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Touhou and the Quest to Discover an Audience Beyond Japan

Touhou is a bullet hell shooter series with a whole bunch of fan games. Now it's coming to a PS4 near you.

I'm trying to remember when I first learned about The Touhou Project, a niche bullet hell series from Japan, and I'm drawing a blank. I know there was a time before I knew what Touhou was, but I can't quite place it.

That's probably true for a lot of us. Nick Colucci, an editor at game publishing, localization, and distribution trifecta XSEED Games knows this all too well. " is sort of something that every anime fan is peripherally aware of," he explained. "A couple years ago, I was at FanimeCon in San Jose, [California,] and there was a panel that was something like, 'So you wanna know about Touhou,' and I was like, you know what, I should know about Touhou. So I went in and got myself educated." Eventually, so did I.

This video offers a good crash course:

The Touhou Project is a massive, fantasy-oriented series that has its roots firmly planted in the bullet hell genre. Since its inception, it's grown into something much bigger.

It got its start way back in 1997, when independent game programmer, composer, scriptwriter, graphic artist, and beer enthusiast ZUN individually released his first two Touhou games, Highly Responsive to Prayers and Story of Eastern Wonderland, publicly for Japanese PC-98 computers at Comiket, the world's largest bi-annual doujinshi (self-published works) festival in Japan. The two games were surprisingly different from one another, the first aligning itself more as a "breakout" shooter like Arkanoid, the second as the "true" start of the series' bullet hell inclinations.

The Touhou fan community wasn't huge at first. It wasn't until the series graduated from PC-98 to PC that hobbyists really took notice. "For the first five works I made, there wasn't a doujin [or, fan creator] game community like there is now," Touhou creator ZUN told me via email. "Compared to then, there's a lot more people who play my games, so I feel like I can no longer justify making a game with the thought, 'I just want to make a game.' I feel like now I have an obligation to create games that only I can create."

Within doujin communities, hobbyists harness their admiration for a creative work and build upon it with original creations in the same universe; be they games, music, manga, fiction, cosplay, or whatever else. It's very different than what we see in America, where claims of alleged copyright infringement would run rampant in a similar space, and doujin works would not fall under the grey area of parody law as they often do in Japan.

In fact, in many cases creators respect other amateurs, because they were once amateur creators themselves, and often don't see the point in suing. So when ZUN creates something Touhou related, he has to account for what he, and only he, can make—because now there's an entire fanbase eager to create Touhou works of their own. Afterall, Touhou was officially inducted as the most prolifically fan-made shooter series to the Guinness World Records in 2010.

All Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity screens courtesy of XSEED

The doujin games that blossom from the grander Touhou universe aren't even necessarily of the bullet hell moniker, and that's part of the joy of them: their unpredictable variety. Some doujin games are fighters. Some are RPGs. Some even take shape as puzzle games.

They can be likened to the DIY indie game culture we know in the west, often on platforms like itch.io—showcasing the desire many creators have to conceive things truly for themselves, not for a profit. That's because what draws fans to Touhou isn't merely the games themselves. It's the magical story surrounding the shrine-maiden protected fictional world of Gensokyo; the personality-driven cute characters; the club-worthy electronic music; even the hats the characters wear. Fans latch onto something they like about the series, and they embrace it wholeheartedly.

So it's no surprise that Touhou fans in Japan (and the budding international fanbase) are passionate, given that they've had nearly 20 years to stew in their fandom. But that doesn't change the shock of the fact that it's taken those same almost-20 years for Touhou to finally come westward to consoles—beyond the whispers of devoted anime fan communities. Touhou's actually here. In English.

But I guess Touhou technically first arrived westward last year, when Playism listed Team Shanghai Alice's (ZUN's official game company) fourteenth mainline Touhou game Double Dealing Character via its online store. The problem was, it was untranslated.

Luckily, a few doujin games have gotten the full localization treatment. Two games from two separate teams (XSEED's Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity and NIS America's Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet) saw a console-wide release back in September, with other games on the way.

The revelation of two separate publishers bringing Touhou to the west at nearly the same time almost seems carefully coordinated, but according to XSEED localization producer Tom Lipchultz, it's pure coincidence. "We kind of have that whole Touhou nebula exploding out right now," Lipchultz said. "Maybe it was just that the time was ready for it."

Lipchultz discovered developer Ankake Spa's Scarlet Curiosity through an RPGamer column, which noted that the doujin spin-off took gameplay cues from the popular Ys series, which XSEED has localized in the past.

Both Scarlet Curiosity and Bullet Ballet are a part of Sony's Play, Doujin! distribution platform, which until recently was only around in Japan. Play, Doujin! was created to bring doujin games, like those with the Touhou name, to wider audiences on PS4 and Playstation Vita.

Fumio Oyamada, an old friend of ZUN's and "the center" of the Play, Doujin! label, was the first to approach an indie game representative at Playstation with the idea of bringing doujin games to consoles. And the rest, well, is history.

Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity

JYUNYA, or AQUASTYLE, is one of the few developers now gracing international consoles, with his roguelike Touhou Genso Wanderer releasing in early 2017 through NIS America. JYUNYA first fell into the Touhou scene on a friend's recommendation. "I was so horrible at bullet hell games, but the bullet patterns, music, affects, characters—everything I felt was beautifully unified," explained JYUNYA. "[ Perfect Cherry Blossom] soon became my favorite game."

But while the doujin community at large may be grand and diverse, it's not necessarily as free as the Touhou community. According to Talka, the founder of ddiction (a Touhou doujin circle focused on connecting Japanese and foreign fans), other franchises, like Kancolle, may have dedicated doujinshi (self-published manga), but other fan works get shut down regularly. And while most doujin circles eventually wind down, Touhou's has stayed strong.

"I feel the Touhou community is somewhat unique," explained Talka. "People have been saying since a few years ago that the Touhou boom is over, but the fan community hasn't really died away. I think even as older fans move on, there are new people who see the previous generation's creations and newer fans that join the community as a result."

Seattle-based Touhou fan Scott Porter, also known as Overcoat, is a musician and host of the (currently on hiatus) radio show Touhou Tuesday. For Porter, listening to music created by Touhou doujin circles is what initially drew him to the series. "It's [ZUN's] strong melodies and the fact that almost every character has their own distinct theme song that I think resonates with the fans," Porter said.

Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity

" Touhou Tuesday was consistently the most listened-to show by a huge margin " he said. "...Fandom is a powerful thing."

The Touhou doujin community—like any ardent fandom, really—is amplified by the sense of camaraderie along fellow fans. Not just in flexing their creative muscles or forming doujin circles of their own, but just in sharing and spreading their love of Touhou wherever they can.

"I loved interacting with other Touhou fans through chatrooms, taking requests, and just experiencing that crazy enthusiasm you can really only get from a shared interest in some wacky zero-budget indie shooter game," Porter said. "I'll never know the real reason why the hell these games are so popular, but at this point it doesn't matter."

With Touhou games appearing on consoles beyond Japan, it's likely to pique the interest of some fresh-faced fans. As Talka told me, when old fans move on, new fans move in. In that way, perhaps Touhou's longevity is eternal.

Touhou doesn't depend on a single developer to keep making games: it depends on an entire community of creators making all sorts of things. And that's where the beauty of the doujin community—and the Touhou community in particular—comes from. It's a collective, ever-creative entity. Or perhaps better explained by JYUNYA, "The spirit of doujin is 'if you like it, immediately make a fan creation of it.'" So people create, and they'll keep creating.

As for Touhou creator ZUN, he's just happy to see any doujin games at all, especially the ones re-published through Play, Doujin!. In the meantime, he'll continue making the occasional game, helping with Play, Doujin!, and, of course, writing his regular beer column. "I hope that the fanbase will continue to grow, and I can get invited to different events, like I was for Anime Expo 2016," ZUN wrote. "Then, I can drink beer from the countries that I visit."

Kanpai, ZUN.

Translations of email interviews courtesy of NIS America.

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