Let’s rewind about 10 years. I’m in Grade 5 and it’s a PD day at school. Despite the fact that it’s not really legal to leave a 10-year-old at home alone, that’s what happened anyways – parents are busy, you know! But I couldn’t be happier to just sit around all day and play Minecr-
Oh, wait, no that’s not what this article is about. I’d also go into my folder of pirated doujinsoft procured from various corners of internet forums (how I didn’t get malware that is a mystery to me) and play a lot of Touhou and its fangames. Why would a little kid like me back then be so enthralled with these weird games instead of playing, like, TF2 or something? (Okay, I did play TF2 back then to be fair.)
Crap, I almost forgot to explain what the heck Touhou is. I thought that basically everyone who knew what anime was would know what it is, but the past few years have proven me wrong. If you really want to get in depth, I suggest you search up “What is Touhou” on your local YouTube search bar, because other people can explain it a lot better than I can.
But I’ll give a brief explanation anyway. Touhou is a series of vertical scrolling shoot ‘em up/bullet hell/danmaku/whateverthehellyouwannacallit games in which you control a character and dodge bullet patterns over the course of 6 stages per game, fighting other characters as bosses and progressing a story arc along the way. They are each relatively short and sweet, taking from the arcade philosophy of short repeated gameplay, with each run taking no longer than half an hour.
The series itself is already extremely prolific, with 18 main-line games and some other spin-off games making up the official line-up. All but the fighting games are developed by Team Shanghai Alice, which is less of a team and more of this one beer-loving genius who goes by ZUN (real name Ota Junya), designing every single component of the main games from the ground up. He has been making Touhou games since the late 90s! Along with the games themselves, the world of Gensokyo is also built upon various official print works, as well as some other standalone music albums created by ZUN.
In the 2000s, Touhou catalyzed one of the most ridiculously large explosions of fanworks seen for any series of media. Comiket and other conventions not limited to Japan experienced deluges of fanart, fanbooks, music arrangements/remixes, fanime series (?!) and especially fangames. It’s gotten so big that the series even has its own yearly convention, known as Reitaisai. Along with this, Touhou’s media presence worldwide continued to grow, mostly spreading from parodies and memes created on NicoNicoDouga, Japan’s version of YouTube.
But to me, the fangames are the most unique point. Any popular anime or manga series can start a Twitter trend for fanart before they ultimately fade again. But nowhere else do we see a single media series have a community that can make high-quality fangames that span nearly every game genre you can think of – RPG, puzzle, platformer, even racing games! So why does this happen specifically for Touhou and not anywhere else?
Stating the obvious: Copyright.
The very first factor that even enables any of this in the first place is ZUN’s stance on copyright. ZUN, from the very beginning, has completely embraced the notion of people making and selling fanworks. Without his support, of course, none of this would be possible – I don’t even really need to say why. This has gone so far that even an official Touhou gacha game – Touhou Lost Word – has been published globally, and just imagine the dollar that that’s raking in. Probably the only thing ZUN won’t allow is someone else claiming copyright for his work – recently, some random person attempted to trademark the “Yukkuri shiteitte ne!” or “Take it easy!” meme faces (which, mind you, weren’t even ZUN’s own creation), which led to the threat of legal action. But other than that, ZUN doesn’t care. He’s made enough money anyways, as long as he has his beer he’s good.
Digging into the universe
But of course, being popular and being loose with copyright are clearly not the only things you need to get such an army of passionate fangame developers. The universe itself, and the way that ZUN has crafted it over the years, also provides one of the easiest baselines to use, as well as providing developers with a massive toolbox that also helps them grow as a developer.
Let’s start with the characters, which I notably didn’t mention earlier. Touhou has an insane roster of characters – easily over 300 – that each have their own unique designs and characteristics that are conducive to a basically infinite number of concepts to grab onto for a unique fangame. Time manipulation, ability to manipulate darkness, ability to manipulate borders, etc. Now put that into programming and it’s cool!
Also, nearly all of them are girls. Hmm, I wonder how that must have influenced the game’s popularity, huh.
This gigantic cast mostly stems from how ZUN designed Touhou as a game; with 6 stages and 1 extra stage per game, each game pretty much introduces at least 7 new characters to the universe, often more. The systematic structure of every game and also the fact that every character has a musical theme gets around the main pitfall of franchises with way too many characters, that is that there are so many irrelevant characters that have absolutely zero impact or relevance to the fandom (especially prevalent in gacha games). With Touhou, it’s simple to just say “oh yeah, she’s the Stage X boss of Touhou Y, looks like this, has this power, has this musical theme”. It’s also helped by the fact that when the fandom has already grown to this size, there are fanworks involving pretty much every single character there is, which is a great baseline to work off of as a game dev.
The overall presentation of Gensokyo, the parallel world that all of Touhou’s events take place in, also lends itself to developing plotlines for fangames. I mean, first of all, it doesn’t even really need to be said that an established universe is so much easier to work with than trying to build a new one of your own, especially if you’re not a great writer. Your game doesn’t have a responsibility to sell a cool new world or develop characters from the ground up – that’s already done for you.
As well, Gensokyo doesn’t really have a beginning or an end. In fact, it’s said to exist in parallel with the real world, with incidents in the lore lining up mostly with the real time they were written. From the very beginning, ZUN didn’t build the games with an exposition of the entire universe – mostly because of the limitations of the game design. (TH1 is not even a bullet hell). While each new game has a new plot arc (a new “incident”), nothing really ends with permanent and drastic changes to the world. The various areas of the vast fantasy world remain as they used to be, no one dies and the world remains in harmony, kinda. A pretty loose definition but you get me.
Touhou music is also stupidly iconic with simultaneously simple to follow melodies, which just eases up yet another aspect of game development, sound design, and music. People have taken Touhou remixes and arrangements to pretty much any style of music you can even think of, allowing for original creative expression within a known entity. Heck, I’ve even tried that as a music producer.
All of this probably makes Touhou one of the ripest franchises in the world for fanon plotlines. You can write any real plotline, make it make sense for the characters, and just pretend it was part of yet another few days in Gensokyo. For fangames, it can be as simple or convoluted as would fit for the game you’re making, just don’t let anyone die. Whether you’re a solo dev, a small team or a big studio, trying to sync up theming for your world with character designs and music is just too much of a pain and often done in an uncompelling way. But Touhou brings out such a massive diversity of mix-and-match components that you are almost guaranteed to find a concept that hasn’t already been done with a different fangame. It’s a trampoline for creativity, but you still have to make the jumps!
Kid’s Festival, Innocent Treasures
The beauty of doujin fanworks and their spread is that you’re not expected to make things at a professional level. It can be crappy and amateur, or it can be polished and balanced, but in the end, what matters is that many individual circles unite into celebrating everyone’s own way of contributing to the media that they all love, and all are appreciated. I’ve seen a lot – crappy kusoge danmaku ripoffs to amazingly balanced CAVE-quality shmups, terrible RPGMaker shitposts to genuine immersive RPGs, I Wanna Be The Guy ripoffs to novel and thoroughly enjoyable platformers. I love to play them all.
One of the things I love to see the most is when people realize through their success in working on a Touhou fangame that they might just be better at making games than they thought. They see the success that an old scrappy project brought them and thought, “wait, people liked that? Let’s try to actually put some effort into this next one”. And what’s so great is that sometimes they get so good that they can start making something that has nothing to do with Touhou and continue to find success.
With that being said, I’m going to end off by listing some of my favourite Touhou fangames and where you can find them, and I hope you, the reader, might elect to give them a try sometime. I’ll stick to easily reachable stuff.
Labyrinth of Touhou (both 1 and 2) are my top picks of all time. They are dungeon crawlers similar to Etrian Odyssey, with a simplistic RPG character design that still allows for a huge variety of battle strategies. On top of that, the games make use of some very unique floor puzzles that are extremely cool to figure out. Not a pushover in terms of difficulty! You’d have to dig LoT1 out of the depths of the Internet to find it (or ask me to send it over *wink wink*), but LoT2 is available in English on Steam, under the name Labyrinth of Touhou – Gensokyo and the Heaven-Piercing Tree. It’s also pictured above in the previous section.
Blue Devil in the Belvedere is my favourite shmup fangame, developed by a Chinese studio. It’s essentially a better designed game in pretty much every aspect compared to the original Touhou games, with mostly original characters and music too! It’s extremely fresh and comfortable to play and has great depth in its scoring system if you wanted to push for scoreplay (yes, that’s what I do). It’s on Steam.
Kubinashi Recollection is a relatively short puzzle platformer that I had fun with recently. It’s a prime example of taking a normally overlooked character, Sekibanki (not even that unpopular to be honest), and using her character powers and design to craft a new game (manipulating her detachable heads to solve puzzles and stuff). Like any good puzzle platformer, it’s pretty intricate, but also has an easy mode if you don’t want to solve everything. The musical remixes are top-tier. It can be found on Steam and also on Switch.
Touhou Mystia’s Izakaya is a restaurant simulation kind of game where you also wholesomely interact with various Gensokyo denizens. It has one purpose and one purpose only – to be relaxing. Pretty well executed in that sense. This pixel art is also just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I got to play this on release even before the English translation was out because I just have Chinese privilege like that >:). Of course, just like the rest, it’s available on Steam.
So I hope that some of you would gander a try at some of these amazing fangames. Hell, some of you might know the fangames before the main series – if you’ve played Luna Nights or Lost Word. In that case, I would tell you to play the main series. Whatever, check it all out. That’s all from me then. See you next dream…