The Touhou Project games are incredibly good, especially considering they’re made entirely by one alcoholic otaku. The music contributes to this enormously, and that’s why we’re here today. I’ve picked my favourite twenty tracks from the games I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on (06, 07, 08, 09, 10, 13, 14), and I’ll be going through them in a more-or-less “title screen to final boss” order with some commentary. Let’s do this.
(If you want the list of music without my silly comments, go here)
Touhou 10 Title Screen – Sealed Gods
Every Touhou game for Windows has used some arrangement of “Theme of Eastern Story” for the title screen (it sometimes crops up in other places too), but the arrangement for Touhou 10 stands out to me as the best. The 7/8 time signature and stunning instrumentation make this a fantastic way to start the game and this list. Touhou 10 easily has the best soundtrack in the series, so we’ll be seeing it again a few times. I was tempted to include the Touhou 10 Stage 1 theme, but I’ll just leave it here as an honourable mention. Other Stage 1 themes are calling.
Touhou 13 Stage 1 – Night Sakura of Dead Spirits
Touhou 13 begins with a long overdue return to the netherworld (the setting for Touhou 07’s climax) and the background music is calm and beautiful. The driving force provided by the percussion somehow works with this perfectly, and the upbeat melody when the piece picks up (especially starting at 1:05) gives the netherworld a very pleasant, relaxing feel. I imagine it usually has that atmosphere, when it’s not busy being Stage 5. Also worthy of mention is the Spirit World remix, which for this track just removes the melody and brings the percussion to the forefront. Might be nice to put on loop.
Touhou 08 Stage 1 – Illusionary Night ~ Ghostly Eyes
From the first time I heard it, this piece had me ensnared. Touhou 08 has an emphasis on the night, and the image of flying over trees in the darkness is captured perfectly by the Stage 1 theme. The melody and chord progression work very well together, even if they’re nothing special on their own. About eighty seconds in there’s a bit where the percussion drops out, and my ears just die of happiness right there. Starting a game with such a motivating piece was a great decision on ZUN’s part. Then again, while quite a few of the Touhou games have great Stage 1 themes, the music quality tends to then drop off for a bit. Which is why the next track on my list is…
Touhou 13 Stage 3 – Let’s Live in a Lovely Cemetery
Another beautiful piece from Touhou 13, this time featuring a bit more of the bass that the trance theme of the game has brought in. As with almost every piece in the game, there’s a Spirit World remix with more percussion and the melody removed. The 6/8 beat of this piece is nice and light and very catchy, but the main reason this one stands out is the incredibly lovely melody. So light and bouncy~ This would be a wonderful one to learn on piano.
Touhou 10 Stage 4 – Fall of Fall ~ Autumnal Waterfall
Really, every single Touhou 10 track from the Stage 3 theme (another honourable mention) to the end of the game could be on this list, but I had to cut it down to just a few. So, Fall of Fall! A piece that perfectly represents the feeling of flying up a waterfall in the middle of autumn (get it the name’s a pun). Touhou 10’s instrumentation really does stand out across the whole soundtrack. In this piece the flute and piano melodies float above the rest of the voices, like danmaku above the powerful falls. Wait that sounds stupid. Is that stupid?
Touhou 07 Stage 4 – The Capital City of Flowers in the Sky
Wow, what to say about this one… Touhou 07’s Stage 4 is one of my favourite stages in the series; it’s a long and beautiful journey to the netherworld with dazzling bullet patterns and a beautiful piece of music behind it. The beginning in particular stands out, I think. From there the piece gradually builds and grows more complex, only to suddenly conclude just in time for the end of the stage. Then the Stage 4 boss begins, and let me tell you, the music is a treat~
Touhou 07 Stage 4 Boss – Ghostly Band ~ Phantom Ensemble
Phantom Ensemble is a light, catchy theme for a very enjoyable boss fight. Special mention goes to ZUN’s attempt to include the instruments that the Prismriver Sisters play (keyboard, trumpet, and accordion). Also, Touhou 09 includes a slight remix of this tune, so I’ll leave that here too. My favourite part of this one is 1:16 (have you noticed that I love cheerful music yet). Touhou 07 manages to have its three best tracks right next to each other, but I think a slight break from Touhou 07 is in order – so let’s listen to some other Stage 5 themes…
Touhou 14 Stage 5 – The Shining Needle Castle Sinking in the Air
Stage 5 themes have a habit of being awesome (really, all of them are), and to start we have this dark, driving piece from the most recent game. At least, it starts off dark and driving – at the forty-three second mark it transforms into a much lighter, floaty melody. As I’m sure you can tell just by reading this post, I’m not the best at describing music with words, but there’s something about this one that really grabs my attention. Maybe it’s how perfectly it fits the setting of the inverted castle.
Touhou 10 Stage 5 – The Primal Scene of Japan the Girl Saw
Oh man, do I love this piece. This is probably in my top three or four Touhou pieces, and I even learned to play it on piano. Words could not do this piece justice, so just go listen to it. Highlights for me include the chord progression from 0:51 to 1:03 (and again from 1:55 to 2:07) and the entire climax (2:35 to 3:00). ZUN, you musical genius.
Touhou 07 Stage 5 – Eastern Mystical Dream ~ Ancient Temple
It’s finally time for the original netherworld theme I’ve mentioned a few times. There are two parts to this piece, in my mind. There’s the opening – beautiful, serene, perfectly representing a frozen wonderland of the dead, gradually building for a solid minute and a half. Then there’s the second half – bombastic and playful while still somewhat cold and menacing. Put them together and you get an epic piece befitting of a penultimate stage. Touhou 09 version.
Touhou 06 Stage 5 – The Maid and the Pocket Watch of Blood
Not many Touhou 06 themes have made it onto this list, but this one deserves its place in my opinion. (Since I’m kind, I’ll honourable mention another two). Since 06 was ZUN’s first foray into the Windows waters, the sounds used are far inferior to what he was using even one year later, but he was certainly still capable of some remarkable compositions. I think all Stage 5 themes share a feeling that you only experience properly when you struggle your way past the fourth boss for the first time. Now, let’s proceed to some final stage themes.
Touhou 13 Stage 6 – Starry Sky of Small Desires
Stage 6 themes all tend to be short and to the point, and while Touhou 13 doesn’t break that pattern, it certainly throws in a piece far removed from ZUN’s usual style. The rhythmical thumping gives a slower, heavier feel than the usual final stage theme, and it certainly works as something beautifully dramatic. Fitting of 13’s style, I think. Here’s the spirit world remix.
Touhou 08 Stage 6 – Voyage 1969
Voyage 1969 is surprisingly light and beautiful for a final stage theme – which makes It all the more epic when bullets cover your screen like a firework show. It’s still fast-paced and short though, and no-one would ever argue it’s unfitting as the last thing you hear before the final battle. You have to hear Voyage 1970 too.
Touhou 07 Final Boss – Bloom Nobly, Ink-Black Cherry Blossom ~ Border of Life
There is something of a loudness issue with the Touhou 07 soundtrack, but it can be ignored for this unquestionably epic final boss theme. By far one of the best final boss fights in the series, it’s only fitting that it should also have one of the most powerful themes behind it. There’s also a shorter version that plays for the last two minutes of the battle, that can’t be ignored.
Touhou 14 Final Boss – Inchlings of the Shining Needle ~ Little Princess
This one is perhaps a little simplistic, but it’s one of my favourite final boss themes regardless. It takes quite a while for the melody to show up, but the rocking guitar and driving percussion mean this piece never feels slow. I could listen to this for hours – and you’ll probably have to if you want to beat the game!
Touhou 10 Final Boss – The Venerable Ancient Battlefield ~ Suwa Foughten Field
Epic, like any Touhou final boss theme, but in a different way again to the previous two. This one almost feels orchestral, thanks to Touhou 10’s instrumentation, and always feels suitably powerful despite having a considerable amount of variation.
Touhou 06 Extra Stage Boss – U.N. Owen Was Her?
The thing that stands out about Touhou 06 to me is that it still feels like a retro shmup, rather than “A Touhou Game” (which might as well be its own sub-genre). Nowhere is that more exemplified than here, with the downright demented U.N. Owen Was Her? I suspect this theme is what makes Flandre Scarlet so infamous, well – this and the truly hellish boss fight it accompanies.
Touhou 08 Extra Stage Boss – Reach for the Moon, Immortal Smoke
Compared to U.N. Owen and Necrofantasia, this extra boss theme might feel a bit underwhelming the first time you listen to it, but listen harder and you’ll realise just how well ‘dangerous, yet playful’ is exemplified here.
Touhou 09 Conversation Theme – The Mound where the Flowers Reflect
It was hard to decide which piece should end this list – two other possibilities came to mind – but ultimately I can’t ignore just how great this theme is. Relaxing, calming, beautiful beyond words – it’s a shame you’re likely to only hear ten seconds of it in-game. Do take the time to listen to it in its entirety.