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Touhou Luna Nights for Switch: stop time and search action


Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
It's finally here: one of the best games in the search 'em up genre has through many twists and turns finally landed on the Switch's impending release list, scheduled for December 17th. Luna Nights originally launched in full in early 2019 for Steam, and maybe you saw me gush about it then on the previous forum; that enthusiasm hasn't waned at all in the interim, and this release is exactly what I hoped would occur, in the game getting the chance to be played more widely by people outside of the PC enthusiast bubble (there was an Xbox One release a few months ago, but hardly anyone noticed). Please pick it up and support Team Ladybug in making more games like this, like the currently in development and similarly terrific Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth. I'll insert my writeup from last year here, for those who may want to read up on the game from this particular perspective:

Do you recall Castlevania's stopwatch? Part of the archetypal Belmont arsenal from the beginning, its place in the foundational quintet of sub-weapons seems oddly contested even as it entrenched itself into the series's ongoing iconography. Expensive to use and maintain; indirect in its utility as a combat supplement; devalued against later bosses immune to its effects... what superficially reads as the most powerful tool of all--the manipulation of time itself--in practice became a mere curiosity, an unwanted surprise materializing from the remains of a struck candelabra, a detriment to more immediate and satisfying vampire-slaying tactics. Subsequent immortalization within and without the series has continued the enforced perception--the stopwatch is frequently absent altogether, even as Belmonts douse holy water, lob axes, and grasp crucifixes to ply their trade. But what if this weren't the case, and the ignoble treatment of the humble time-shifting pocketwatch was turned from the supplemental to the central? Castlevania has not absolved the oversights of its own history, and so we turn to one of its myriad progeny: Touhou Luna Nights.

Touhou Luna Nights
Developed by: Team Ladybug
Platform: PC
Year of release: 2019​

To understand Luna Nights is to understand its intersecting branches of lineage. Team Ladybug is the current development outfit primarily headed by long-time indie developer Krobon, with a history of creating games dating back to the previous century. Krobon's profile rose or manifested altogether in English-language circles with 2015's Pharaoh Rebirth, a game of anthropomorphic archeological adventure, itself a follow-up to their prior work Return of Egypt all the way from 2003. The themes of these games root them heavily in a shared context of pulpy scavenge hunts through the remains of exoticized cultures, literally Egyptian or otherwise, derived from the popularity of Indiana Jones and the games the film series inspired or served as pop-cultural backdrop for, Konami's Arumana no Kiseki and The Maze of Galious among them, themselves later inspiring the likes of La-Mulana. Nothing comes from nothing, and the wider genre of exploratory action platformers is as deeply intertwined with its own history as it is with its inspirational models.

Krobon's establishment as part of Team Ladybug in the wake of Pharaoh Rebirth has lead to an increased presence in the visible spaces of 2D platformer development. The team has been commissioned for various projects in recent years, many of them in a directly promotional context, applying their expertise in pixel art and game design to whatever license is offered to them. Works include projects based on the trash light novel series KonoSuba, the now-a-media-franchise Fate/stay night, and even old and beloved fare like Record of Lodoss War. It was, however, 2017's Shin Megami Tensei: Synchronicity Prologue that brought the developer to my full attention and appreciation. Today, with Atlus in dire straits with their long-term offenses and politics being placed under a much higher degree of critical scrutiny, many former faithful can be left emotionally at sea in their relationship to the developer's flagship series, if they already hadn't wrestled with the disconnect in their own values and priorities in relation to the series as it exists now. I certainly had felt it, and that's why Synchronicity Prologue was so astonishing: conceived as a marketing campaign for the then-upcoming 3DS port of Strange Journey, it was a game as a promotional tool, given to players for free, and it was the best Megami Tensei game I had played in years, reminding me of why I cared about the series in the first place. The ability of this tiny team to crystallize the appeal of something so distinctive into a format unfamiliar to the source material was a key component of the production, and it's something they would maintain in the future.

Luna Nights is a derivative work in the venerable Touhou Project series of independently-developed shoot 'em ups. It chronicles the adventures of Sakuya Izayoi, hypercompetent head maid of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, thrust into a parallel world playground of her workplace and home at the behest of her mistress Remilia Scarlet, the perpetually bored vampire lord always in search of amusements to entertain her eternal life with. Those that know Touhou are well aware of the fundamentality, even stock nature of this premise: The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil in 2002 was what kicked off the Windows era of Touhou and its first steps into the nerd media juggernaut it would develop into, and its setting and cast have remained highly popular and present in fandom and derivative works since, almost to a stifling degree. This seeming unimaginativeness is offset by the game's context as a Castlevania-like, and by the simple iconic qualities of the EoSD cast: the Scarlet Devil Mansion provides an authentic megastructure and ecosystem to explore, with its own delineated quadrants hosting creatures familiar from folklore and Touhou-specific interpretations both, and allowing the residents and staff of the mansion to take their collective place as a roster of bosses one won't soon forget. A martial artist, a sorcerer, a vampire... these characters existed as such in their original games, and their translation to a Castlevania platformer context is all the more naturalistic and seamless for these easily analogous qualities. There's a vampire waiting at the top of the castle, and there's a power of iconography inherent to the fact that contains more than mere cheeky referentiality.

The facsimile of the mansion opens up before Sakuya in increments, as the genre has conditioned us to expect. Luna Nights however possesses of itself a refreshing brevity and concise approach to its exploratory wanderings, highlighted by an official byline: "While it is a 2D search game similar to Castlevania, the game can easily progress without the insistence of repeat elements or collecting items." The game is interested in exploring the spatiality of Sakuya's growing arsenal only to an iterative precipice, never taking the dive into rampant regurgitation. Neither does it feature copious opportunities for backtracking--enforced or otherwise--instead presenting an interlinked habitat with a firm sequence, and the unique situations, challenges and encounters therein. In form, we're presented a sprawl to get lost in, but in function, Luna Nights is more akin to Castlevania's further yesteryear--the linear jaunts that were so environmentally engaging while operating within a strict script to follow. Remembrances of Castlevania's past bring one's attention to another defining aspect of the game: Sakuya's mastery over time.

The maid's arsenal consists of a torrential downpour of thrown knives, as well as the synchronous slowing or stoppage of time to complement the assault. In 2002, English-language audiences hardly would've pin-pointed the source of this theming to JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and Dio Brando; today, the connection is passé, thanks to JoJo's explosion of popularity and the gradual realization of the unending bits of Japanese pop culture its influence can be found in--Castlevania itself is no stranger to its own allusions. Far from incidental tribute or memetic insistence, Sakuya's role of protagonist here places her as a premier actor in the tradition of time-manipulating onslaught in ways that Dio has never been able to be in his constrained narrative role, rising to a definitive take on the concept. Every aspect of the game's design from navigation to enemy encounters to its spatial puzzles and boss strategies is built around a combination of Sakuya's inherent acrobatics and magician-like precision in unison with the ways she can affect the flow of time and how the environment around her responds to that. It's a singular focus for a game that has little room for superfluous elements; every newly-discovered ability acts in synergy with something else, making the act of playing as Sakuya when accustomed to all her tools akin to the descriptors that always seem to follow her: a perfect and elegant performance.

Drawing comparison to a performed dance is more than apt, given Luna Nights's roots. Touhou is a shoot 'em up series of games, whatever its massive representation in other forms of media and even other games might have one think. Luna Nights doesn't only adapt the trappings, but it is informed by the inherent nature of shooters on a mechanical level. Sakuya does not perish in one hit, but relative to other genre counterparts, she's exceptionally fragile and cannot brute-force her way through danger. The flow of play then comes from an ever-dynamic management of varying meters she draws power from--MP powers her attacks by default, and TIME allows her to, you guessed it. Both of these resources rejuvenate on their own after use--TIME comparatively quicker--and MP isn't expended while time stands still, instead delegating to the emptying TIME gauge while it's in effect. These symbiotic relations between Sakuya's abilities mean she cannot idly whittle away opposition from relative safety, but has to actively engage with the full measure of her arsenal to prevail. What ties this convolution together in a beautiful distillation of the game's ethos is the integration of the native Touhou games's "graze" system--originally a way to increase point rewards by brushing up against bullets and enemies, courting and taunting death all the while flaunting one's mastery. Here, it becomes an integral part of the way Sakuya engages her opposition--grazing against enemies and attacks plays a vital role in replenishing health, MP and TIME, encouraging risky and active play in ways that can call to mind Bloodborne's rally mechanics. It also acts as a self-balancing tincture to the difficulty that shoot 'em ups are famous and infamous for: Luna Nights features enemies and bosses that are aggressive and swift, but thanks to the element of time manipulation and the ability to bounce back from defeat with the second wind of skillful grazing, the possibility of death is always to be taken seriously but not to a demoralizing extent. To exist in a shoot 'em up is to always live one step away from sudden demise, and the seeming ease with which that sensation is translated to a 2D platformer is one of Luna Nights's most ingenious aspects.

Touhou media is unfortunately not all created equal--how could it, given the tremendous popularity of the franchise and the breadth of creative expression it's inspired? Still, it can be frustrating to engage with the main games of the series, find great value in them, and only see fan works of questionable aesthetic and tonal approach represented in the recent surge of English-language releases, their inspiration still locked to a relative isolation. Luna Nights is the first time I've played or observed a Touhou game outside of ZUN's own creations that has a comparably light and deft touch to the material that makes it so appealing in the first place, in ways that don't ally themselves with otaku-friendly exploitation and sexualization, and instead treat the series as what it is or at its best can be: a liminal fairy tale, existing in the mythic spaces between folklore and children's literature. The game wields its source material so well, filling its world with a close-knit family unit with their own existing interpersonal dynamics, casually suggesting and alluding to a larger context beyond the boundaries of the Scarlet Devil Mansion; whether one is familiar with that expansive mythology or not isn't ultimately pressing. This isn't a game for pre-existing fans only, eager to trainspot for the next reference, but an integrated treatment of one chapter in the series's cosmology in ways that are episodic, self-contained and engaging on their own. It can act as a gateway or a continuing extrapolation of the stories that it's part of, because in ways that are so sadly rare, Team Ladybug's commitment in adapting Touhou into a new genre retains with it its most important qualities even as it molds others to fit its new home. You can't say that about a lot of derivative media, fan-created or otherwise.

Touhou Luna Nights accomplishes what Synchronicity Prologue did: it presents a mechanically and tonally considered, gorgeously illustrated and animated transformative interpretation of expansive source material, at once elevating its subject matter while casting its contemporaries in self-reflective light through its sheer excellence, and provides a lens on a rich intersection of genre, series and developer. It's its own cyclical mythology, brightly reflecting the light it catches through the ages.

I'm definitely rebuying and replaying this when it releases, and encourage everyone else to try it too.


What's Shenmue?
I have no interest in Touhou, but your old thread sold me on this and I've been eagerly anticipating the Switch port ever since. I'm excited to finally give it a go!


Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
I want people with no stake, interest or knowledge of Touhou to try this the most. I think its unique qualities and strengths totally supersede any kind of barrier of entry that might be projected on it as a derivative work attached to this gargantuan universe, and speak volumes without bringing in any of that prior context with you coming into it.


Gravity is overrated.
Definitely try it. I have almost zero knowledge or care of Touhou and just really enjoyed this game when it rolled onto gamepass awhile back.


Little Waves
Staff member
I'll probably get it on PC so I can capture graphics from it. I've got it (and Deedlit) on my wish list now, so thank you for the reminder.

Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
Luna Nights is so good. Even if you don't know anything about Touhou, Luna Nights is excellent, both as a Search Action game and as an introduction to the setting. The game focuses on the characters of the sixth game in the franchise almost exclusively, and those characters happen to be two vampires who live in a big magic vampire castle, their servants, and one of the interloping protagonists from the original bullet hells showing up all like "ey wot's all this then???".

Octopus Prime

Mysterious Contraption
Or “Troid-em-up”

For some reason, Search Action makes me think it’s a hidden picture game, and I don’t know how you’d make those action games but try telling that to the word-association zone of my brain.


Sir Knightbot
I played this on PC recently. Last year? This year? My concept of time is shot. Appropriate, I guess.

It's good. The implementation of the time mechanics is A+, and I'm looking forward to more of this team's output once the rest of the Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth chapters are released.

I never did manage to finish off the hidden boss, though. Maybe I was doing something wrong, but I lost interest in having to do the relatively simple first part of the fight while I was trying to learn the second part.


Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
The good news is even if you played the game on PC through its original release, the console versions have an additional boss in Cirno, so there's a little something new if you're revisiting.


Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
It is out, it is bought, and it is finished. No worries as far as port quality here; it's as good as it ever was.

I'm so much better at this game now than before, so the revisit went positively soaring through the old stomping grounds. One of the most fun-moving and fightin' and sounding and looking games in its genre, which means I'll keep returning to it.


What's Shenmue?
I played this over the weekend, and I'm kind of kicking myself for not doing so earlier; I'm not exaggerating when I say Luna Nights is one of the very best search action games I've played.

I knew, going in, that the game's central mechanic was time manipulation, but I was surprised and intrigued to find just how deeply considered it is. It is, of course, a major factor of the game's sense of level design— navigational puzzles a-plenty. But it's also a component of combat and can be used to mitigate difficulty. Having trouble dealing with an enemy (or screen of them)? Slow time to make attacks and projectiles easier to handle, or stop time entirely for an opportunity to lay into them. And both of those options also make it easier to engage with the graze mechanic, wherein you restore some amount of health or magic by getting up close to danger— obviously a much less risky proposition if you've slowed time. It's brilliant how the two feed into each other, and how getting a leg up is by simply fully engaging with the systems.

In fact I think this is the strongest aspect of the game, the way it gradually and naturally eases the player into its unique mechanics. In the first area, Luna Nights doesn't seem too dissimilar from other games of its ilk, especially as the first boss is a relatively straightforward brawl. But after that, the game begins to flex its muscles, contriving rooms packed with annoying enemies and introducing bosses with more complex fighting styles. By the end of the game, the bosses have intricate danmaku patterns, and where grazing has become of the utmost importance— a way to keep your health up in face of a barrage of projectiles. It's something far removed from any other search actioner.

Not to dismiss the level design, though! There's a very "obstacle course" sense of design here, to an greater degree than is typical of the genre. You've got your mad dashes through timed sections, and spinning blades to dodge— and with the additions of objects that react differently to being stopped, the game constantly finds new ways to explore these. But where it really shines, to me, is the more creative applications of stopping time: turning water solid so it can be walked on, or (I'm only putting this under a spoiler because I think it's cool as hell) being able to stand on the knives you throw and use them as makeshift platforms. It is just a constantly fun game to contend with, navigationally.

Oh, and one interesting thing about the game's map design is that, because it has a very boxy look overall, you can intuit where the hidden rooms are just by checking the map screen and spotting where the layout is uneven or asymmetrical. I was able to get 100% map completion without ever looking up a map online, which is something I can't say about Castlevania.

Also, it must be said that this game is gorgeous. I'd seen screenshots of it before but they really don't do it justice; the animations, so fluid and smooth, are a wonder to behold and imbue the game with so much personality. Player character Sakuya is obviously the finest example here, but the bosses all shine bright, and even the NPCs have their moments— Nitori climbing out of and back into her egg-mech is really, really impressive.

But what really puts it over the top, I think, is all the little details throughout. Things like how knives, if they don't hit an enemy, get stuck in walls and ceilings; and that the game will remember this, as the knives will still be there if you leave and re-enter that room (it's not cosmetic, either: retrieving the knives will give a small MP restoration, equivalent to what it'd cost to throw them). Or how after Sakuya gets a drink from the vending machine, she'll drop the can on the ground; and how, with careful positioning, you can have her deposit it in the nearby garbage can, which then lights up in recognition (the game even tracks which bins you've dropped a can into, even though there's no reward for doing so). It's stuff like that that really speaks to the love and care that the team poured into the making of this game.

Best of all, it's exactly the right length: long enough to make an impression, but short enough to remain brisk and engrossing throughout. I think this is especially important, because it's easy to see how a game with this level of intensity could become wearying; but Luna Nights wraps it up before that even comes to mind. Instead, it's a game that leaves you wanting more— not because it's unsatisfying, but precisely because it is.

Don't miss this one, especially now that it's readily available on the Switch!
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Infamous third lava dolphin
All right, Peklo, you got me. I bought Luna Nights (and the soundtrack!) when they went on sale over the holidays. The good news is that, based on what I’ve seen so far, this seems to be an excellent explat. The bad news is that my son doesn’t like it, which means I can’t play it during our communal game sessions. That means the game will be coming out of “Dad time”, which is a much more precious commodity. I’ll try to stick with it, but I have a lot of games on the go and it will take some concentration.


Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Hey, whatever works, I'm just happy people are willing to try it. As stated, it's a very manageable time investment for the standards of the genre even if you commit to doing everything there is to do, and that's firmly a strength. I just replayed it again just because I felt like it, and the scale supports that kind of spontaneity.