♫ BGM: Mystic Dream ~ Snow or Cherry Petal ♫

As Gaming Hell admitted a humiliating defeat to the very prospect of covering the Touhou series, this is most likely the only Touhou game we'll cover here. The text has been adjusted ever-so-slightly since then so it's readable even if you have absolutely no idea why a shrine maiden is flying around beating people up. Also, for the pictures we're using .jpgs here, clicky-clicky to embiggen. You'll have to cowboy up and make do with grainier-than-usual pictures of freaky flying maids shooting at each other with brightly coloured bullets, I'm afraid. Also, remember, to learn how to kick ass at these games, visit The Touhou Wiki where you'll get a lot of the same information, but in a more encyclopaedic and more sterile manner. We're just doing this for the laughs that ensue.

A quick primer on Touhou, for the uninitiated- a series of doujin vertical bullet hell shoot-em-ups created by the enigmatic ZUN, the Touhou series is still ongoing as I type this (and let's face it, this sentence will be true no matter what year you read this) and mostly revolves around girls flying around flinging brightly-coloured bullets at each other. A far cry from the spaceships most commonly seen in the genre, but what can I say, these games have an odd charm and fantastic soundtracks. In any case, I started playing the series on this game, before learning that, in fact, it is one of the more difficult of them. Perfect Cherry Blossom is near the top of the Touhou Difficulty spectrum, and the fact that I actually beat it fair and square (on the default difficulty settings) gives me at least a small amount of pride and limited bragging rights. Fortunately, it's also one of the better games in the series. Let's find out why, shall we?

The story of Perfect Cherry Blossom is the fact that it's cold in Gensokyo, the mystical world in which Touhou takes place. Or, rather, that it's May and winter hasn't buggered off yet. Since winters 'round these parts tend to be pretty brutal, this is almost certainly A Bad Thing, and rather than sit around and let themselves freeze to death, three of Gensokyo's denizens- the obligatory Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame, and Sakuya Izayoi (a boss from The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil)- decide to do something about it. Naturally, this involves beating the living snot out of anything moving (and anything that isn't) but, as the plot thickens, it turns out that this endless winter is being caused by some pesky apparition of the Netherworld, with all sorts of spooky ghosts and stuff. Then in the end everyone laughs it off while drinking tea.

In order to solve this mystery, you and your chosen girl must battle through 6 stages of unrelenting bullet hell, encountering some of the most popular Touhou characters, including the silly ice fairy Cirno, the swordswoman/gardener Youmu Konpaku, and of course, everyone's favourite lonely doll maker, Alice Margatroid. The controls are pretty much business as usual for a shoot-em-up- Shot, Bomb and Focus (which slows down your movement, displays your hit-box, and changes your shots)- but this particular game starts one of the major trends in the series, where focusing and bombing too much are very detrimental to your score, mostly relating to the complex scoring system...

Yes, Perfect Cherry Blossom is definitely not a beginner's shooting game like The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is... In so far as EOSD hasn't got a very complicated scoring system. From here onwards, the series would implement a completely different scoring mechanic into each game, and this one has one of the most involved systems of all the Touhou games, second only to Imperishable Night. The three basic tenets of the scoring system are grazing, items, and the Cherry System.

Let's start with grazing, which is implemented in different ways in nearly all the Touhou games. If you brush against enemy bullets, but they don't kill you (thanks to the generous hit-box) then you get additional points for being so cocky. This is obviously pretty risky to go for intentionally, although half the time, since you'll be weaving between so many bullets that you'll probably get them without knowing. Also, there are some bullet patterns that scream to be grazed against, with absolutely minimal effort. Here, your graze points are totalled on the information bar, as they affect your Cherry points and Star Items, which is explained further down.

The next part is about the items you'll find in the game. There aren't any special item-carrying enemies in this game, as they'll spew from any and all enemies you shoot down. As such, the screen is sometimes peppered with as many items as there are bullets, which can get a little overwhelming if you're trying to get them all. There's a way around that if you're at Full Power... Perfect Cherry Blossom's item roster consists of 6 different goodies:

Rather obviously, these items strengthen your shots. On the status bar, a little bar will increase every time you grab one of these- reaching certain numbers will increase your shot power. The small one adds 1 to the bar, the big one adds 8. When you reach Full Power, there's a few changes- as well as turning any on-screen Power items into Cherry Items, and any on-screen bullets into Star Items (except during Spell Cards) when you reach it, Full Power grants you the ability to automatically grab all on-screen items by moving so far up on screen (the exact distance depends on your character and shot type). This line is referred to as the Point of Collection, and it's really important, so try to learn where it is.

Fortunately, the Touhou games don't suffer from Gradius Syndrome- dying doesn't strip you of all your power, but leaves you a few Power-Up Items and takes a little bit off your power. Furthermore, should you continue, the yellow Full Power icon will appear, just like in a lot of shoot-em-ups- grab it to get back to full power straight away! If you see this item, though, a poor future awaits you.

Point Item
These are very important, whether you're playing for survival or score. They serve two purposes- first, they're the primary way of getting extra lives, as collecting a certain number (starting at 50, then going up to 125, 200, 300, 450 and 800) gives you an extra life. The other purpose is to rack up points, obviously. In a twist, the higher up the screen they're collected, the more points they're worth- when a falling item passes by the Point of Collection, its value begins to diminish rapidly, so you're encouraged to attack fly aggressively to get the max score for these items. This is explained more in the Cherry section below

Whoa, what a lucky item! This appears after certain boss battles (It first appears after the second run-in with Alice on Stage 3, and again after beating Youmu Konpaku on Stage 5) and rather obviously gives you an extra life. However, it's not quite as useful as you might think, because all the Point Items you'll be picking up grant you extra lives, too...

Just like the 1-Up, this item appears after certain boss encounters (you'll see it after the first encounter with Chen on Stage 2, Lily White and the Bullet Hell Fairy on Stage 4, and Youmu drops one on Stage 6) and, rather obviously, gives you an extra bomb. Unlike other shoot-em-ups, seeing this item is a novelty rather than a common occurrence, and to nervous players, an extra bomb is practically an extra life.

Star Item
The Star Item appears when you cancel enemy bullets- that may be by using a bomb, the appearance of a boss or mid-boss, or beating a boss/mid-boss's Spell Card- and you collect them automatically. They're worth a few Cherry points, a few normal points, and their value increases if you've been grazing the bullets a lot- the higher your graze, the more you'll get for the Star Items. Obviously, you can exploit them by timing it so you beat the boss/mid-boss with as many bullets on screen as you can...

Cherry Item
Probably the most important item in the game, these add to your Cherry and Cherry+ values, all cheerfully explained below. Unlike the Point items, it doesn't matter where on the screen you are when you pick these items up... Well, until you get your Cherry points up to maximum, where they operate on the same system as the Point Items- they start at 50000, and tick down from there. Also, if you're hit during your Supernatural Border (explained below) then all the bullets on screen change into smaller Cherry items, which add a smaller amount of Cherry points to the total.

Finally, this Cherry business is awfully complicated, but I'm going to do my best. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see this:

OK. There's three big numbers here. The one in yellow is the current Cherry value. You increase this by shooting enemies, and collecting Cherry Items and Star Items. It's like a score multiplier, as the bigger your Cherry value, the more points the Point Items are worth (assuming you get them for their maximum value).
The one in purple is the Cherry+ value. This goes up with your Cherry value, in exactly the same way, but once it reaches 50000, your character enters the Supernatural Border state, becoming invincible for roughly 10 seconds. If you're hit, or you use a bomb, then the Supernatural Border ends, turning all bullets into small cherry blossoms, and no bonus. Lasting through the whole thing gives you a points bonus based on your current Cherry value times ten. Furthermore, you'll collect items automatically, and grazing will increase the number in white here...
That number happens to be the CherryMax value. Your Cherry value isn't normally allowed to go higher than the CherryMax, but during the Supernatural Border phase, you can increase this max value, which leads to a bigger bonus for the Point Items, and so on. Every time you last through a full Supernatural Border, 10,000 gets added to the CherryMax.

The Cherry value is reduced when you're killed or you use a bomb, but the precise value fluctuates wildly depending on which character you're playing as. Also, if you're focusing, then you'll still gain Cherry and Cherry+ points, but at a greatly reduced rate. So, as you see, keeping your Cherry up is beneficial, and it needs to be learnt no matter what you're playing for- if you want to stay alive, it'll give you temporary invincibility from time to time, and if you're going for score, you'll get huge payloads courtesy of the increasing Point Item value as a result of careful Cherry management. Players with lots of moxie can exploit this system by trying to time their Supernatural Border for the fiercest boss fights, either to give them a temporary safety net, or to increase the CherryMax by grazing loads of bullets. Pretty nifty, huh?

I do apologise for the textbook nature of that description, but any good shooter needs a solid scoring system nowadays, just to make it stand out from the crowd, it seems. It's an interesting change from the 90's approach to shoot-em-ups, and for fun and profit, you can contrast this game with something like XEXEX- the focus there, as in other older shmups, is in the weapon system courtesy of the Flintlock, rather than the scoring. Nowadays, most shooters only have the standard weapon, or one sub-weapon that acts as a 'gimmick' (like Trigger Heart Excelica's grappling hook) rather than lots of them. This doesn't make either era better or worse for shoot-em-ups, of course. Just an observation.

Goodness, that was a lot of talking! We're nearly done now, though. Before engaging with the enemy, you get a choice of three different spacecr- well, uh, actually, a choice of three different girls. One's a Japanese shrine maiden, one's a witch, and one's a maid. Certainly different, but hey, this is Touhou. Each of the three characters are very different, and each has two different shot types to choose from, each having their own focused and unfocused shots, and different focused and unfocused bombs- click the bolded names below to see each one in action. Each shot type for each character has their own high-score table, which is further divided by difficulty level, so you should be able to see which character you're best with pretty quickly. As ever, let's have a rundown:

Reimu Hakurei

Shrine Maiden in the Paradise

Shot Type A: Spirit Sign -Pursuit Type-
Unfocused Shot - Homing Amulet: Reimu throws cards in front of her, while the yin-yang options fire weak homing bullets, covering a fair amount of the screen.
Focused Shot - Hakurei Amulet: Reimu throws giant cards (one at a time at low power, four at a time at full power) that home in on enemies, and normal cards straight ahead that don't home in. Get in line with your enemy to increase the damage!

Unfocused Bomb - Fantasy Seal -Spread-: Reimu throws out red orbs in a circular pattern, which grow in size, head back to her, and explode, clearing bullets and damaging enemies.
Focused Bomb - Fantasy Seal -Concentrate-: Giant blasts of energy home in on enemies, causing huge damage and clearing any bullets.

Shot Type B: Dream Sign -Rapid-Fire Type-
Unfocused Shot - Persuasion Needle: Reimu fires a spread of cards and thin bullets that don't cover much of the screen, but do considerable damage.
Focused Shot - Extermination: Reimu fires a thin laser with limited horizontal range that does great damage to the enemy.

Unfocused Bomb - Evil Sealing Circle: A wall of energy moves outwards from Reimu, clearing any bullets and inflicting massive damage.
Focused Bomb - Duplex Barrier: Reimu throws a giant square out- this only does damage if an enemy wanders into it, but this bomb mostly clears out bullets for you.

Special Abilities:
Smallest hitbox.
Longest Border of Life and Death.

Reimu Hakurei, the ever-diligent and long-suffering shrine maiden of Gensokyo, is the de-facto heroine of the series, present in almost every game from the off. The guardian of the border between Gensokyo and the real world, aside from maintaining her shrine, her job is to make sure there's no trouble, and if there is, she's usually the one to hand out lumps and get it sorted. As such, she comes across as a sort-of nanny to Gensokyo and its denizens, and is so feared that, to appease the Youkai, she introduced the Spell Card system, allowing them to have a shot at her without being afraid of the consequences. As for this game, she isn't very keen on this whole 'eternal winter' malarkey. Since her shrine is so old, it always lets the cold in, and the idea of spring being chilly isn't particularly enticing. So, in order to figure out what happened to spring, Reimu sets off to knock seven bells out of anyone in her path... Just like she always does when there's something ever-so-slightly odd happening in Gensokyo.

She's a beginner's character, definitely- 3 bombs, a smaller hitbox and a longer Border of Life and Death than the other characters all mean that she makes the game a bit easier, perfect for someone who's just starting. The only major problem Reimu has is that she's slow compared to the other characters- play as her straight after playing as Marisa, and you'll definitely notice! It means she can't use the auto-collection skill safely in certain situations, where Marisa could get away with it... If you're new to this, it's best to start out with Shot Type A, as the homing function is really handy. However, it's also weak, which can hurt your chances of success later in the game- that's where Shot Type B comes in, which takes a little more skill, but cuts through boss life bars like butter. Just make sure, if you bomb with Shot Type B, that you use the unfocused one, it's much better at clearing the screen of bullets.

Marisa Kirisame

Ordinary Black-Magic Girl

Shot Type A: Magic Sign -Power-Oriented Type-
Unfocused Shot - Magic Missile: Marisa fires a spread of magic needles that do good damage, and her 'options' fire green missiles at a tremendous rate.
Focused Shot - Magic Napalm: Much the same as Magic Missile, but the green projectiles are replaced with giant blue spikes that cause massive damage.

Unfocused Bomb - Stardust Reverie: Marisa shoots out a circle of giant stars, damaging any enemies they hit and cancelling out bullets.
Focused Bomb - Milky Way: Marisa launches out a stream of giant stars that don't home in on enemies, but cover most of the screen and inflict heavy damage on bosses.

Shot Type B: Love Sign -Penetration Type-
Unfocused Shot - Stream Laser: Marisa fires a spread of magic needles with decent screen-coverage, and her 'options' fire an intermittent laser- the higher her power, the longer the lasers last.
Focused Shot - Illusion Laser: As well as magic needles (which cover less ground than the unfocused shot) Marisa fires a thin but very powerful beam straight ahead.

Unfocused Bomb - Non-Directional Laser: Three lasers spin around Marisa, destroying any enemies and bullets that get caught by them.
Focused Bomb - Master Spark: Master Spark is the most over-the-top attack in the game; the enemy is engulfed in a gigantic, screen-shaking laser attack. Marisa calls it her 'annihilation of love'.

Special Abilities:
Lowest Auto-Collection Boundary
Lowest threshold for maximum item value.

Marisa Kirisame is the other 'main' character of the Touhou games, first appearing as a boss in the second game, Story of Eastern Wonderland, before becoming a playable character in Lotus Land Story and, pretty much, every game afterwards (like Reimu, she sat out for Shoot the Bullet.) She's just a witch, which actually makes her ordinary compared to the rest of the cast, hence the title of 'Ordinary Black-Magic Girl'... She's also a thief (she keeps stealing spells from other characters in the series to use as her own), a shop-owner, and the sort of person who sticks their nose in where it's not wanted. Her dialogue in the game suggests she's just wandering around looking for trouble... Anyway, since Marisa doesn't live in a total dump (her house has magical central heating, something that the entire country of England would find really handy), she doesn't mind that it's not spring. In fact, she prefers the cold weather... But, since she can't pester Reimu at the shrine because of the weather, she's bored, and decides to find out what's happened to the spring of her own accord... While wasting some fools with Master Spark at the same time.

In terms of gameplay, she's not as easy to work with as Reimu to begin with, mostly because of her lack of a homing shot- she has to be facing the boss to damage them, which isn't always feasible, especially since her attacks lack the screen-coverage that the other characters have. However, while Marisa may only have 2 bombs to start with, and the Cherry penalty for using them is very high, she can rack up Cherry points at an amazing rate with Shot Type A, leading to more Supernatural Borders, and her speed's very useful for the auto-collection of items. Her speed can also lead you straight into bullets, though... Shot Type B is also quite powerful, and has one of the most effective bombs in the game (Master Spark all the way!) but again, suffers from a lack of attack range, which makes fights with the later bosses even trickier, and the on-off laser is, well, kind-of pathetic. She's an advanced character with a focus on causing massive damage to individual enemies rather than lots at once, so you'll need to spend a bit of time playing as her to adjust to it.

Sakuya Izayoi

Perfect and Elegant Maid

Shot Type A: Illusion Sign -Attack-Range-Oriented Type-
Unfocused Shot - Jack the Ludo Bile: Sakuya throws a wide spread of knives, covering a good portion of the screen when at full power, but they're weak.
Focused Shot - Jack the Ripper: All of Sakuya's knives will home in on the nearest enemy. This is less useful than Reimu's homing shots- you can't enemies behind Sakuya.

Unfocused Bomb - Indiscriminate: Sakuya throws knives in all directions, completely randomly, but only for a very short time, taking out enemies and bullets.
Focused Bomb - Killer Doll: Sakuya gets a load of knives ready, and aims them at enemies on-screen, causing damage and taking out any bullets they hit.

Shot Type B: Time Sign -Tricky Type-
Unfocused Shot - Misdirection: Sakuya throws knives ahead of her, but when you move left or right, her knives and her floating 'options' will tilt and fire in that direction. When you stop moving, they settle back in place.
Focused Shot - Power Direction: Same as above but you can lock Sakuya's 'options' in place, always firing to the left or right. Sakuya's normal knives will fire straight forward.

Unfocused Bomb - Perfect Square: Sakuya stops time, and she freezes all on-screen bullets. You can graze them while they're like this, as Sakuya's speed increases greatly. When the bomb wears off, all frozen bullets become Star Items.
Focused Bomb - Private Square: Same as above, but a purple box appears- you can direct this into enemies to inflict damage.

Special Abilities:
Largest graze area.
Fewest Cherry points lost when hit.

Sakuya Izayoi, like Marisa, was a boss in a previous Touhou game- in this case, she was the Stage 5 boss from the one before Perfect Cherry Blossom, The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, and apparently has manipulation over time and space. She's the head maid at the Scarlet Devil Mansion, home for many centuries to a dreadful dynasty (a grand total of 2) of vicious vampire women, the mistresses of Scarlet- that'll be Remilia and Flandre to you. Being the only competent maid in the entire mansion, Sakuya realises that the household's going to run out of supplies soon. Since Tesco don't do deliveries to Gensokyo, Sakuya leaves the mansion to try and find out what's happened to the spring before their essentials run out. Despite the seriousness of her mission, Sakuya has the best conversations with the bosses...

Unfortunately, she's also the hardest character to get to grips with. Her fast speed when focused is incredibly off-putting initially, and her Cherry point collection rate is dire, which means it's harder to plan when you get Supernatural Borders. However, this is because she's the 'tricky' character- playing as her for a while shows that she's not so bad after all. Her fast focused speed is actually an advantage, because although some Spell Cards will give her trouble (Alice's 'Foggy London Dolls' in particular), others are made slightly easier with her speed. She also starts off each life with 4 bombs, which is an obvious plus, and she's got a bigger graze area than the other characters. With Shot Type A, she also gets awesome coverage of the screen, even if it doesn't do much damage, and her homing ability is useful. Her Shot Type B exemplifies her tricky nature, and it's pretty useful in certain circumstances... When you're really in the swing of things, try Sakuya out for a couple of rounds, and see if she's for you.

Now we've established the basics (and then some), let's hop to it. Let's play Perfect Cherry Blossom!

Perhaps the mastermind is on the next page?