the Lunarian city. At first, the theme paints a picture of a perfect calm atmosphere, a peace that lasts forever if you will. But lunacy begins to take hold little by little, it creeps into the notes of the theme and the pace picks up as more and more enemies appear on screen and begin to attack our heroines. Stage 4 may be considered a lull in the game, or perhaps the calm before the storm, as it has a much more laid-back aura than the stage that came before it and will come after it. The euphonious brass that makes its appearance early in the song is noticeably more muted and subtle than the usual ZUN fare, until the trumpets explode into a blaring refrain that highlights the aforementioned lunacy and the boss appears.

Sagume Kishin is the name of the boss of stage 4, and at first this mysterious character does not say much, only admitting that she’s in charge of the invasion forces sent to Earth. Our heroines decide that the only way to make the boss talk is to defeat her, and as such begin to fight her in earnest. Anyone who has played the previous entry in the series, Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character, will perhaps raise an eyebrow to the familiar sounding tune that begins to play. The Wheel of Fortune Turning Over, this game’s stage 4 boss theme sounds intriguingly similar in both composition and tempo to Reverse Ideology, the stage 5 boss theme of Seija Kijin from Double Dealing Character. However, while Seija resorted to a plethora of cheap tricks and infuriating gimmicks, such as reversing your controls so that left is right and right is left; Sagume seems to be a fair bit more restrained in that aspect. Not to say that Sagume is an easy boss, on the contrary, she’s very difficult to defeat and resorts to her own brand of underhandedness. During one of the phases of the fight, Sagume sends a barrage of homing enemies towards the player, and destroying them creates an unmoving obstacle bullet that will not disappear until the phase is over, potentially caging the player into an incredibly small space if caution is not exercised. The Wheel of Fortune Turning Over fits Sagume’s trickster paradigm perfectly as the song has this certain level of flimflam configuration to it; this, along with the fact that Sagume has some strange gimmicks that she uses against the heroines, gives you the feeling that the boss of stage 4 isn’t really taking the fight seriously, but is instead testing the player for her own purposes.

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The start of Stage 4. The Lunar capital sits frozen on the background.

As the fight with Sagume winds down, she reveals the reason why the invasion of the Earth was orchestrated by the Lunarians, and why she speaks so little. For the latter, Sagume is a divine being with the power of changing the world with her words, she has little control over this strange power and anything she says for the most part ends up getting reversed. For the former, the moon is under attack from a force that renders the Lunarians unable to counterattack, so as a backup plan, Sagume had decided to “purify” Earth so that the Lunarians would be able to migrate there if their enemies were successful in capturing and destroying their capital. However, Sagume realizes that our heroines are strong enough that they could help save the Lunarian capital from the invaders and as such makes a deal to call off the invasion of Earth so long as the Earthling girls help her attacking the enemy’s home base in the Sea of Tranquility. In an ironic twist of fate, Sagume reverses the fate of the lunar capital by enrolling the aid of the people sent from Earth to stop her.

 

With renewed determination, Reimu and the others head towards the Sea of Tranquility. And so stage 5 begins. Right at the start of the stage, a character clad in an all-too-familiar stars and stripes pattern speaks and whips the enemy troops, mainly composed of fairies, into a lunatic frenzy. The game’s climax is rapidly approaching and the stage music Faraway Voyage of 380,000 Kilometers reflects this in an amazingly appropriate way. There’s a sense of chaotic hysteria behind the song in the stage. And as you progress through the waves of enemies in front of the desolate moonscape background, you get the sensation that you’re in the middle of a tumultuous battlefield. The infamous lasers of Touhou 12: Undefined Fantastic Object, are back with a vengeance, these red, white, and blue beams of power are a challenge to dodge without cornering yourself into an inescapable situation. Regardless if you’re playing on Pointdevice or Legacy mode, Stage 5 is where most every player will die repeatedly in increasingly inflaming and baffling ways. Among all this madness, the boss’s stage finally appears. What happens next, nobody could have ever predicted, and the fanbase was out-of-sorts for a good while after.

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An adorable machine of murder.

 

Her name is Clownpiece, a fairy from hell; she’s clad in a star-spangled outfit, much like the flag of the United States of America. The fight with Clownpiece takes place on the area around the Sea of Tranquility, so it comes to reason that Old Glory was found somewhere in her jaunts across the lunar surface, a souvenir left over from one of the many Apollo missions to the moon. This eccentric character is the captain of the fairies causing so much chaos and destruction in the moon’s surface, and it’s our heroine’s job to stop her once and for all. At first Clownpiece seems to be scatterbrained and ditzy, but once her theme, Pierrot of the Star-Spangled Banner begins playing it becomes clear that she’s an incredibly dangerous opponent. The song’s intro is overwhelmingly sinister, and quickly takes on a melody that on the exterior appears playful and merry, but if you listen closely you can feel the balefulness creeping beneath the surface. Pierrot of the Star-Spangled Banner stomps, stings and rings along a forbidding gothic road that few songs in the Touhou series dare to tread. The song is an absolute masterpiece in terms how it fits Clownpiece’s character, because as challenging as the game has been so far, everything pales in comparison to the spectacle you’re about to behold. Yes, the boss fight with Clownpiece is hard; unfairly so, frustratingly so, and terrifyingly so. Her bullet patterns require pin-point accuracy and near-photographic memory to avoid getting hit. She uses a great deal of treacherous patterns to blindside the player, often creating situations near impossible to escape without using a bomb or getting hit. Her leitmotif persists through the boss battle, as she uses star-shaped projectiles to flood the battlefield while lasers representing the stripes cut the space available to maneuver to a fraction of the screen. At some point in the fight she even throws a trio of gigantic moon-shaped projectiles that spit out more bullets as they traverse the screen. All in all, Clonwpiece is one of the biggest challenges to ever exist in the franchise, and it requires all of the player’s skill and patience to succeed, and defeat her.

Now, the reason why much of the fanbase was astounded by Clownpiece was because it seemed that ZUN was finally acknowledging his western fans by giving them a nod with her design. ZUN had always being somewhat of an iconoclast, retelling and reshaping histories and legends from East Asian lore to suit the purposes of his games; now that the Apollo Missions and the Stars and Stripes were heavily referenced in Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom, many western fans were thrilled. To add to this, Clownpiece’s appearance came shortly on the heels of the announcement that Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character would be available through a western publisher as a downloadable game. For the first time ever, a Touhou game would be obtainable in an official and sanctioned-by-ZUN manner in the west. Before, fans would have to resort to importing physical copies of the game from Japan, buying memberships to Japanese doujin distribution websites; or in the worst case scenario, Piracy. It’s obvious then, considering all these factors, why Clownpiece is such a beloved character regardless of the interminable frustration and absurd challenge her stage and boss battle present.

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Stripes of destruction. Dodging this is a lot more difficult than it seems to be from a still image.

To get back on track, after Clownpiece is defeated, our heroines interrogate her and find out there’s a mastermind behind the fairies’ invasion of the Moon. After being pointed in the right direction, the girls continue on and the final stage of the main game begins. The background changes to a placid sea, with a few waves rippling through its surface, as our heroines have arrived in the Sea of Tranquility proper. But the song playing is, for lack of a better word, disparaging. The Sea Where One’s Home Planet Reflects, is an extremely calm, relaxing melody. After the crucible the player was subject to on the previous stage, this change of pace is a bit startling to say the least. Even the enemies seem to be a bit more lax, being disappointingly straightforward in their attempts to destroy the player. Honestly speaking, the stage is a bit of a letdown overall. As maddening as stage 5 was, it was exhilarating at the same time, and if the energy level had been kept up for stage 6, it would’ve conjured the perfect storm to finish the game in the highest note possible.

Thankfully, the calm doesn’t last for long, stage 6 ends as the final boss of the game appears lamenting the fact that our heroines have been able to overcome every obstacle placed in front of them. Unexpectedly, the ringleader of the invasion admits defeat almost immediately after the girls begin talking to her, saying how she did not account for an Earthling potentially saving the Lunar capital. Regardless of that, the woman reveals her name is Junko, and that even though her will to fight the Lunarians has more or less disappeared, she will show our heroines what she’s made of. From her pre-fight speech, we can glimpse that Junko has a terrible grudge against the goddess of the Lunarians, a mysterious character only known as Chang’e. If Junko is to be believed, Chang’e’s husband is responsible for the death of Junko’s child. As such, Junko used her powers as a divine spirit to purify her very own essence until nothing of her remained but pure spite and an overwhelming desire for revenge. Pure Furies ~ Whereabouts of the Heart is Junko’s theme, and it depicts her vindictive nature in an astonishingly accurate way. Junko is out to kill you, there is absolutely no question about it. While most Touhou characters fight each other in a good-natured way, generally rooted in a set of rules to avoid dealing permanent harm to their counterparts; Junko gives no quarter at all, made evident by the names of her spells such as “Lilies of Murderous Intent”, and “Pristine Danmaku for Killing a Person”. Pure Furies fills you with awe as you attempt to avoid Junko’s simple yet precise attacks. ZUN wanted to give the player the unmistakable feeling that you were fighting a final boss, and accomplished it perfectly. Junko may not be as tough, or underhanded as Clownpiece was, but the atmosphere of the fight definitively gives the “final boss” feeling, in addition to making you feel as if the heroines are fighting for their lives. The battle is long and drawn out, Junko seems to refuse to surrender to lowly earthlings. But in the end, something’s gotta give, and the girls defeat Junko and she disappears, bringing the main scenario of Touhou 15: Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom to a close.

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There is nowhere to hide when Junko wants your blood.

As the game ends, however, it seems that the invasion of Earth by the Lunarians has not stopped; Sagume Kishin is unable to do anything as someone is pulling the strings from behind the scenes and is forcing the Lunarians to continue their encroachment upon Earth’s lands. It is then, that the Extra scenario is unlocked, a story best left for another time.

Overall, Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom is a great game. It has its flaws admittedly, as ZUN tried to experiment with Pointdevice mode and some parts of the game were beyond difficult, even for veterans of the series used to some of the more challenging facets of the franchise. The trial-and-error mechanics of “Torturedevice mode” as some fans called it, were at times too much and not rewarding enough. The atmosphere of the game is amazing though. ZUN’s talent as a composer shines throughout the game and some pieces like Pierrot of the Star Spangled Banner and Eternal Spring Dream are among the best in the series. Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom is definitively one of the hardest if not THE hardest game in the series, and finally finishing it, despite its shortcomings, is one of the most rewarding experiences this year in video games. It’s definitively recommended for anyone looking for a challenge, or any fan of shoot’em ups. If the genre of the game is not something that appeals to you, consider giving the soundtrack a listen or two; maybe, just maybe, ZUN’s music will win you over as it has done so with thousands, maybe even millions of people around the globe.

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Playing video games since he has a conscious memory, Bernard has fond memories of the Super Nintendo and the 16 bit MIDI symphonies emanating from it. Since then, he has acquired fairly atypical tastes in games and game music. Nowadays, you can find him dodging bullets and bobbing his head to the music in the Touhou Project, or fighting against gigantic monsters in Monster Hunter, God Eater, or Toukiden. Deep down, he believes portable consoles are king, long live the PS Vita and 3DS!