Let’s get something straight from the outset: Gal*Gun Returns isn’t the perverted game that so many people seem to think it is. It’s not, as often assumed, some bargain bin thing that exists solely for the purpose of titillation. It’s crass and cringeworthy, absolutely—but that’s a very deliberate and pointed effort. Gal*Gun doesn’t exist to titillate, but to lampoon the whole genre of H-games by taking their tropes to ludicrous (though not explicit) extremes and to use the mechanics of an arcade-style rail shooter to subvert those expectations.
Since the original, Japan-only release of Gal*Gun in 2011 (of which Gal*Gun Returns is a remaster), the basic concept has remained the same: you play as an unpopular high school boy who gets accidentally overdosed with cupid arrows, making him suddenly become absolutely irresistible—but doomed to a life of loneliness if he can’t find true love by the time the sun goes down. Professing love to your one-and-only becomes tricky when you’re being chased all around school by obsessed, horny girls, so to help out, the angel who caused the problem arms you with a “pheremone shot”: shoot a girl with it, and she’ll collapse in a state of euphoria, temporarily leaving you alone.
This forms the basis of a classic arcade rail shooter. You move automatically along a predefined path, shooting anyone who crosses your path and trying to avoid their attacks, with the aim of getting the highest score possible, while trying not to get drowned in catcalls given physical form or taking one too many assaults by love letter. There’s also a dating sim element: visual novel storytelling breaks up the shooting segments, with your decisions affecting key stats and, in turn, your bond with whoever of four potential love interests you’ve chosen as The One.
This is where Gal*Gun Returns gets subversive. Despite the ecchi premise, the lewd presentation, and plenty of opportunity to be an absolute creep, the game’s systems and metrics for success mean that being a pervert is fundamentally opposed to “winning”. You can, if you want to, use a zoom function on your weapon to try get a closer look at someone’s panties, but there’s no actual game-design purpose for doing so—and while your focus is on other things, you’ll be taking extra damage from foes you don’t see, or missing opportunities to rack up your score by shooting other enemies. You can pick the most lecherous dialogue options every time, but driving up your “pervert” stat is a good way to ensure even the most horny-tolerant love interest wants nothing to do with you.
The subversiveness goes one further when it comes to the enemies themselves. At first glance, foes look like generic copy-pastes of one another with minor visual changes—and given how standard copy-paste grunts are in shooters, that’s a fair assumption. But every girl you encounter in Gal*Gun Returns is an individual—not necessarily a deeply fleshed out main character, but someone with her own name, her own style, her own likes and dislikes. And with those details feeding directly into the scoring system, the single most effective way to increase your leaderboard position is to learn to recognise every individual and be able to aim straight at their personal weak spot.
Even if you’re not interested in score chasing, the dating sim side of Gal*Gun Returns depends on how well you know each different student in the school. A special “Doki Doki Bomb” attack is a useful way of clearing out big groups of enemies at once, but it also affects your stats based on who you choose as the main target for the attack. If you’re aiming for the best endings possible, stat management is important; if you can recognise individuals and know their likes and dislikes, you can predict the stat changes that will come from a Doki Doki Bomb and pick your moments.
This is all wrapped up in a story and presentation that’s evocative of typical H-game setups, but plays off those tropes for comical effect rather than titillation. The whole “pheremone shot” idea is more than a bit silly, especially when coupled with the way Gal*Gun turns things like shouts of affection into game mechanics—when enemies “shoot” you, it’s by yelling things like “KAWAII!!”, with the letters of their profession acting like bullets.
Aside from the main shooting segments, there’s a bunch of different mini-games and narrative set-pieces that put a goofy twist on common ecchi occurrences, like one scene where a medium-in-training accidentally summons a tentacle monster that you need to then fend off with the same pheromone shot that normally serves only “euphoria”. These moments don’t necessarily turn such tropes on their head, but playfully reinterpret them in a suggestive but non-explicit way, in the context of a mini-game that gives you the opportunity to be a creep but that you’ll almost certainly fail if you do.
As a remaster of the original game, Gal*Gun Returns comes with some noteworthy improvements. The resolution has been bumped up, the UI has been completely redesigned, and the designs of many of the girls have been updated to make them more distinct. There’s an expansive gallery full of unlockable art, both CGs from the story mode and hundreds of pieces of concept art, promotional material, and the like. Perhaps most importantly, the original game never released outside Japan, making Returns the first chance for a global audience to experience the first Gal*Gun without importing.
But it’s still a 10-year-old game, and one that’s had a couple of much more ambitious sequels since; despite the remastering treatment, Gal*Gun Returns still shows its age. This is most apparent in the scope of the game: Gal*Gun was an experimental new thing, full of creative ideas that wouldn’t really get refined until Gal*Gun: Double Peace some years later. Level design here is rudimentary and offers little variety, without the branching paths that later games introduced. Gal*Gun Returns lacks the sidequest element that Double Peace introduced, limiting its core game to a fairly straightforward shooter without much flourish other than its unique concept.
Gal*Gun Returns isn’t as nuanced in its storytelling as its sequels. The main love interests are still human enough to tell some heartfelt stories around, but there isn’t the emotional complexity that we saw in, say, the sibling rivalry at the heart of Double Peace. They’re simple, sweet love stories—as surprising as that might seem from the outset—but without as much depth as later games.
Nor is Gal*Gun as boundary-pushing as its successors. It’s certainly an effective satire, for all the reasons I’ve outlined above, but those comments are just as true for Gal*Gun 2, and for Double Peace especially. In being willing to go further, the sequels’ satire hits harder, lands better, and leaves more of a mark. There’s nothing in Gal*Gun Returns that’s quite on the level of DLC that costs more than the game itself for the sole “benefit” of having a slightly clearer view of underwear when you zoom in.
This is all understandable; Gal*Gun was the first game in the series, after all, and it laid the groundwork for what came afterwards to build upon. But it nonetheless means that Gal*Gun Returns falls short of the games that came before it, at least in the West, limiting its appeal to series’ fans who want to see where it all began. (And, I guess, to people in New Zealand, where Returns is the only Gal*Gun that’s readily available.)
That doesn’t mean it’s not an worthwhile game, especially if you like your games a bit silly and can appreciate the… particular style of satire that Gal*Gun goes for. Gal*Gun Returns doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Double Peace or Gal*Gun 2, but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable rail shooter, and one that’s far more subversive and clever than its infamy would have you think.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.