There is a lot to be said for challenges: the idea of completing a challenging task brings with it connotations of achievement and an overriding sense of Nietzschean self-surpassing that has some appeal to all, no matter whether the egoism that has been derived from such thought as a virtue. Perfect Cherry Blossom (東方妖々夢, more literally translated Bewitching Eastern Dream) is definitely a challenge, and one that takes a lot of self-surpassing to master.
Like most games in the 弾幕 (danmaku) or “bullet hell” genre of shoot-’em-up, Perfect Cherry Blossom is, though presented at 640×480, a feast for the eyes: bullets are fired from player and enemy alike at incredible rates, and of all colours creating the most tension-inducing kaleidoscopic patterns one can imagine. Given this, for the game to be playable it would be necessary that the action be incredibly smooth and not suffer from any slowdown due to the huge number of things going on at any one time: fortunately, at least on the PC it was played on, is is not an issue. Surrounded by geometric neon blobs one may be, but this is one PC game for which one will never be able to blame the developer for a poor, technically deficient port being the cause of the many lives lost throughout this maddening game that demands the greatest of concentration at all times.
The cognitive element of the gameplay is just that: concentration. You can get away with just holding Z to fire, while looking at the bottom of the screen, focussing all of one’s attention on the arrow keys and the knee-jerk reflex action required to keep the player character out of the way of the hail of enemy bullets. It seems that the developer, Team Shanghai Alice, had even planned for this eventuality, with an indicator at the bottom of the screen marked “enemy” moving left-to-right with the motions of the boss characters faced by the player at the end of every level. Each of the three playable characters (all of whom are tragically kawaii Japanese girls with the ability to fire sheets of bullets, apparently) plays slightly differently in terms of their attacks, number of “Spell Cards” (bombs in any other shoot-’em-up) available and speed. The character selected does actually make a substantial difference to how you play the game – switching, say, from a faster character to a slower one will take some getting used to – and adds to the replay of the title for masochists who would seek to play it through more than once.
As mentioned, the game is a challenge. A small but not insurmountable part of this is the fact that games of this subgenre tend to have some minor differences in mechanics to more traditional titles such as R-Type or Gradius: the hitbox of both the bullets and the player are a lot smaller than the sprites. It takes a fair bit of trial and error to get to the point where one can, with confidence, move between two bullets confident of the fact that neither will make contact: this is no bad thing necessarily and is just an eccentricity that must be adapted to as part of the learning curve of the game. The complaint may be made that the game’s difficulty is artificial and rests solely on the fact that there is so much going on at any one point in terms of weaving between barrages of enemy fire that one’s will will eventually break, and that is the cause of failure in the game, but this misses the point: yes, that aspect of the game is incredibly trying (despite many attempts, I have myself been unable to complete the game on Easy, yet alone the interesting-looking Lunatic mode) and it is artificial in the sense that it is a mechanic put in place simply to ramp up the difficulty, but it is what people come to the fairly niche genre for in the first place. This is not an unbalanced mechanic making a game unplayable for those except the most skilled or fortunate, this is something that can be learned to be overcome and admits strategy to exploit certain things that are once again intentionally put in place to enable the player to do well, most notably the enemies’ close tracking of the player when firing.
The Touhou Project games, including Perfect Cherry Blossom are fantastic examples of the kind of reward-to-punishment ratio of the “bullet hell” games: every chase after your own high score plays wonderfully, but the game finds new ways to throw you off-stride just as you come close to progressing further than before. Whether this is an aspect of the psychological effects of the rainbow bullet vomit that it is the task of the player to evade making one more prone to mistakes, or whether is is sincerely that the game does play differently on each playthrough is an irrelevance: such a beautifully-crafted, surreal and engaging game should not go unplayed.