We probably don’t have too many more entries in the Gal*Gun series to look forward to. Sony has pulled the plug on the series, and at the very last moment, Microsoft pulled back on this new one, Gal*Gun Returns, which was originally scheduled for an Xbox One release. While Nintendo seems to be holding the line on allowing fan service, and Steam seems to be manageable for developers and publishers with a large enough profile, you can’t just rip two potential platforms away from a series without there being implications for the long-term viability of it. And so this remake of the original Gal*Gun, coming ten years after the original release, may well be it for the series. That will be quite the pity, frankly, because this series is a lot of fun.
The irony is that Gal*Gun doesn’t really deserve the reputation and response that it has, and you do get the sense that the reason that Sony and Microsoft are doing what they are is based on a concern more for how people will respond to the reputation and one or two out of context screenshots than anything that’s actually in the game, put in context. Yes. It’s heavy on the fan service. Yes, it’s transgressive and as I’ve argued in reviews past, the developers are clearly aware of the response the series elicits and clearly play with that. But Gal*Gun is a satire of the kind of schoolgirl fetish and perversity of a lot of anime. It, in itself, is not titillating, nor is it trying to be. When you look at games that are actively trying to be titillating (hi Cyberpunk 2077), the tone is entirely different.
The satire of Gal*Gun takes a number of forms. Mechanically it’s an inversion of the harem trope; where a lot of harem anime and games involve players in the role of one incredibly horny dude “collecting” up a group of interested girls, in Gal*Gun you’re only ever after one girl. That you’re being swamped by swarms of horny girls (you’ve been accidentally shot by dozens of cupid arrows, see, sending your popularity with the girls nuclear) is downright harassment and for that alone Gal*Gun effectively deconstructs a whole lot of mess that we often find in harem anime around consent (typically going the other way than it does here), and a toxic kind of polyamory. In Gal*Gun you’re just sweet on the one girl and, unlike the other girls, the cupid arrows aren’t working on her. You actually need to earn her love.
Each of the Gal*Gun titles also has its own little ways of gently subverting the expectations of fan service. Double Peace has a stupidly expensive piece of DLC that made the X-Ray vision power of the protagonist just that little bit more powerful. It was clearly a joke, not designed to be purchased, with developer Inti Creates poking fun at anyone that would actually buy that to see bras and panties marginally more clearly.
Gal*Gun Returns meanwhile does it by barely giving you a look at all. As a light gun action game, most of Returns’ action is quite snappy. For those that have never played one before, the basic goal is to fire “pheromones” at these hordes of girls that have suddenly become desperate to jump you. Doing that will cause them to swoon in ecstasy and collapse, effectively knocking them out. As they collapse, their short little skirts will often flutter up for the briefest of seconds, and you’ll get a brief glimpse of the blue, red, black or white lingerie underneath, but it’s hardly the long, lingering, male gazey voyeurism that people generally assume about Gal*Gun, and what you generally come to “fan service” games for.
There are other little subtle ways that the game continues to undermine what Gal*Gun is supposedly famous for. There are four “main” girls that you can woo, and each of them has a different narrative, within which there are special event variations on the base railgun action. One of these girls invites you to the school’s art room to help her with a project. There you discover that she wants you to strip naked to pose for her, and she then starts demanding that you adopt some incredibly demeaning poses. You never see the protagonist in them since the game plays out in the first person, but you do see silhouettes of the poses that you’re taking, and if you’ve got even a basic understanding of male anatomy it’s not difficult to conjure up an imagined visual of where bits are dangling. Other poses are overtly sexual and exactly the kind of poses that you see women asked to strike in fashion and men’s magazine shoots all the time.
Yet here’s where we come to subversion point #3; Gal*Gun makes targeted use of a kind of extreme hyperbole for satirical effect. Those Doki Doki minigames really can’t be seen as titillating, let alone “sexy” or “erotic,” because they’re utterly ridiculous. In a similar vein, there’s a scene where you rescue a girl from a cage being dragged into the sky results in her falling, using your character as a cushion to softten the fall, and subsequently straddling your face. Compromising and extremely fanservicey as the scene is, it’s hyperbolic, satirical, and in the context of the other subversions within Gal*Gun, a good example of how it just not what its reputation would claim.
Whether you find it particularly funny or not is another matter, of course, and the aesthetics and tone of Gal*Gun do position its humour in a spot that a lot of people find uncomfortable. Humour is a response more subjective than most others, and of course there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t find yourself chuckling along with Gal*Gun, but it is important to understand where the game’s coming from, because both it, and the response to it, make a fascinating dynamic within the broader games industry.
Light gun games are one of the simpler genres out there and it’s difficult to say much more about Gal*Gun other than that it works and is challenging in the ways that the genre demands – getting a high score requires precision aiming skills, twitch reflections, and the ability to quickly prioritise targets as the hordes attack. It is thanks to the minigames that break up the main game action, that Gal*Gun funds its winning formula, however. You do the same thing in the minigames, just in a different context, and they can go surreal enough places that they work as a gimmicky distraction to the rest of the game.
While Gal*Gun Returns has all the DLC built into it, it’s a surprisingly thin package, especially in comparison to what the series has offered since. The DLC items are fun enough if you want to dress the girls up in cheongsam or bikinis, and the base narrative is replayable enough for reasons previously mentioned. Aside from that here’s just a score attack mode, though, and so, even if you do have fun with Gal*Gun, it’s very much a blast-and-forget kind of experience.
If you’re going into Gal*Gun looking for some voyeurism, then you’re playing it wrong. At the same time, if you go in without a strong stomach for fan service then it’s going to throw you out too. Gal*Gun is for people who enjoy a kind of hyperbolic satire that borders on the transgressive and enjoy light gun shooters. It’s almost a dead genre these days, but Gal*Gun Returns is, all things considered, an example of it at its best.