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How Danmaku Battles Work

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I decided I'd create a more or less comprehensive guide to how danmaku in general and Spell Cards in particular work in Touhou Nekokayou and the surrounding fiction.

Please note that, aside from the Spell Card rules taken from Perfect Memento, this is pretty much all my own invention except where otherwise cited.

About the fighting games: I'm not going to try to interpret the fighting games; they are assumed to be a sort of gameplay-metaphor for more "conventional" danmaku-duels. I base this on the fact that in the fighting games, you can whack the human characters all the way across the screen and have them bounce around like a rubber ball, and then they immediately get up and continue fighting unless they were out of HP.

Canon Rules

Paraphrased from Perfect Memento in Strict Sense

With every battle of spells between youkai, there is a slight fear of Gensokyo's decay or destruction. However, the power of youkai, if it is not used, will gradually vanish. Therefore, I propose the following contract for Spell Card use.

Concepts

  • That youkai can easily cause Incidents.
  • That humans can easily resolve Incidents.
  • That use of one's full abilities is to be denied.
  • That there are no things superior to beauty and thought.

Law

  • Each spell shall be given a beautiful and meaningful name.
  • The number of named spells to be used shall be announced beforehand. Attacks relying on physical strength may not be repeated.
  • Do not attack without reason; reason becomes its own power.
  • If all your named spells are defeated, you are defeated, regardless of your remaining strength. If victorious against a human, you may not kill them.
  • The name of the spell shall be recorded on paper in the same form as this contract. As a result, all of the aforementioned regulations become absolute. This paper will be called the "Spell Card". A concrete method of casting may be discussed later with the shrine maiden.

The Basics: What Is Danmaku?

"Danmaku" (弾幕) is the Japanese term for "barrage." Appropriately enough, it is composed of the characters for "bullet" and "curtain." Dan-maku. Bullet-curtain.

In-universe, danmaku is a magical martial art in which, rather than focusing all your power on a target, you create tens or hundreds of "bullets" of lesser-power. These bullets do spiritual damage, rather than physical, so that they usually have no effect whatsoever on the physical realm. (As an aside, since the bodies of youkai are entirely spiritual constructs, spiritual damage is more dangerous to them, giving humans a subtle advantage. However, this is balanced out by the fact that most youkai are much more powerful than most humans to begin with.) Like all magical martial arts, it can be used either athletically, or lethally. The Spell Card Rules mandate that only nonlethal bullets may be used.

Danmaku, in general, must conform to various standards. Oh, you can just throw out random bullets, just like you can throw out random punches and kicks in a physical fight, but the whole point of a martial art is that it follows patterns. Hence, danmaku is all about creating a pattern of bullets which is aesthetically pleasing (Marisa seems to have missed the memo there).

You can either create your own bullets of ordinary light in simple shapes, or base them on objects. For instance, Sakuya has only two or three knives, but creates "copies" which are actually danmaku-bullets. They work exactly like ordinary balls or lemons of light; they merely look like her knives. Also, in the Perfect Memento article on Rinnosuke, Akyu suggests using cell phones for danmaku (since they're useless for anything else in Gensokyo ... oh, wait).

Creating a nonlethal danmaku bullet is the simplest supernatural effect anyone can create, and it is universal — whether you are using magic (Marisa, Mima), sacred power or that of the gods (Reimu, Sanae), or some form of magical technology (Yumemi, Nitori).

A Hit

When you are struck by a danmaku bullet from a Spell Card in any part of your body, either a direct hit or a glancing blow. The magical discharge is enough to disrupt whatever bullet-pattern you are currently using; all danmaku bullets within a certain radius will disappear, vanishing in a shower of green sparks. Bullets from non-Spell Card patterns (hereinafter regular patterns) are less-powerful; depending on your endurance, you may be able to take three or four. Or hundreds, in Aggressor/Defender-style combat (see below).

  • Rule: In the course of a battle, a combatant is not allowed to use the exact same pattern twice.
  • Rule: After landing a successful hit, you must give your opponent several seconds to recover before resuming your own pattern. (This rule tends to be ignored by actual combatants.)
  • Rule: Spell Cards and regular patterns must each be used in increasing order of power and complexity (that is, this applies separately to Spell Cards and regular patterns; you may alternate between Spell Cards and regular patterns in a battle).

There's a limit to the number of times you can be hit; afterward, there will be a loud and noisy but harmless discharge of magic, a vague sensation of numbness, and your combat abilities will be reduced to near uselessness. If your limit is too low, you might even be rendered unconscious.

Timeouts

If you try to sustain any kind of pattern for too long (past its time limit), it will overload with much the same effect as getting hit. This is called a "timeout". Certain Spell Cards may be deliberately set up so that the only way to defeat them is via timeout; the effort required to set this up generally reduces the time limit. It is theoretically possible to win a battle without landing a hit, but this is generally only practical if you have more patterns than the opponent.

Grazing

Moving to within a certain distance from a danmaku bullet without touching it directly. You can recover a tiny amount of energy from a bullet when you move into this distance; it is unlikely that it would give you enough energy to successfully use another Spell Card beyond your limit unless your opponent is an EX Boss (see below), but it may give you an extra edge for your attacks, and allows you to focus better on dodging.

At this proximity to a living soul, a danmaku bullet does cause physical damage; this effect is immediately negated by a hit. This accounts for why danmaku-combatants have been observed with clothing damage, but not much in the way of physical injury.

Spell Cards

When one casts a Spell Card, they surround themselves with an aura, called the "Spell Card background," which appears to show an insubstantial pattern of colors and shapes and light behind them; e.g. Rumia's background is a haze of black and brown clouds, Kanako's background appears to show a temple, and Flandre's background shows an image of herself.

It also requires more power to cast than an ordinary danmaku pattern. However, it is worth it, because Spell Cards are more powerful, harder to dodge, and have longer time limits.

Stage and Magnitude

There are two different scales: one is Stage, which determines the size and density of the bullet patterns, and Magnitude, which determines your endurance and the number of bullet-patterns you can use (combined with your Stage number).

Magnitude is divided into four categories of increasing power: Normal, Sub-Boss, Mid-Boss, and Boss. The differences between them are, well, orders of magnitude.

Normals and Sub-Bosses cannot use Spell Cards, and indeed usually have only one pattern at all. Sub-Bosses, however, are much more durable, and their patterns are much longer and varied. Some of them may even surpass Mid-Bosses in their durability (see: the fairy at the end of stage 4 in Perfect Cherry Blossom).

Mid-Bosses at lower Stages than Extra may have between one and three different patterns, and some of them may also, with great effort (see "Mode" below), create precisely one Spell Card in addition. Bosses are the most powerful, and have at least two Spell Cards, depending on their Stage, and non-Spell Card patterns don't count towards their limit unless they try to use more ordinary patterns than Spell Cards: if you have three Spell Cards and three ordinary patterns, only the Spell Cards count towards your limit, but if you use four ordinary patterns and two Spell Cards, the last two non-Spell Card patterns will count.1

Stage is a numerical level from 1 to 6 (the latter often called "Final"), followed by "Extra", or "EX." There is also another one beyond that, called Phantasm; Yukari Yakumo is the sole holder of this title. A stage 1 Boss generally has two Spell Cards and two regular patterns; Yukari has eleven Spell Cards and nine regular patterns.

It is polite to announce the number of Spell Cards and regular patterns you intend to use in advance. That said, most danmaku combatants aren't particularly polite.

A Boss may have some influence on the power of Normals and Sub-Bosses within a certain radius (see dialogue in Embodiment of Scarlet Devil's Extra stage, and also the fact that in every Windows game before Subterranean Animism, the Extra stage is in the same location as a previous stage); also, certain types of youkai and fairies may have their own Stage raised by the full moon (see Border Team dialogue in Imperishable Night's Extra stage).

Mode/Difficulty

A combatant may lower or raise the complexity and speed of their attacks. This is called Mode, or Difficulty. In addition to their normal mode, a combatant may lower themselves to Easy mode, or raise themselves to Hard or Lunatic. Lowering one's mode only gives benefits comparable to that of grazing, whereas increasing it lowers one's stamina; a Boss who would remain conscious if they lost a fight at Normal might be knocked unconscious if they lost while at Lunatic. EX Bosses and Mid-Bosses tend not to change their Mode.

  • Rule: The Hard/Lunatic version of a Spell Card must be given a different name from its Easy/normal counterparts.
  • Rule: You cannot change Mode mid-battle. You must remain on the chosen difficulty the whole time.

The stated purpose of this method is as a handicap to compensate for unequal degrees of power, but most combatants simply do whatever they want. For instance, Cirno is constantly lowering herself to Easy mode (thus cementing the reputation of her Ice Sign 「Icicle Fall」 Spell Card), whereas Sakuya tends to use her Hard/Lunatic Spell Card "Illusion World 「The World」.

Aggressor/Defender style

In this style of combat, one combatant (the Aggressor) fires much less-powerful danmaku bullets in a straight line at the other combatant (the Defender), who uses bullet-patterns and Spell Cards as usual. The Aggressor's bullets are much less powerful, and thus it may take tens or hundreds of direct hits to cause a Hit. Fortunately, the Aggressor is capable of firing shots constantly, and depending on their abilities, they may have other useful traits as well.

The Aggressor may also "bomb" using a Spell Card, which goes through its looping pattern precisely once and then stops; bullets from bombing clear away other danmaku-bullets. An Aggressor may only use a set number of bombs, and they must always use the same Spell Card. Through some quirk of the way different types of magic affect each other, EX Bosses are immune to bombs when using Spell Cards of their own.

Lowering Your Power

You don't necessarily need to fight at your maximum power level. For instance, Patchouli Knowledge is an EX Midboss, but her constant illness generally keeps her at around stage 4. Yukari, in every appearance after Perfect Cherry Blossom except in Shoot the Bullet, tends not to appear much higher than the characters around her, and it doesn't seem to be much harder to defeat her, either, so she's probably voluntarily lowering herself much further down than Phantasm Boss in those cases. And then there's Yuugi; I don't think I need to say anything more about her.

1For this reason, it has become somewhat fashionable in some cases for Bosses fighting each other to dispense with non-Spell Card patterns entirely.

18 Comments (auto-closed) (rss feed)

Chaos42

Interesting. I lol'ed at the use of in-game terms such as "stage" and "mode."

Chaos42

But wait, how do you take IaMP (and to a lesser extent, SWR) into account? In those games, the fighters use a spell card multiple times...

Kimiko Muffin

I don't. That seemed simplest. ;)

Chaos42

Well, here's my explanation for SWR: you can use a SPELL more than once, but you can use a CARD more than once (i.e., you can have more than one of a particular spell). For IaMP, IGN, other than 'it's just another variant'.

Tewi Inonymous

While danmaku as martial art is interesting.
You'd thing someone would say "screw this" about the performance stuff and actually try and beat the crap with danmaku.
Seriously, who's enforcing these rules :P?

Kimiko Muffin

@Chaos42: Actually, for one thing, I was focusing more on manipulating the boundary between my stories and danmaku as depicted in the games (I've also already made an explanation for the Phantasmagoria Games) than trying to explain every single form of danmaku used throughout the continuity; obviously, you can make up your own rules for specific fights (c.f. in Silent Sinner in Blue). For another thing, I've pretty much been assuming that the fighting games (and the actual Phantasmagoria of _____ games, for that matter) were just "metaphors" for more conventional danmaku battles. Apart from anything else, the characters seem to have a bit tougher time flying than in the other games ...

@-Anonymous-: Experts disagree on this. ;)

Seriously, though, the way I see it is: the rules-rules are basically just for show to say that they've got some sort of order to them — in practical terms, Spell Card battles generally consist of chucking bullet-patterns at each other until one of the participants "explodes." In any event, nobody wants to kill Reimu, since she's the one who maintains the Hakurei Border. If the Border goes down, that's it for Gensokyo. And nobody really wants to really-kill youkai particularly, because it generally isn't worth the effort (nowadays), given their regenerative abilities. However, if a youkai did kill a human, that would make it worth the effort to hunt down the culprit and make 'em really dead. I'm sure Yukari's also got some sort of hand in it, seeing as she's a Reality Warper and all ...

Kimiko Muffin

Hm. I keep meaning to add a bit about circumstances under which you can lower your Stage and/or Magnitude ... or raising one in exchange for lowering the other, that kinda thing ... Patchouli, Chen, the fact that Yuugi's sake NOT EVEN DROP ...

LightningLord2

Although the combat can be set up to not kill either participant, there should be STILL damage for getting hit. Otherwise, the best tactic would be to make >1000 Patterns with no bullets at all (removes energy loss) to simply "out-wait" the enemy to fire away his bullets for nothing. And you didn't even break a sweat for doing so. I've seen a kind of duel in Dungeons and Dragons, where an opponent matching your power is selected, and you are free to fight at will, and you're supposed to defeat the opponent. However, if you kill your opponent, you'll be exiled from the plane forever (It's the plane of the celestials). The prize of victory is access to the healing fountains of the plane (If your alignment is approved by the inhabitants, you don't need to fight).

Kimiko Muffin

Well, yes. I didn't say they didn't get hurt — enough bruises, while not lethal, will definitely slow you down. During all of the fights as depicted in my comic and stories, whenever someone gets hit they react with at least an "oof." Besides, getting hit (or your pattern timing out) takes up as much energy as starting a new pattern — if you can make five patterns by default, the "no energy spent" method means you'd only be able to make ten "patterns", and your opponent won't have to waste their concentration trying to dodge your attacks, and will be able to spend more effort concentrating on hitting you.

And anyway, that kind of thing already breaks the "no two patterns exactly alike" rule. ;)

LightningLord2

Well,
1. Movement is also part of the pattern, so only slight changes cause the pattern to be different and
2. You should really mention the rules that limit such passive tactics beforehand, I haven't seen any of those in the text.

Morgan

I can think of two reasons why it's not likely to be an issue...

1. Like Muffin implied, it's not really going to be a very effective tactic.
2. Just about everyone in Gensokyo is *way* too agressive to even *contemplate* a strategy where you don't get to *shoot* anyone.

Kimiko Muffin

3. It's an explanatory device designed primarily to bridge the gap between the concept of Danmaku, the way it appears in the games, and the way I'd previously depicted it in my stories, not a complete set of rules I expect real people to use :P

GreatLimmick

In general, I like this article; it's fun and informative. However, I do wonder one thing: How does the Stage/Magnitude classification apply to characters that appear as an early boss and then later as a mid-boss? Would they, as a rule, use the higher stage or higher magnitude? Or does it depend on something else, like how many spell cards they have? (For instance, just considering UFO, at least as I understand, Nazrin has more cards as a Stage 2 Boss, but Kogasa has more cards as an Ex-Midboss.)

Kimiko Muffin

It depends on the character and circumstance, but presumably, either they were artificially elevated to a higher level by some outside factor (i.e. Nazrin gaining the Pagoda, Chen being near Ran), or they were at the higher level by default but lowered themselves. And sometimes the distinction can be blurred (is Patchouli an EX Midboss who's lowered to Stage 4 by her asthma, or a Stage 4 Boss who becomes an EX Midboss when her illness clears up?).

Spirit Tsunami

I just realized that the main protagonists regularly perform way over their heads. Putting aside the Phantasmagoria games because of their copious number of playable characters and the non-linearity of the games making any concept of a "stage" indecipherable, take a look at every other character that's been playable...

Mima: Stage 4 (?) Boss in Highly Responsive to Prayers, Stage 5 Boss Story of Eastern Wonderland
Yuuka Kazami: Stage 5/Stage 6 Boss Lotus Land Story
Sakuya Izayoi: Stage 5 Mid-Boss and Boss/Stage 6 Mid-Boss Embodiment of Scarlet Devil
Youmu Konpaku: Stage 5 Mid-Boss and Boss/Stage 6 Mid-Boss Perfect Cherry Blossom
Sanae Kotiya: Stage 5 Mid-Boss and Boss Mountain of Faith, EX Mid-Boss Subterranean Animism

Now look at our two heroines:

Marisa Kirisame: Stage 4 Boss, Story of Eastern Wonderland/Lotus Land Story/Imperishable Night, EX Boss Fairy Wars (a game which only has three stages, hence "EX" is the fourth level of power here, not the seventh as usual).
Reimu Hakurei: Stage 4 Boss, Lotus Land Story/Imperishable Night.

And that's why they're the heroines. They're Stage 4 bosses who perform feats that anyone else would need to be at least Stage 5 to pull off.

Kimiko Muffin

The thing about that is, Stage is primarily about power and bullet-pattern density. I mean, yes, if that was all there was, and you always landed precisely one hit on your opponent for each of your patterns and vice-versa, a Stage 4 Boss would have almost no chance of defeating a Stage 5 Boss, and a Boss against a non-Boss would always win. But the real trick to danmaku is elegance and grace (I can picture a formal "danmaku tournament" in the Outside World, in which actually being able to hit your opponent is considered a secondary bonus, compared to just looking nice.), and being able to figure out how to dodge a danmaku-pattern you've never confronted before. "Out of your league" only makes sense in terms of dodging, not stage and magnitude (look at how Reimu is considered "SO HARD" in Imperishable Night).

Sorry if I'm not making much sense here, I'm sleepy and not feeling too well ...

Inkerius

Also, for argument's sake, Marisa and Reimu were EX-Midboss and EX-Boss respectively over in the Seihou Project's Shuusou Gyoku. Don't know whether that counts, though.

Kimiko Muffin

I'm-a say that's a no.