Friday, January 21, 2011

WTF is Touhou Project?

Readers of this blog won't be too surprised to learn that I like collecting figures. Recently I've tried limiting my purchases to Transformers and poseable anime figures, and those poseable action figures being mostly figma.

And in the figure market I started noticing more and more figures from something called Touhou Project. So I naturally assumed Touhou Project was an anime, but when I typed "Touhou Project Anime", the only thing that popped up was something that was clearly fanmade called "Touhou Anime Project". None of my regular haunts had an anime named Touhou streaming anywhere, so I concluded it wasn't an anime. Time to check Wikipedia:

"The Touhou Project (東方Project Tōhō Purojekuto?), also known as Toho Project or Project Shrine Maiden, is a Japanese dōjin game series focused on bullet hell shooters made by the one-man developer Team Shanghai Alice, whose sole member, known as ZUN, is responsible for all the graphics, music, and programming for the most part."

Alright, now I was starting to get somewhere. I found it incredible that a bullet hell shooter had such a following. Also reading a little bit more I realized I actually had the first five games already in a pack of PC9801 ROMs I had downloaded a while back. I played them and they were fun enough, but I still didn't see what all the fuss was about.

From the 10th games in the series:

Then I stumbled upon the Touhou Wiki and realized I had just fallen into a rabbit hole that I probably wouldn't get out of for a long time.

Before I go any further, let me back up and try to explain what is at the core of Touhou Project. First of all, as mentioned in the Wikipedia article the games, which have over 12 entries now, are all created by one guy that does everything. Not only that, he does it all really well (except for the art. More on that later). Unlike a lot of bullet hell shooters that contain bizarre unintellagable stories, the Touhou games all have really rich quirky and lovable characters. This is an important point to make to understand the fandom around Touhou. The two main leads Reimu and Marisa, a shrine maiden and witch respectively, are at the heart of Touhou Project. Reimu is a shrine maiden who is laid back, a little lazy, but extremely powerful and effective at exterminating demons. Marisa is a loud outgoing witch who is also extremely powerful, but much more destructive with her power. The two form a Yin and Yang relationship that carries through all the games. In each game a new group of female yokai appear and join the ever growing cast of characters. Now on it's 12th-ish title, the cast has grown into the dozens of cute yokai, demons, witches, fairies, maids, and lunar rabbits. That creates a lot of merchandising material, which brings us back to the plethora of figures I mentioned at the start of this post.

But that isn't where Touhou Project ends, but where it begins. A few months ago I posted an article called, "What I want (wish) from Black Rock Shooter". In it I talked about how I hoped Black Rock Shooter would do for creative writers what Hatsune Miku did for music, and that is to give artists a spring board with already created characters to do with as they want. Well it seems that Touhou Project has already accomplished this feat.

Once you start digging into the world of Touhou you will find an overwhelming amount of fan created content dedicated to the cast of characters. Manga, anime, music videos, and most notably games.

As I said before ZUN himself isn't a very good artist, so the fan works of Touhou might be one of the few instances where fan created materials actually look better then the original. And this really stands out with some of the games. Some people have made 3D Fighting games, dungeons crawlers, and old school 8bit games:

And a lot of them are really well made.

There is also a large fan collective of music videos based on the excellent music from the games.

Probably the most popular is Bad Apple:

And of course you can say fan made without mentioning fan made manga (or doujin, although doujin actually refers to everything in this article even the official games because all are produced and made by "non professionals"). Since Touhou Project consists of only female members, what you will find is a large amount of yuri doujin, some hentai and some not. There are enough hints thrown in the official games at which characters might be pared up together but nothing official, and thus this is where the fanbase goes nuts pairing up certain characters. Personally I'm a Marisa/Alice shipper myself.

So lets talk canon. Technically, like any fictional work the only thing that is canon is the original authors work, in this case ZUN, and this is still true for Touhou. BUT I personally like to see it as a "choose your own canon" type affair. The games are written in a way that doesn't necessarily contradict any fan work. Of course I'm not saying every fan work could be considered canon, that is impossible, but if I wanted to play all the official games and read all the offcial manga that is the base, and then if I wanted to include a yuri doujin of Marisa and Alice, I could consider that canon if I want. ZUN has said he supports such reasoning and I'm going to go with that. Or if I want to say Sky Arena happened in the Touhou world I'm free to think that as well.

What I'm getting at, is this isn't a situation like the Star Wars Expanded Universe that is basically all fan fiction and then Lucas comes and changes something and then it makes something in the Expanded Universe impossible. With Touhou you can pick and choose which pieces you want to fit in your customized Touhou Universe. For that I find it a very impressive venture. It goes above and beyond what is typically thought of as fanfic and makes it something more legitimate as a community.

And all that is still scratching the surface of Touhou Project. An official anime anniversary is in the works by UFOtable, though it isn't endorsed by ZUN and a lot of fans have already written it off.

Also after playing the games I highly, highly recommend reading the manga written by ZUN (but not drawn by thankfully). It is really cleverly written and gives a better insight into the characters and their daily lives.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Overlooked Games: Nier

Nier is a game that should have been a success. Published by Square Enix you would think some level of marketing effort would be put behind this game, but there was hardly anything other than previews on gaming enthusiast sites. On top of that most (all) of the screen shots and video showed an ugly uninspired world of grey.

I'm here to tell you, that you have been duped.

Nier is one of the finest action games I've played in the last five years. Not only that but, while the graphics aren't anything to write home about the world that has been created as well as the characters are unlike anything that usually comes out of Japan.

What grabbed me instantly was the first 10 minutes of the game and story. If you can't capture my attention in 10 minutes, forget it, I'm not interested. This is why I can't get into a lot of modern RPGs. You are expected to watch 20 minutes of cut scenes of characters you don't know before you get to play them and then find out you don't want to play as them.

Nier puts you in a modern day grocery story as some old bum fighting strange ghostlike bad guys. All you know is that the guy is pissed about some book, and that he is trying to protect is daughter in the next aisle. That's all the motivation I need. Then the game proceeds to level you up after almost every kill, and unlocking incredible powers so in that 10 minutes you feel like a god, laying waste to hordes of bad guys to protect your little girl.

Then the screen goes black and the font on screen read: "1,312 years later". What we see now is a typical fantasy world setting with the main character looking a lot like the bum guy earlier except in barbarian gear. This isn't just some odd fantasy world on some unknown planet. This is the future of our planet.

I realise this isn't a concept that is new to sci-fi, but for video games and Square Enix it is fairly unexplored territory. Where this really comes into play are in the games' dungeons. Although they are unique and fantasy architecture it is clear the buildings underneath are from our modern world. When buildings crumble you can see the iron rods holding the cement together. Metal buildings have old warning labels. It's these touches that make the world of Nier so interesting. At first glance it seems typical fantasy, but on closer inspection, remnants of our world rest below the surface.

But this isn't the only aspect that is interesting. The characters are vivid and full of life. Nier, the protagonist, has the same motivation as his past "bum" self in that he is trying to protect his sick daughter. He is big and burly, and being a Square fantasy game you might expect him to be either a) self loathing and a jerk b) stoic and silent. He is neither. He is just an old nice guy looking out for his little girl. He helps out people in the village and cracks jokes and makes sarcastic comments. He is likable. Such a refreshing character from a company usually enthralled by stereotypes.

But enough about setting and character, how does it play? Well the best way to describe it is fun. Nier is a badass and the game does an ample job making you feel like a badass.

Mostly that first 10 minute intro sequence is enough to tell you, "hey when the actual game starts you will be weak but by the end, you will be this awesome". So when it goes into the fantasy world Nier is weak and can only swing a sword, but soon he finds a magic book and in rapid succession his magic powers develop and has you pulling black lances from thin air and hurling them at monsters the size of buildings. And one of the magic powers has you fighting off swarms of baddies like a twin stick shooter, circling the battlefield with one stick and shooting with the other. This is where the game shines and gives you that feeling that as soon as you turn off your console you want to turn it back on and kill some more.

However, the game suffers from two flaws that drive me crazy in these types of games. First of all there is no way to lock onto who you are fighting. I understand this is a choice as it makes the game more challenging. But sometimes my magic shot just go into the ground for no reason, which would be alleviated by a lock-on device.

Secondly, and this one is more serious in that it can be frustrating enough to make you throw your controller. Nier takes a long time to stand up after being knocked down. And during that time he can still be hit, resulting in being at the receiving end of a LOT of cheap shots. Blocking is almost completely useless in this game as well as he still stumbles after getting his from a blocked shot, and a guy behind you will take advantage and hit you, knocking you down and then kicking you while being knocked down. Very frustrating. Fans of Ninja Gaiden will be a little better off because they know the secret to a good offense is rolling... all the time.

And if you come to this blog frequently, you probably know I make no qualms of being a fan of beautiful fictional women, and the female protagonist of Nier is no exception: Kaine. She is a hermaphrodite. She's smoking hot.

I highly recommend picking up Nier, in many ways it feels like the Final Fantasy XIII that should have been.