Symphony of the [Gensokyo] night

[Just so you know: everything said below is based on the launch 2009 v1.00 PC disc patched up to v1.04a, which I believe is the final version of the original doujin release. If you’re reading this after the game’s welcome Switch/Steam debut: 1) Hi! 2) Some minor details have definitely changed]

A Touhou/Castlevania crossover sounds like a terrible idea – what place is there in a traditional stiff-legged Dracula ’em up for shmuppish bullet patterns? – but Frontier Aja’s Koumajou Densetsu: Scarlet Symphony (due to be re-released this July on Switch and PC as Koumajou Remilia Scarlet Symphony) quickly marries the two unlikely genres together with such ease you can’t help but wonder why it took anyone this long to try.

Taking its visual and mechanical cues from Dracula X era Castlevania, Koumajou Densetsu stars leading Touhou shrine maiden Reimu Hakurei, reimagined this time as a Richter-like character. Armed with her familiar gohei and able to summon fan favourite characters Marisa and Cirno (at the cost of a few hea- sorry, little red orbs found inside candles and other similar light sources), it’s your job to help Reimu take on a wide array of mermen, fleamen, cowme-minotaurs, crows, and more – the majority of them strongly echoing both the look and behaviour of their Wallachia-born originals – as well as some distinctly Touhou-like flying fairies and other classic Gensokyo enemies too. Reimu even mimics Alucard’s unforgettably expressive lunging start and dramatic stop animations, just in case you weren’t quite sure about how Castlevania-y this game wanted to be.

Koumajou Densetsu takes great care to ensure these nostalgic imitations come across as loving homages rather than hollow copies, and this subtle difference manifests in two key ways. The first is the “easy” one: Every legally-distinct creature has been created with great skill from scratch – and yes, I really did double-check everything from generic skeletons to toads and even that one gull Symphony of the Night uses in the telescope area to be sure. Like a good tribute act or a beautiful piece of fan art, they look similar because they successfully capture the spirit of the original, not because they traced someone else’s homework. The second is much more difficult, and also the part that tends to get missed most often: Frontier Aja don’t just remember what these enemies look like, they also understand what they’re for. It’s not just a flappy bat, it’s a swooping aerial obstacle. Those spearmen poking at you from below force you to keep on moving, even if it might not be safe to do so. A resilient ghost head encourages snap decision making – is it better to stop and kill it, or are you confident you can outrun it even though it can pass through walls?

Much like Alucard’s PlayStation adventure there’s a lot of understated 3D mixed in there too, and just like the best parts of that earlier game (and when viewed at the resolution Koumajou Densetsu was created for – a crisp 640×480) it’s hard to tell what’s a carefully textured polygonal model and what’s been drawn from flat pixels. When you can spot the difference it’ll only be because the colosseum walls curve away into the background and give the arena a wonderful sense of depth, or thick stone pillars stretch into an impenetrable darkness broken only by an ominous glow through an ornate window. The end result is always cohesive and competent experience, a precious glimpse at how beautiful a modern take on Castlevania could be.

Koumajou Densetsu stuffs every one of its eight stages with breathtaking gothic charm and track after track of ear-pleasing orchestral/electric guitar mashups, each one a varied and engaging mix of light platforming challenges (with the clock tower near the end the predictable exception to that rule) and troublesome enemy gauntlets. Although Reimu can only ever whip straight ahead (as well as the expected jumping and crouching variants) there’s a generous width to her gohei’s hitbox, saving you from having to constantly perform tedious micro-jumps to attack anything that’s not perfectly lined up with her shoulders. Her hitbox is also relatively small, making it much easier to weave through glowing plumes of projectiles and find unexpected pockets of safety in all of the “impossible” situations Koumajou Densetsu likes to challenge its players with.

The thought and planning that’s gone in to Reimu’s moves and behaviour are allowed to shine thanks to some brilliantly clever little setups. For example, during one later segment you’ll encounter minotaur after minotaur blocking the only way forward, with no room to jump out of the way or fly overhead, and no chance of dealing enough damage to kill them before they unleash their devastating leaping axe attack. You could probably ouch-run your way through the first two, but there’s no way of conventionally getting rid of them without decimating your health bar. Terrible, right? Well… What if you used Reimu’s Richter-slide to skid underneath them as they hopped in to attack? It’s an exciting idea that works first time and every time after that – a perfect little cinematic moment you created using nothing more than your own skill and the tools available.

There is however an awkward elephant in the platforming room: Reimu, like pretty much everyone else you’ll ever meet in any Touhou game, can fly – and what’s the point in leaping from one dangerous ledge to another when you have infinite flight?

Quite a lot, in a well designed game.

All floors and platforms in Koumajou Densetsu are solid, preventing you from simply floating to wherever you want to go in the often enclosed landscape, and each stage also has plenty of aerial enemies – some of which you’ll only encounter if you think “Hehe~ I’ll just fly over the top of all this tricky stuff” as well. It’s also more awkward than plain jumping too, as flying has a touch (just a touch) of inertia to it and you can’t turn around when you’re flying either.

It’s also not something you can infinitely toggle on and off at your own convenience; in fact it’s only possible to activate Reimu’s magical ability to float around once per jump (via the time-honoured “Kirby method” of pressing the jump button while you’re already in the air), and this counter doesn’t reset until you land. Couple this with the knowledge that getting hit by anything at all instantly knocks you out of your flying state and suddenly you realise just how vulnerable you are when you’re in the air, as there’s nothing at all stopping you from crashing down into a bottomless pit – and all pits spell instant death.

Flying is rarely a bad idea – most boss battles virtually demand a danmaku-like level of control – but whether Reimu’s feet are firmly planted in the ground or she’s soaring through the sky Koumajou Densetsu never leaves her alone or unchallenged for long.

With the exception of the official English translation, which is a bit rough in places although at least in a way that suggests it was handled by a real human being trying their best rather than blindly shoved in by Google Translate (a French alternative is also available), this is a supremely polished title that can proudly stand beside the best examples of the series that inspired it. There’s even a very hard and exquisitely short post-game mode to tackle too, featuring deadlier variants of regular enemies, rearranged boss battles, and even a brand new climax designed to test even the most skilled vampire hunters.

I’ve enjoyed this game since it the day it dropped through my letterbox over a decade (!!) ago, and every run through since has only made me love it even more. Koumajou Densetsu bears all the hallmarks of classic Castlevania – it’s bold, beautiful, and just the right kind of ornately decorated struggle against the denizens of the night. It really is a marvel of a game, and the thought of it finally getting a formal modern re-release that anyone can easily buy only fills me with joy.

[Ko-fi supporters read this – and everything else – a whole week early!]

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