How Do I Get Into Touhou Project?

Frequently enough, someone will come up to me in Twitter DMs or elsewhere and say, "You’ve talked about Touhou Project a lot, but how do I get into it? It seems so big and confusing!"

Truth be told, Touhou Project is absolutely massive. I gave you all just a taste of it in my original blog post, and it left a lot of you wanting more.

What I want to do in this article is give some context around the series, the overall "fandom" around it, its "art scene," and perhaps a few suggestions on how to get started, along with some personal anecdotes. Hopefully, at least a couple of you find this wall of text useful!

What Is Touhou

Touhou Project is, ostensibly, a series of retro-styled top-down scrolling vertical indie shooting games made by an artist who goes by the pen-name of ZUN. It's been running since 1996, and started out on the now-defunct PC-98 platform (a system which had superior kanji input capabilities compared to western-made PCs). In 2002, ZUN made the switch over to Microsoft Windows and standard PCs, and the series has stayed there ever since.

In total, Touhou Project has the following pieces of "official" media, written directly by ZUN:

  • 18 official shooting games (STGs) (5 for PC-98, 13 for Windows)
  • 12 official spinoff games (6 fighting games, 5 spin-off shooting games, 1 action-platformer)
  • 11 official mangas
  • 9 official music CDs (with their own side-story)
  • 5 official written works
  • numerous other small official projects

Cool Stuff To Get Excited About

If you read my original blog post that I published two years ago, you probably got a rough idea of what this was all about. I'll try to give some more concrete reasons why you might care. In fact, I’d actually recommend reading at least that section of that post, as I went into a good amount of detail there. But I'll reiterate some of what I said there anyway:

Touhou Project is known primarily for its catchy, high-tempo music, ensemble cast of characters, a focus on lesser-known and obscure Japanese mythology and folklore, and an absolutely huge fandom that's been going strong for nearly 20 years.

Its world and story are largely about a bunch of nerdy women who drink too much alcohol living in a small community located inside a pocket dimension somewhere in Japan. The small community, called Gensokyo (lit. "The Land of Fantasy"), was reshaped by some older eldritch women, with chips on their shoulders over how the supernatural was going "extinct" in the Outside World, into a kind of kind of "intentional community" (or refugee camp) for the supernatural.

Occasionally, someone starts some shit and it's up to the protagonist (usually the resident shinto priestess and/or western witch, among others) to sort it out and make them stop, usually by engaging in a semi-formalized "gentlewoman’s agreement"—style system of dueling.

In my personal opinion, the varied and complex personalities of the women who live in Gensokyo is something I’ve been sorely missing from many pieces of media with a nearly all-girl cast. Everyone in the series is opinionated and has a certain sense of pride about themselves, interacting with each other in unique ways, forming deep rivalries and friendships that have lasted years. As a bonus, "traditional" gross fanservice you’d expect in a "manga-styled" series is basically not a thing here; in the official works by ZUN, the women aren't treated poorly or made to serve tired tropes, which is incredibly refreshing.

Everyone, including the human characters in the series, are astutely aware that the Outside World exists. It should be noted that the Outside World is literally the world where you and I exist, which means the fourth wall is a real, tangible thing the characters acknowledge as existing.

It's comedy series, dripping with dry wit, but always careful to treat important issues with an appropriate amount of seriousness, never pulling punches but never being cruel. If you’ve read the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, then it's very similar in tone, scope, and setting to that series. Rather than Touhou being a purely ironic and detached comedy, it has outright dipped into some pretty hard-line political satire at points, especially in recent years with official books like Alternative Facts in Eastern Utopia.

In terms of the way its community feels and operate, and the short vignette style that Touhou operates on, I’d compare it to something like the SCP Foundation, although with less outright horror elements.

At the end of the day, what you're mostly signing up for is a vision of how a community of complete weirdos might function together in daily life, with the occasional big event to spice things up.

Okay, But How Do I Get Into It, Then?

This is the reason you're here. Bear with me, as some of this will be a decidedly non-traditional answer, and maybe not the one you're hoping for.

Option A (Self-Discovery)

I want you to imagine suddenly moving to a new city or town. It wasn't what you planned on, but now you're there, and you have to make the best of it. You don't know your neighbours, you don't know where nearly anything is, you probably don't know the street names. Maybe you have the vaguest idea of the location of the grocery store, at best. (Why you're there isn't important - chalk it up to a quarter life-crisis or something.)

The point is, you're somewhere new, and you don't know anyone. So, what do you do? Well, you might look around and see someone who looks interesting. Maybe you ask them for directions, or you introduce yourself.

Touhou works the same way. Obviously, they’re fictional characters and can't respond to you directly, but just start thinking about what kind of person they might be, and come up with your own theories. I'll get into the how and why later, but fan-works are encouraged in Touhou, and that includes just assuming some stuff and wondering if it might make sense or not. There's not really a wrong answer here.

Let's get personal: when I first got "into" Touhou in 2006, my favourite characters were Fujiwara no Mokou and Marisa Kirisame.

Fujiwara no Mokou from Touhou 8: Imperishable Night

I liked to imagine Mokou as being this hot-blooded pyromancer badass who could turn into a phoenix, a lone-wolf jerk fighting her arch-nemesis for the pure thrill of it. I was somewhat right about that, but it turns out that in ZUN’s works, Mokou is actually a pretty chill person and mostly hangs out with her girlfriend on the edge of a forest, while occasionally dueling people for some light-hearted fun. She's a human who’s been alive for 1300 years, so she's gone through several phases in her super-extended life, some more "devil may care" than others, but in the "modern era" she's pretty chill and just wants to have fun. But my initial interpretation was valid enough for the time, and I had fun with it, and through Mokou, I found out about a bunch of other characters.


Marisa Kirisame from Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character

The next was Marisa. As I said in my original blog post, Marisa made quite an impact on me, but I knew next to nothing about her when I first saw art of her on the mid-2000s imageboards I frequented as a tragic teen, other than "that cocky witch with a laser cannon." I actually thought her name was Alice at first because of me misinterpreting some things in Imperishable Night and the fanart I was seeing, and no one was around to "correct" me. In the end, I was basically right, except I got her name wrong, but it wasn't a big deal. The way most fan-artists depicted her was right on the money.

As time went on, I mostly stuck to those two. I wasn't really aware of the "art scene" in Touhou at the time (more on that later), aside from it having really kick-ass fan-art everywhere. The series did feel absolutely impenetrable, and I was mostly content with my knowledge of it being a cool thing off to the side that felt... well, I don't know. Homely? Cool? It was so low-key that I felt like just knowing one or two characters was enough for me. There was a certain aesthetic of feminine coolness that just exuded from every design I saw. Without knowing character names, I could somewhat pick out Touhou characters just by seeing them in fan-art. For a while in 2013, I even had my laptop’s wallpaper set to Toyosatomimi no Miko without even knowing her name; I just thought she looked cool as hell.

So this is one way you could get into Touhou: latching onto random characters and figuring out what you like about it organically, or as I’ve put it here, Discovery. More to the point, out of all the Touhou fans I’ve talked to, this was the number one way folks seem to get into the series, and that's why I’ve put this here as the first, recommended option.

Option B (Linear Recommendation)

If that's all too heady and subjective for you, and if you're the type who likes hard games, then I very cautiously recommend the following:

  • Get Touhou 10: Mountain of Faith on Steam, and then use the THCrap Translation Patcher to get an english translation. I consider Mountain of Faith to be a great intro because it has relatively low-stakes, relatively simple mechanics, a great soundtrack, a good difficulty curve (at least on Normal difficulty), and introduces several very important characters.
  • Read Wild and Horned Hermit - at least until stuff stops making sense, probably around Volume 3. At that point, it's likely too many new characters will be introduced for you to keep track of. But at least it'll give you a good sense of a few of the characters.
  • Consider hitting up the Touhou Wiki a lot when you get lost. Most of the stuff there is quite good.

"But why start in the middle? Isn't the 10th game a bit far into the series?" you might ask. The reason is that Touhou has had several tonal shifts through its time:

  • Touhou 1 to Touhou 5 were made when ZUN was first starting out, so their tone is decidedly experimental and silly, and they’re generally not referenced much these days aside from a few characters (additionally, acquiring and playing them on modern computers is quite a challenge)
  • Touhou 6 to Touhou 9, the first four games on Windows, were a shift to a more "mature" witty and comedic style, as well as being a big upgrade in terms of graphics, but it was still finding its legs again on the new Windows platform with so many things having changed
  • From Touhou 10: Mountain of Faith onwards, there was a larger emphasis on world building and expanding what Touhou could be, introducing many of its important themes, characters, and locations that are still referenced today, which I consider to be somewhat of a tonal reboot compared to the games before it, even if everything from Touhou 6 still mattered in some way
  • Additionally, Touhou 10: Mountain of Faith is actually the oldest official main Touhou game available on Steam, with all official titles after it also being available through this publisher, making it the easiest and earliest to acquire through official channels, especially in the west

Thus, I recommend starting for Touhou 10: Mountain of Faith for this reason, as the events of that game is still quite relevant to what's happening right now, and its tone has stayed largely consistent since then. What happened before then is still important (and cool!), I think here is a decent place to start so you don't get completely overwhelmed.

As a side-note, you'll probably still see a lot of characters from Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil around in the fandom because of how much an impact that game made (Flandre Scarlet, for example), but in the grand scheme of Touhou’s story, the characters in that game have had a relatively minor impact on the series overall. You might still want to give that game a look, too, even if it doesn't have many of the "quality of life" improvements found in the later games. However, acquiring Touhou 6 officially can be a bit of a challenge due to the fact that it isn't on Steam, and is largely only distributed on CDs at hobby shops in Japan.

Reimu Hakurei from Touhou 17: Wily Beast and Weakest Creature

All that being said, this probably won't work the way you’d expect. Seriously, I can already see a bunch of problems recommending people go down this path unless they really like hard games, and this is one where I think you might have the least amount of information overload, but there are still several problems right off the top of my head, where you'll be asking questions like:

  • Who are Reimu and Marisa?
  • Where the hell are we? Why are they climbing a haunted mountain?
  • Why is this hot snake mom trying to take over Gensokyo?

I must insist that you merely vibe with it, and I'm hoping that, at least, this initial experience might give you more of a reason to keep going.

Option C (Alternatives)

But there are other ways to get into it. A lot of people hear a remix on YouTube with cool character art and decide to look up who the characters are. Personally, I got my start with Mokou and Marisa, so why not start with their songs, and perhaps a few others?

Not only that, but because of the huge remix culture around Touhou, any of these songs can be found in a multitude of genres: prog metal, jazz, EDM, orchestral, even eurobeat - you name it, it probably exists. Search for "touhou [your favourite genre]" and you'll probably find something you like.

Alternatively:

  • Consider following me on Twitter because I will literally just tweet stuff like "god I love this character/story, here's why" and list off a bunch of cool shit about them/it. I don't have a Patreon or anything like that (yet) so this is purely for my own enjoyment of sharing this series with other folks.
  • Consider following... other Touhou fans! A lot of other Touhou fans do what I do too, because just thinking about it and playing with it is an incredible amount of fun.

Potential Issues & Solutions

As you’ve probably gotten by now, there is a certain degree of discovery one has to do to get into it. Rather than being something to be passively consumed, Touhou requests, in a roundabout way, yet somewhat forcefully, to engage with it. This isn't to pass judgement on things that can be passively consumed, but it's just not the way Touhou is set up.

There is no "origin story" for Touhou in the form of an anime or manga where you can just jump in and get a complete picture of it. Everything is slowly built up over multiple games, told in the format of short vignettes, or punchy vertical slices of its world. As I said before, if you wanted to start from "the beginning" with the very first game, Touhou 1: Highly Responsive To Prayers, you run into the issue where the first five games on the PC-98 platform are considered largely obsolete and disregarded by ZUN when writing new stories, not to mention that acquiring and playing the PC-98 games is rather difficult in itself due to software and hardware incompatibility with modern Windows PCs.

Additionally, shooting games like Touhou are hard. Even on Easy difficulty, they can be punishing, especially if you’ve never played one. Shooting games are the polar opposite of passive engagement - they demand nearly trance-like attention and concentration of the player to get through, an almost meditative state where the beautiful patterns and pulse-pounding music blare in your ear as you fight a literal God. That, and while even modern Touhou’s mechanics are generously described as "retro," when compared to many modern shooting games by other creators, they can feel downright archaic. I won't get into the specifics of the game mechanics, but even I find it difficult to play the games. I’ve never made a "1 credit clear" (1cc) of a game, though I’ve gotten pretty close, primarily with the aforementioned Mountain of Faith.

I’ve also run into serious issues when recommending folks read the more "easily-approachable" print works. Mainly, they assume you have a fair bit of prior knowledge as to who the characters are and where they came from. The print works are more of a way to let characters stretch their legs in a different storytelling medium, rather than something that can stand on their own. For example, when I recommended my partner read Forbidden Scrollery as an "introduction," she was confused at who all of the characters were, and felt lost. (She's eventually learned about much of it from me through pure osmosis (and sheer determination), but still.)

On the bright side, Touhou’s commitment level is, thankfully, nowhere near as demanding as like Homestuck. A single Touhou game's entire script has less text than a single chatlog in Homestuck, to give you a concrete example. It means that even just sitting down watching a playthrough of a Touhou game on YouTube is a relatively low time investment by comparison, and by then, you basically have the gist of what went on in that game, and perhaps have a rough idea of what the characters within it might be like.

Don't feel too bad if shooting games aren't your thing, either. Touhou is one of those series where the vast majority of its fans are no good at the games. They find enjoyment by reading through the stories, sharing or creating fanart and remixes, and generally just playing around with the setting and world on their own terms. Try not to be discouraged if you can't play the main shooting games! In fact, in the afterword for Touhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom, ZUN mentions that one valid way to enjoy Touhou is to watch other people's replays and be impressed by them showing off their skill.

But let's break it down even further. Why is Touhou like so scattershot and disjointed like this? I think explaining the overall scene, history, and philosophy around it might better explain why it is the way it is.

Copyleft

I want to digress a bit.

Technically speaking, fanfiction is illegal.

All derivative works of all of your favourite modern stories (that aren't in the Public Domain or use a Copyleft License, which amounts to very little in the past 80 years) are at the mercy of the copyright holders. If you don't have a direct, written and paid-for license, there is always the risk that you'll receive an email from a hot-shot lawyer telling you to Cease & Desist. Yes, this is only according to US law, technically, but we all know that Disney sets the tone for the world as a whole, and it always gets what it wants.

That yuri slashfic you read on AO3? Yep, that's illegal too. Fanfiction as a concept exists solely due to security through obscurity; individual creators aren't cracked down on because fanfiction doesn't generally get the kind of audience that original fiction does, and thus it is considered "least concern" by copyright holders. But if push came to shove, and while you could try to argue your work is transformative, if you were running a Patreon or even take donations through Ko-fi or Twitch, even if you were giving away your fan-content for free, they could potentially argue that you are making a "profit" off of the "derivative works," which lowers the barrier for their claim if brought to court.

Think about all of the game reviewers getting copyright strikes on YouTube, even though using licensed content for critique or review is explicit covered under fair use.

And really, does any fanartist want to go to court over a fanfic? Not really.

Before the age of Copyright, there wasn't a concept of someone "owning" a story, or at least, not to this degree. If you told a story, you needed to be prepared that your story might get told and retold by other people down the line. Fanfiction is one of the oldest forms of creative expression, and the idea that someone can spontaneously come up with a completely original story without a culture they’ve built their storytelling language upon is ridiculous. Every western comic book hero is in some way influenced by Gilgamesh. This idea that every story can be locked away through a perpetual copyright to shut down anyone's creative contribution to the things that make up our entire culture for over 90 years is a modern, ahistorical invention with no basis in the foundation of human culture, and yet, here we are.

Meanwhile, Touhou does something that very few other series do these days, something that has become utterly and ridiculously rare.

Touhou has a incredibly permissive license, allowing indie artists to take the series, create derivative works, and even sell them without acquiring a formal license, so long as they maintain the "indie spirit" of small-scale operations. It's quite similar to the Copyleft I linked to earlier, but does still have its own custom stipulations. Visual artists, musicians, writers, and game designers can release things under this license, and there is absolutely no risk for an artist being C&D’d by ZUN. He encourages it. He's organized entire conventions based around showcasing these fan-works. Based on the rules that ZUN has written, it seems apparent that he wants small-scale indie artists to be able to make works based on Touhou, but not, say, Disney or Kyoto Animation coming in and making a series based on Touhou.

To this point, ZUN seems intent on keep Touhou "approachable" as a "remixable" media. ZUN draws all character art in the main shooting game series by his own hand. Occasionally, he'll reach out to doujin and manga artists for things like print works or spinoff games, but for all of the main titles, the art is entirely his doing, and it all has a rough-looking and charming "indie" quality to it. His music, while catchy as hell, is not so over-engineered as to be unobtainable, relying on older digital audio plugins (VSTs) and forgoing the usual high-end mixing techniques of contemporary electronic musicians. The game engine itself is also decidedly retro, not relying on modern 3D character models or vector graphics, and instead sticking to an old-school sprite format. All of this comes together to make a series that isn't so unapproachably polished that it feels like you'll never live up to its "official" source.

Because of this, many Touhou fangames and spinoffs have a decidedly higher "production value" than the "official" work, but everyone still clamours for when ZUN will release his next game, as he's created and slowly crafted such a unique setting and world around his series that people are always waiting to see where he might go next, or how their own ideas fit in with his.

Even then, the vast majority of high-profile Touhou works you'll see out there are indie fan-works based on the core of Touhou itself. The fan-works are just as much of a part of what many think of as "Touhou" as the official games. For example, the ever-famous Bad Apple!! animation is iconic, and the remix and animation itself was entirely created by fans.

Touhou’s permissiveness is part of why it continues to succeed. It's not as though ZUN has completely democratized Touhou, either; he holds onto a copyright, and the stories he tells are still, by and large, considered the "official stories." But rather than it being a walled garden of "official content," locked behind a lawyer’s lock and key, he's invited people to come in and contribute to it in their own ways, to come up with their own stories to tell with the characters of Gensokyo, and has gone to great lengths to carve out a space where individual storytellers don't have to compete with huge corporations for air-time. That's what makes it so special, and these days, unfortunately rare.

Perhaps I'll write another blog post about modern copyright and storytelling some other day.

Touhou is an Art Scene

You may have heard the phrase "art scene" used in passing, but maybe you haven't really thought about what that truly means. Most great art and scientific discovery came from said scenes where like-minded people gathered together to share a kind of collective understanding of their craft, checking in on and engaging in friendly competition with other members of the scene. Music, mathematics, you name it - every subject or art form has, at one point, had a "scene" that invited participants into it to share their knowledge and enrich everyone else within it (not to say it worked out that way every time, of course, but that's the idea).

Touhou is like that in a way; Touhou fan-artists are continuously encouraged and motivated by their participation in the Touhou art scene to continuously improve. The line between "official," "fanfic," and "fandom" is incredibly blurred, and it promotes this exchange of ideas among everyone involved.

There are thousands of remix CDs, indie comics, doujins, mangas, fan-games, spinoff games, illustrations, text works - you name it. This is baked into the fabric of Touhou due to its permissive license set out by ZUN.

Even as a "passive" observer, most of what you'll see in Touhou is from fans of the series spreading it around. Since ZUN does not employ hot-shot marketers and advertising agencies to get people interested in Touhou, there is a high degree of "discovery" when it comes to Touhou as a work of media. You have to go out there and find what you like about it for yourself, or be introduced to it by a friend.

Around 2018, indie game developer Jennifer Raye made an indie game called Imperishable Memories. She cited Touhou as being one of her major inspirations for making the game, which is pretty apparent from the name itself, with Imperishable Memories (Jenn’s game) being similar to the title of Touhou 8: Imperishable Night. (Disclosure: I backed her game on Kickstarter.)

I’d been a low-key, peripheral fan of the series for over a decade at that point, coming back to it every few months, not really keeping up with it, but enjoying the art nonetheless. But after seeing Jenn talk about it on Twitter so often, I was hooked. I had to know everything about it. I started reading the game scripts raw off of Touhou Wiki. I got around to reading the official mangas. I even tried - and failed! - to play some of the shooting games.

It was from Jenn’s influence, and the other western fans I’d gotten to know, that I realized there was a bona-fide art scene behind Touhou, letting people experiment with the story and characters, and inspiring others to get creative and put themselves out there.

At that point, Touhou even became one of my primary artistic influences. It got me back into cosplay, electronics design, music, programming, writing - all things I loved doing, but had fallen out of for various reasons. It made those things enjoyable for me again. I’ve gotten into a side-hobby as a game programmer with Taisei Project, an open source shooting game engine written in C, thanks to Touhou’s influence. I would’ve never considered doing so until Touhou gave me the motivation to out there and learn a new type of programming, and I owe my inspiration to Jennifer and Imperishable Memories introducing me to the Touhou art scene as a whole.

That is to say, while Touhou may seem niche, at the same time, it's not. It's become a hidden element in many different stories and pieces of art, in ways you might not expect.

Impact

A shocking and inspiring number of artists have cut their teeth on their craft using Touhou fan-art as a starting point. With such a huge and inviting community, half of the appeal of Touhou is the fan-works created by indie creators from around the world.

Toby Fox, the designer and composer of Undertale, which I'm sure needs no introduction, cites Touhou as being a major influence on his musical style, and Touhou in general likely influenced Undertale's overall tone and character design as well (both concern supernatural creatures thought of as scary monsters that are mostly huge dorks, hunted to near extinction by humans in the "outside world" hidden behind a barrier, and so on). Not only that, but Temmie Chang, the illustrator for Undertale, has also drawn Touhou fanart, as well as the jackets for some Touhou fan-albums.

As another example, at least one of the musicians who worked on Steven Universe’s incredible soundtrack, surasshu, was also involved in the Touhou music scene for quite a while.

If you’ve heard of Otherside Picnic, a recent anime that's currently airing as of April 2021, its characters and themes are very reminiscent of the music CD series put out by ZUN - two college-aged women hunting youkai and otherworlds. Its creator used to be into the Touhou doujin scene as well, before going on to publish original novels, but you can clearly see the influence in the work, and how it inspired them to tell their own stories.

These are just a few examples of the numerous musicians, visual artists, and writers that have cited Touhou as their major inspirations for "going pro" and furthering their own art, but there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of artists out there who cite Touhou as their artistic influence. Even as many of them move on to create their own original works, in no way related to Touhou itself, you can see the influences present within their works, which then go on to influence their audience in their own ways.

This Is All So Much...

Yeah, there's a lot going on here, I'm not going to lie. But really, I’ve given you three options:

  • Discovery of the series in a non-linear way (latching onto a character game, finding out more about them)
  • A "direct path" to take that, while not without its problems, is at least something more concrete to start with
  • Following other fans and seeing what catches your eye or tickles your ear

Other than that, I’ve hopefully explained why Touhou is a bit more difficult and nuanced to get into than other series. I'm hoping that, even if you don't end up becoming a super-fan, you'll finding something cool or find charming about it, or at least have a better understanding of why I can't shut up about it.