Stage 1: Deep Mountain
♫ BGM: Paradise ~ Deep Mountain ♫

Cherry petals must have fallen like snowflakes...
However, it was still silvery snow.

Let the bullet hell commence! This snowy place is where the game begins, and it's a fairly easy stage... At least, compared to the challenges that lie ahead. Now, there's 4 different difficulty settings to choose from- Easy, Normal, Hard and Lunatic. For this run-through, we'll mostly be playing on Normal difficulty (which is, apparently, "for people who are comfortable with shooting games", which describes me down to a T) but, every now and then, I'll let you have a brief gaze into bullet madness... That is to say, there'll be a few screenshots of Lunatic difficulty peppered about, just to keep you on your toes.

As an added bonus, you'll notice that I've taken the liberty of giving the name for each music track when it starts playing in-game. This is partly because some of the song titles are amusing, and partly because you can click them to hear the music! But this is no ordinary download link, oho no! It's a YouTube link! Gaming Hell is finally advancing into something vaguely resembling the 21st 20th Century! My wonderful assistant Ed managed to whip videos for each music track, and (at his insistence) added amusing/bizarre annotations, so if you've got the time, watch 'em and laugh along. They'll even open up in a new window/tab so you can listen to them and read at the same time. With that out the way, let's begin.

Goodness, the first assault is pretty underwhelming, isn't it? Here, we're introduced to the main enemy of the game- the fairy. Unlike the one from the Raiden series, these fairies almost certainly aren't your friends. You'll be seeing these guys an awful lot, but unlike in other shoot-em-ups, each specific enemy type doesn't behave in a consistent manner. All the fairies look the same, but that doesn't mean they all attack you in the same way- their patterns differ on an individual basis, and so you really have to be on your toes to know what they'll do next. I guess it encourages memorisation over anything... The same applies to the spinny thingies, but they don't appear nearly as often.

In this opening segment, the fairies are pretty lax, and simply fire the occasional blue sphere bullet at you. The main focus here is grabbing as many P items as you can, as the quicker you get to full power, the better for your score. No time to dawdle, though; after a barrage of bullets from a small fairy infantry, said bullets are dispelled as the first boss approaches!

Hey, is that... Yes, it is! It's Cirno!

Even though she's only a mid-boss here (in her first appearance, The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, she was the Stage 2 boss) and she's gunned down pretty mercilessly, Cirno (also known simply as 9) is the best character in the entire Touhou series. This is possibly because, bless 'er, she's just not that bright. According to her official profile, the reason she attacks your character is just because she's there. That's it. Her hobby is freezing frogs and watching them thaw afterwards, although it only works a third of the time, and she apparently likes to juggle them when frozen... To add to the hilarity, she thinks she's the strongest. For all we know, she could be, so why take the risk?

... OK, so you don't really play shoot-em-ups for their in-depth characterisation (unless you're one of those types who choked up at the end of Ikaruga) but since all the bosses here are people rather than giant mechanical monstrosities, it's a bit different. As such, the characters here are slightly more endearing, so it's a rather nice touch... It helps that, as we'll see later, some of the dialogue is hilarious.

Ahem. Anyway, Cirno's sole attack pattern here is really simple; she'll fire a volley of arrow bullets that curve around, alongside some bigger blue bullets that spread out, then she'll move to the right and fire some more blue bullets that simply go straight. She'll then move to the left and quickly fire a few diamond bullets at you in a circle pattern that fly straight, before launching out a combo of diamond and sphere bullets, again in a straight line. She'll repeat these steps for the entire fight, so it should be really easy to take her out. Be warned, though. You aren't given much time to defeat her, so don't mess around, otherwise she'll scuttle off and there'll be no score bonus for you, nor can you cash in on the goodies she drops. If you're playing as Marisa in particular, try to make sure she's always in your line of fire.

On Hard and Lunatic difficulty, Cirno gains a Spell Card, 'Frost Columns'. Here's the Lunatic version. Ouch.

As we get closer to the apparent source of the trouble, a whole mess of spinners start to move down the screen in a zig-zag shape, almost relentlessly, with the odd fairy trying to get a potshot in here and there. Since the spinners only take one shot to kill, they're hardly a threat at all, and they drop lots of items for you. The fairies, however decide to step up their game, and we see the first ones to take a lot more punishment than usual- you'll know which ones these are, they're apparently protected by the Star of David. Their bullet pattern is easy enough to avoid, and they drop a shed-load of goodies when/if you off them before they scroll off screen, so try to take them out. The best approach is to move from side to side to take out these stronger fairies- focusing if you think you need to- and grabbing the goodies before moving to the next fairy on the other side.

Now, before each boss battle, you get a little dialogue. Yeah, what I said earlier about in-depth characterisation really applies... Anyway, each of the three characters gets different dialogue with each boss, so for each one we encounter, I've picked the best/funniest conversation. If you want a different conversation, though, try looking at the picture captions... For the first boss, let's see what Reimu has to say.

Reimu has no problem with the lack of cherry blossoms. What bothers her is that it's too bloody cold. She's definitely got her priorities straight.

Fortunately, Letty Whiterock shows up to clarify the situation. Alas, she's not nearly as awesome as Cirno.

Whoa, that's a bit harsh! I'm sure we can solve this problem without resorting to killing each other.

Yeah, that's just how Reimu rolls. No sleep when you're busy fighting off swarms of bullets every five minutes.

OK, she was asking for this after her joke about eternal rest.

Alright, fine, we'll do this your way. Let's put this ol' girl to sleep already.

♫ BGM: Crystallised Silver ♫

Right, so since this is the first real boss encounter (Cirno, awesome as she is, doesn't count- on Normal, she only has one life bar) let's go through how these work. At the top of the screen, you've the enemy's life bar and a timer. The timer shows how long this particular bullet pattern is going to last- if it gets to 0 and you still haven't got the life bar down, the boss will move on to the next pattern. The life bar is split up into different sections; the white parts indicate a 'normal' bullet pattern, and when it's brought down to the red segment, the boss will use a Spell Card, which is the boss equivalent of one of your own bombs. Obviously, they're not quite as deadly... Any bars to the extreme left indicate reserve life bars for the boss, they'll expand when you've dealt with the initial life bar.

Anyway, Letty's first attack wave is easy enough to deal with, she'll fire out a spread of bullets- half of them are blue sphere bullets, the other are green diamond bullets. Once she's thrown them at you, she'll move about a bit and start creating more blue sphere bullets that potter about slowly, not really interested in hitting you at all. After a few of these blue sphere bullet clouds, she'll start again with the blue sphere/green diamond combo. It's a nice easy pattern, but you'll probably want to wait until she starts firing the green bullets the second time before taking her out, so that there's plenty of bullets on screen to be turned into Star Items. Once we get her health down to the red...

Here's our first real Spell Card, everybody! Spell Cards work a bit differently to the normal attack patterns, as each one is named and a bonus starts ticking down when it starts- the faster you get the enemy's health down, the bigger the bonus. Also, you sort-of 'collect' them. If you get through a Spell Card without using a bomb, getting killed, or breaking a Supernatural Border, you'll get a huge points bonus, and it's added to your collection, which you can look at on the Results screen (you need 60 of them to unlock the Phantasm stage). Needless to say, some are much tougher to collect than others...

Fortunately, this one is one of the easier Spell Cards. Letty unleashes 'Lingering Cold' which is a pretty simple pattern. As well as the slow blue bullets that seem to be very prevalent in this fight, she'll launch giant green bullets, with a string of smaller ones following them- they'll split off and fan out in a spread. She'll launch 3 at a time, but they're pretty easy to avoid, even if they're aimed directly at you- just move a little to avoid getting hit. The main threat is those wandering blue bullets, as it does tend to crowd the screen somewhat... However, by this time you might be ready for your first Supernatural Border- make sure you trigger it, as you can graze quite a bit here to make a tidy CherryMax profit.

After this, she reverts to a non-Spell Card attack pattern- this time, the wandering sphere bullets are created by some icy lasers that swirl around Letty, but then the mess of green and blue bullets come back, and we start over again. This is a common theme among the bosses, as when they're not using their Spell Cards, they tend to use variations on a particular pattern The later bosses tend to mix it up a bit more, with some interesting variations, but not Letty.

This is Letty's final Spell Card, 'Flower Whither Away', and it's one of the first demonstrations of how intense the bullet patterns can get in this game. Letty calls forth four lasers that spread out around her, then go off and release a stream of bullets, almost in a star-like shape. You've got no time to admire it, however, as it eventually descends into utter chaos, with the bullets wandering around any old how, and Letty also firing a wide spread of blue sphere bullets occasionally. Fortunately, the bullets are nice and slow, so weaving between them is pretty easy. What you need to watch out for are the four lasers that occasionally shoot down near the bottom of the screen to where you are. They're not as slow as the bullets you're dodging, so they can catch you off guard...

On Lunatic difficulty, 'Flower Whither Away' is replaced by a new spell card, 'Table Turning', which just throws a load of arrow bullets at you. It's not really that much harder, but not only does the screen get rather full, the lasers are also still here, and they're a lot more numerous and deadly. The main bullet shower is very distracting, so the lasers can catch you off guard. Try and keep that in mind.

Regardless of which card you get, keep shooting at her, and Letty soon gives up.

Yep, still got her mind on the cold weather rather than the horrific bullet hell that awaits her. What a strange girl.

On the next page, someone call the RSPCA, we got some cat abuse here!