Interview: ZUN on 20 Years of Touhou Project

Interview: ZUN on 20 Years of Touhou Project

The legendary one man band of Japanese game development looks back on the last two decades.

Until fairly recently, Japan wasn't exactly known for their indie games scene. While the concept of tiny, independent developers stands as a somewhat new phenomenon on our shores as well, it's taken recent events like BitSummit to make indie development more of a viable idea in the East.

ZUN himself.

That said, the concept of small garage developers isn't a new one for Japan; it just never transitioned into a formal industry. For decades, developers in the doujin scene—"doujin" meaning a group that shares similar interests—have been crafting their own little games and selling them to a dedicated audience at conventions designed expressly for this purpose. And while seemingly most of these games base themselves off of existing IP, one doujin developer has made a name for himself over the past 20 years with an original universe encompassing 15 core releases in total.

Jun'ya Ota—who primarily goes by the pseudonym ZUN—began his doujin series Tohou Project 20 years ago, and in that time, this hardcore shrine maiden-themed shmup series has branched out into other forms of media, like anime and manga, and an incredible amount of spin-offs, ranging in genre from puzzle to fighting to sports. To put it lightly, Touhou is an incredible phenomenon, and one that's astoundingly only just begun to make it over to the West. In order to learn more about this enigmatic series, I recently had the chance to sit down for a rare interview with ZUN, who had much to say about his two decades in the world of game development.

Bob: I'm interested in knowing more about the doujin scene in Japan. From what I understand, it's more about sharing then "let's sell a million things and go to a publisher."

ZUN: People are trying to have more fun with it, like you said, they're not trying to make too much money; they're just enjoying the doujin world amongst themselves. So when the indie wave came into this world, I guess, doujin was able to jump on this indie wave and bandwagon into a more mainstream audience.

Bob: Overall, what are the challenges of transitioning the doujin scene from a hobbyist scene to more of an industry?

ZUN: Since doujin is more free-form, people can do [things] exactly the way they want, but, [when it comes to] the gaming industry, there's rules that they have to follow. So, they can't do the things that they always want to do, and sometimes they're forced to do things that they don't want to do.

A screenshot from the latest official Tohou Project game, Legacy of the Lunatic Kingdom. (They're called "bullet hell" shooters for a reason.)

USg: Is there a resistance in the doujin scene towards being part of an established industry, rather than just hobbyists?

ZUN: So, recently, in the last few years, people have been drawing a line between doujin and indie. So, yeah, there's always been talks about the similarities, but there's obviously differences. So, the doujin community, people do it because they like to do it, and if somebody wants to release a game on a console, they're doing it because they want to do it, so, in a way, it's coming together more.

USg: Let's move on to Touhou. How important to you are the lore and characters in these games?

ZUN: Super-duper important. Outside of the game and the system, it brings out the artist side of the creators, the lore and the story. So, looking at it from the artist's perspective, they might determine if a game is good depending on how they see the story and the lore.

USg: So, when you are creating a new game, do you think of the story elements first, or do you create the game and integrate the story after the fact?

ZUN: I like to split up the story and the setting. The very first thing I create is the world, the setting of the game. In that setting, I put what's inside the game, and on top of that, the story comes in. After the story, the characters are put in, and then from there I draw the pictures and compose the music and then put it all into the game.

This great video traces the steady evolution of Touhou Project over the last 20 years.

USg: So, I want to talk about the actual tools you choose to make Touhou games, and I'm just curious, what have been the best advancements in terms of technology for you as a game creator, in terms of software or hardware?

ZUN: So, the transition from MS-DOS to Windows was really big for me. So, the game engines—I've always made them on my own. My game engine has evolved little by little over the years. Nothing too drastic, just a little bit at a time, and ultimately it's come a long way.

USg: So, I did want to know about the challenges of iterating on the Touhou formula. You've obviously done a lot of that over the years, but I think a lot of people would view the shooter as a very rigid formula with not a lot of room for innovation. I'm just curious: what are the challenges of creating new content within the Touhou formula?

ZUN: So, I also work on manga and novels, so outside of the shooting games, I'm able to expand the world by using those other mediums. So, going back to the doujin side of things, shooting games are my favorite genre of games, so I'm just doing what I want to do, going back to the doujin teachings, I guess, and I keep making shooting games.

Usg: The reason I ask is that because even with the super popular shooting series, with the classics like Konami, they did not go on for 15 games; they eventually petered out after three or four. So I'm just curious as to how you keep that innovation going.

USG: So, for example, for Gradius, from Konami, from [parts] 1, 2 and 3, there's always advancements in the system. But, with the 15 games in the Touhou world that I've worked on, there's not too many advancements in terms of systems. So, instead of making advancements in the game's system, I make changes to the game's story, which allowed me to expand the series out to 15 games.

So, it's like a manga: episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, episode 4, episode 5. It's just like a continuation of the same story. What I forgot to mention earlier was, for a game like Gradius from Konami, there's always advancements in the system, but you can only advance so much, and there's a limit to how far you can advance, which is why I feel those games didn't have as long of a successful run.

Tohou Genso Wanderer, the roguelike take on ZUN's series, will be released in the States by NIS America in early 2017.

Bob: It seems like gaming in Japan is making a lot of changes. People are really more geared towards mobile. And that's happening in America, too, but I think even more over there, people are less likely to play traditional games, traditional consoles, things like that. How do you view the gaming scene in Japan, as someone who's part of it?

ZUN: I feel very good about it. Since games have become more accessible to more users, I think gaming has become a bigger part of everybody's life. Cell phone games in Japan are still in the process of evolving, and the actual gaming aspects of cell phone games is fairly weak still, and it could evolve more. Since there's way more users than there ever have been, there might be people who actually like shooting games, so there's a bigger possibility of it expanding out to maybe like a shooting cell phone game.

USg: You make the main Touhou series, but there are a lot of spinoffs; there are lots of fans who make games. How much control do you have over the universe? Do people have to check in with you to make sure things are OK? I'm just curious as to your role in the entire scope of Touhou.

ZUN: So, there's a specific guideline for people outside of ZUN Soft. So, there are rules, from a doujin aspect, I set that I'm more or less OK with. So, I'm not super-duper strict. The first rule is not to sell it at a consumer level. Don't use original data. So, people can't use my art, my music; they have to either mix it up or change the art up, and yeah. That was my first set of rules. So, with advancement of technology, smart phones or streaming, I'd need to fidget with the rules so they could evolve alongside advancements in technology.

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