Touhou is not a mainstream game series; instead, it is based on classic arcade games, which were difficult, in order to make you spend a lot of money. As a result, Touhou cannot be played with the same mindset and attitude as a modern mainstream game. The more you play Touhou, the more you will start seeing video games in a different way than you used to. This is a guide that will help you adopt the mentality of a shoot ‘em up (shmup) player, as well as some general tips that will help you get better at dodging the barrages of shots that these games unleash.
It’s OK to lose
Mainstream games usually have a merciful Easy mode aimed at people who might not like paying for a game that cannot be easily finished. As a shmup series, Touhou does not follow this convention. Touhou is a difficult game, a game of skill, a game of self-improvement, a game where every player constantly strives to be better and better. The difficulty might be daunting, but that doesn't mean the games are unbeatable: just look at all the people who can clear the Extra Stages or the main games on Lunatic difficulty.
This is why there is absolutely no shame in losing all your lives; it's a normal part of everyday gameplay, and it doesn't mean you suck at the game. It just means you have to practice more, and if you keep practicing, one day you will be able to 1 credit clear (1cc) the game in the difficulty of your choosing. So don't panic if you hear your girl going pichu~n due to a bullet you haven't even seen; keep playing, no matter how much you keep losing, and eventually these barrages that at first seemed impossible to dodge will become manageable, you will finally reach the final boss, and you will learn to navigate through densely packed shots like it's second nature.
Focus only on clearing at first
You will see some players boasting about how good they are at grazing, saying you're not supposed to bomb, or dismissing some characters as "easy mode". Do not listen to them. Your goal, as a beginner, is to only clear the games, pure and simple, and nothing more -- if you try to do anything beyond your league, keep in mind that you might see yourself fail over and over again, but don’t be afraid of it either, since going out of your comfort zone can help you improve at your current difficulty level; after playing Lunatic for some time, Normal and Hard can start to look easy. Be pragmatic, and use to their fullest extent the resources the game provides to give you a better shot at clearing the game. Drop as many bombs as required, experiment with different shottypes, and ask around for which shottypes are good at clearing the game.
Use continues and practice modes
You will often run into a stage section, a boss, or a Spell Card that for some reason you might find particularly difficult; maybe it's because you haven't memorized it yet, or you can't follow the shots properly, or you lack the dodging skills for it. That's why the stage practice mode exists and also why certain games have a Spell Practice mode. Not only does this make it possible to practice only the parts where you lose most of your lives, but it will also keep you motivated by allowing you to measure your progress in terms of concrete metrics, such as capture rate on a spell. Additionally, grinding a troublesome spell can also result in perfecting that one skill you lack, which can be greatly beneficial to your overall gameplay.
Furthermore, if you cannot clear the game with a single credit, don't be afraid of using your continues. They give you an extra chance to polish your performance in both the stage you gameovered on as well as the stages remaining after it; this way, you will not only improve at that one stage that is giving you trouble, but you will also unlock practice mode for each stage, allowing you to improve even further after your continued run.
Don’t be afraid to refer to replays or videos
There is a plethora of reference replays and videos on the Internet for every game, and referring to them for examples on how to do certain patterns, route efficiently, resource usage, and other gameplay quirks is a wonderful idea. There are some people who feel that watching reference material for these games is cheating, but they are entirely false. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to watch a replay before you clear something so you can say that you did it all on your own, or finding a strategy for a pattern on your own instead of watching a replay for it, but there’s also nothing wrong with utilizing tools that are freely available. Replay sites such as RoyalFlare and LunarCast have hundreds of replays that you can download of all sorts of achievements.
Streaming is the basic principle of controlling bullets in shoot ‘em up games. The majority of the enemy shots are aimed directly at you, so by standing still, you're effectively luring the enemies to shoot at the spot you're in. To take advantage of this, move as little as possible so that you can gather all aimed bullets in one tight stream slowly following you from one side. This way, you can dodge most of the incoming bullet bursts with just a small tap away from the stream, giving yourself more freedom to move in case of emergency.
To change the direction of the stream, do a quick move away from it to make an opening, wait a bit to let the enemies re-adjust their aim to your new location, then proceed streaming to the opposite direction. This is called a restream (restreaming in verb form). Oftentimes this is done purely horizontally, but in some cases it may be advisable to restream diagonally to increase the size of the opening (e.g. when streaming from left to right, restream up+right to the right edge of the screen). If you're doing it right, the opening will be large enough to let you go through, no matter how dense the bullet stream is. Streaming is commonly used when moving left or right, but vertical streaming also exists, requiring you to restream vertically instead. You will generally want to restream when you're getting close to the edge of the screen you’re tapping towards, but keep in mind that the ideal timing depends on the width of the stream as well as how quickly the bullets adjust their aim.
The more experienced you get, the more calm and confident you become about the streams and going through openings. As such, the technique becomes the key to evading most aimed attacks. Danmaku shooters developed by Cave popularised the U-shaped movement pattern based entirely around streaming and doing restreams at the edges of the screen to be able to survive the bullet onslaught during the stages. In Touhou, the technique is also the key to getting many graze points from any streamable attack.
Routing means memorizing paths (routes) that will dodge one or more patterns, or otherwise anything that is planned to be done at certain points in the game, and is a primary skill required to become a serious shoot ‘em up player. It can also be used to refer to the entire game; if a player is said to have learned a route for a certain game, that means that they have plans for what to do for every section of the game from start to finish. Memorization itself is often referred to as memo, which is sometimes used interchangeably with routing depending on context.
At first, you can often get away with not having routes for patterns, and your routing will be limited to simply planning bombs to be used to skip attacks you find difficult or have not found a working route for. As the accomplishments you are going for become harder, however, routing becomes more and more of a necessity, culminating in score runs, where routing is absolutely essential for success, as you will need to have a planned route throughout the entire game, where you have memorized exactly what to do in every section; how to move, when to move, when to use certain resources, when to shoot, how much damage to deal, and so on.
As for survival, routing tends to be especially prevalent in Extra stages, where the bosses largely use “gimmicky” patterns that force the player to learn a specific strategy to dodge them. This is often a point where a player will start to learn of the necessity of routing and may become more experienced in learning, practicing and mastering routes.
It should also be noted that while some patterns are random, and therefore cannot be routed, there are also patterns that contain both random elements and consistent elements; a prime example of this is Yuyuko’s penultimate Spell Card from PCB, in which the rice bullets are random, but the butterflies as well as Yuyuko’s movement can be routed.
One should keep in mind that hitboxes, the part of a sprite with which you can collide (and therefore, die), are almost always smaller than the actual sprite. This applies to both your character and the bullets. Experience will show you just how close you can get to a bullet without fear. It is important to learn the hitbox locations and sizes of different bullet types to improve your reading and dodging skills. Furthermore, it must be noted that in the older games, hitboxes are square-shaped, while from Double Spoiler onward, bullets have circle-shaped hitboxes instead.
While the PC-98 games as well as Embodiment of Scarlet Devil have no indicator for your character's hitbox, all the rest of the games have cut down on the guessing a bit: they have a white dot that appears when holding the slow/focus key to indicate your hitbox. Even when the actual hitbox isn't visible (either in older games or during unfocused movement), there are usually visual clues on the character's sprite that can give you a good estimate of the location of the hitbox.
Using the whole screen
There is a tendency for new players to hug the bottom of the screen to try and get as much response time as possible. The problem with this is that you restrict yourself to only one dimension, namely left and right. Many advanced patterns require the use of the second dimension to successfully escape, and the only way you'll figure these out is if you are comfortable with the idea of using the whole screen.
The point of collection helps erase this tendency, but you should still make an effort to stay off the bottom during bosses, too.
Don't focus on just your character and the boss marker on the bottom. Try to look at a greater area, so you can read more bullets and try to determine their paths. With enough practice, you should be able to interpret the bullets around you and figure out the best way to move; this process is generally known as reading. As a rule of thumb, the faster bullets move, the further away from you they must be read, since you have to give yourself enough time to dodge them accordingly.
Combined with effective use of streaming, you can safely observe the whole screen and act accordingly. Looking at your shot can help you determine the horizontal position of your character without directly looking at them.
Community rules of conduct
Joining a community, where you could end up being around skilled players, and most importantly, players that are better than you are, is an excellent way to learn and to receive feedback about your skills. It can greatly enhance your experience as a Touhou player, especially considering many Touhou players have a significant emotional commitment to their hobby stemming from all the effort they have invested in clearing the games. In addition, being around people with this same interest can lead to making new friends -- it is in fact not uncommon for two Touhou players who have only seen each other online to strike an offline friendship and act like they were best friends. However, like all communities, there are some implicit yet necessary rules to follow:
- Be humble; don't brag. Regardless of how skilled you consider yourself, in a medium as far-reaching as the Internet there are lots of fellow Touhou players who are much better than you. So if you brag about having cleared IN on Normal, chances are you'll get an ego-crushing retort like "Well, I've cleared it on Lunatic without bombing!".
- The same goes the opposite way: even if you're skilled, don't brag. You don't want to crush a poor budding player's motivation by rubbing in his face his lack of skills. Even if you can clear SA Lunatic and the other guy still hasn't figured out Cirno's Icicle Fall Easy, this is absolutely not a cool thing to do. It scares newcomers away, and you never know if today's newcomer could be tomorrow's Touhou champion.
- If you're a newbie, it might be intimidating to be surrounded by so many experts. However, rest assured that these experts usually appreciate when someone shows willingness to learn. Even if you're literally the worst player of your entire community, even if you’ve never played a shmup before and can barely even clear, and even if you have to resort to calling yourself the group's resident newbie, if you show serious intent to become a better player, you will be respected, even from the cream of the crop of the group -- probably more than a self-centered expert!
- In communities consisting of very skilled players, you will often see people discuss the levels of difficulty of different patterns they face in their games. What they mean by difficulty, though, is not how long it takes to dodge the pattern once, but how consistently it can be performed. So if you feel like a bad player because a Spell Card you took a long time to capture for the first time is called easy, don’t panic, as it does not concern how hard the spell is to learn, but rather the consistency of players whose goal is to capture it regularly.
- Also concerning difficulty, do not think that you are entitled to judge the difficulty of a pattern when you are still new to the game it’s in. Experienced players will probably love to inform you of how wrong you are, assuming you were indeed wrong. With more experience in the game, the relative difficulty of its patterns compared to each other becomes much clearer, and your judgements will likely start to align more with active players of said game.
- The final golden rule of Touhou, and all video games in general, is to play to your fullest and have fun: give all your effort and have fun, but don't force yourself to the point of turning it into heart-wrenching suffering. Play for yourself and only yourself, and have fun in doing so -- it is admittedly easy to fall into relentless competition due to the way people sometimes express themselves on the Internet.
- It does not matter where you come from or what you used to do, you are welcome to the world of danmaku. Do you come from playing a lot of Dodonpachi or other CAVE shooters? Welcome aboard. Were you a pro-level Starcraft or LOL champion? Welcome aboard. Were you the top-ranked player of a huge Counter Strike server? Welcome aboard. Was Candy Crush the last game you played? Welcome aboard. Did you use to play absolutely everything on Easy out of fear of losing? Welcome aboard. What you used to do does not matter, the only thing that matters is where you stand here and now.
- Comparing yourself to others on the Internet is pointless, simply because on the Internet there will always be someone better than you -- if you can score 2 billion in UFO, there will be someone who can score 2.5 billion. Different people advance at different paces, and nobody has ever declared that this was a competition. As stated before, people can show more respect and encouragement for someone who is putting effort in his playing technique, than for someone who is already at the top -- even if it takes you three years of on-and-off play to clear Imperishable Night on Normal, it's the effort that counts.
- If you're bad at the games, don't quit! Every player will have been a newbie for some time; no one is immediately good when they start (prior shmup experience exempt).
- Some players might say that you “get worse” if you stop playing Touhou for some period of time; this is a myth, which should not be taken seriously. Skill decay takes a long time and at worst you would be a bit “rusty” when you come back, which typically goes away with one or two runs to get used to the game again. Furthermore, the more skilled you are, the longer it will take to lose said skills. Think of it this way: if you have learned how to ride a bicycle, you will not forget how to do so.
- For most people, starting on Lunatic right off the bat is a bad idea. It can work for certain people who have the right mindset and patience for it, but generally this approach is not recommended, as most people will simply suffer from having to struggle for so long and instead prefer to see steps of improvement.
- Most players opt to start off on Normal as it is the default difficulty, but be sure to remember that there is nothing wrong with starting off on Easy or getting your first clears on that difficulty. The myth that Easy stunts skill growth is completely false and there are a good number of players who have achieved their first 1ccs on Easy and have worked their ways up to consistent Lunatic play. The most important thing to consider when starting off is understanding your initial capability. If you started off on Normal but find it to be too overwhelming at first, there is no shame in dropping down to Easy and leaving Normal for later.