Today we’re going to take a look at an unusual game called Casual Romance Club. Before we do that, though, a little context. Originally, games that focused on relationships were primarily a Japanese-exclusive thing. I remember reading about titles such as Konami’s classic Tokimeki Memorial in ’90s games magazines and thinking they sounded cool, but they never made it to English-speaking audiences.
As time went on, there were some exciting developments. Firstly, Japanese visual novels and dating sims — both all-ages and erotic — started to get localised more frequently. Secondly, western developers realised that there was a market for this sort of thing, and started making their own — again, both all-ages and erotic. And thirdly — much less frequently — some Japanese developers decided to try their hand at making something specifically for the western audience.
That third case is what happened with Libido’s 2003 release of Casual Romance Club, the first 18+ game developed in Japan that shipped with an English translation already on its disc. A somewhat shaky English translation at times, yes, but an English translation nonetheless. I was fortunate enough to grab a copy of this back when it was relatively new, and it’s actually quite a nice collector’s piece to have today. So let’s take a closer look.
Casual Romance Club comes in a nice glossy cardboard box, with the removable pink “slip” at the bottom providing some specifically English language information that outlines what the game is all about.
The concept is pretty simple: a bunch of young people get together and decide that they fancy some casual dating (and perhaps sex) so they form the “Casual Romance Club”, a regular event where people can meet, chat, get to know one another and perhaps take things a little further from there. Playing the role of “yourself”, you have the opportunity to meet twelve different girls and see what transpires!
The contents of the box are pretty straightforward, but impressive in their quality. Casual Romance Club’s DVD-ROM comes in a nice CD album-style jewel case with inlay, but the highlight of the piece is definitely this hardcover manual.
This bilingual book provides you with all the information you need to play Casual Romance Club in both English and Japanese, including loading and installation instructions, as well as some more detailed information about the characters and setting.
“Dating doesn’t need to be serious,” reads the manual. It’s not bad to be casual and discover many relationships, because that’s how we get to know each other. And then, eventually, romance will blossom. That’s what the Casual Romance Club offers. A chance to explore, experience and enjoy. Join us!”
The whole thing is drenched in such a pleasingly happy, enthusiastic atmosphere that it’s hard not to get drawn in by it all. This is not a game primarily about exploring the innermost secrets of the characters’ minds, delving into tragic backstories or anything like that — although if you play your cards right your new friends might tell you a bit more about what really makes them tick. For the most part, it’s simply about the joy of having fun, getting to know some new people in a safe, comfy environment with no pressure. Perfect for the introverted among us.
If you want to do your homework before you attend your first Casual Romance Club meeting, the manual offers helpful profiles for all of the main characters. These are quite interesting, because they highlight a deliberate localisation decision by the original developers: the “Anglicisation” of the names. Sophie here, for example, was originally called Mizuho.
There’s actually an in-game option to revert to the original Japanese names if you want to, as well as one to activate a function where you can read the Japanese and English scripts alongside each other — potentially a fun way to brush up on your language skills.
The Casual Romance Club manual also offers a helpful “Love Compatibility Chart”, where you can determine which one of the main cast members might be your ideal partner. According to this chart, my ideal girl would be the protagonist’s childhood friend Amy, for example. I always did have a soft spot for that trope. Although I’m also a sucker for redheads, so I like Charlotte too. Hell, pretty much this whole cast pushes my buttons in one way or another — exactly what you want from a dating sim.
The following page also offers some advice on how you might want to approach each of the characters, so when decision points do come up in the game, you might have a better idea of what you “should” be saying. Or you can just wing it. Living life dangerously is always more fun, even when the stakes are pretty low.
Casual Romance Club is a little peculiar in its presentation, making use of the Windows environment rather than adopting a full-screen mode. There’s a good reason for this, though; the game gives you lots of information to refer to while you’re playing, including a profile of the person you’re talking to, their horoscope, guidebook information about your current location and even a map of where you are.
Most of this information is purely for background colour rather than really having much of an effect on gameplay, but it’s an interesting, unusual and surprisingly effective means of representing what the player character already knows about the situation they’re in.
Different windows pop up as you play, allowing you to read the dialogue of the character or characters you’re talking to (complete with a helpful display of who is participating in the current conversation) and select dialogue options. With these all being separate windows, you can freely rearrange the game interface as you see fit.
There’s not really a set “goal” in Casual Romance Club as such, meaning you can approach your interactions with others how you please. Once your time for chatting privately with one of your new friends is up, you can bid them farewell, offer to take them out or make a promise with them to meet up for a date in the near future.
The games story notes that you are free to take people out on weekdays, but for weekend dates you have just five “date coupons” you can use during the period the club is running. You’ll need to spend these wisely if you want to get to know a specific girl better — or you can just play the field a bit. As a fun little touch, the date coupons themselves are included in the back page of the manual.
One of the most endearing things about the game’s presentation is the fact that, by default, an English voice track is enabled. And we’re not talking a dub here; nope, instead, it’s the actual Japanese voice actors saying their lines in English. And occasionally not even the whole line, randomly starting halfway through a sentence. On the one hand, it feels slightly patronising to describe this as “adorable”. But on the other, it is so adorable.
The game isn’t fully voiced, sadly; instead, you tend to get a voice line from the girl you’re talking to at the start of each scene, plus occasionally some delighted or disappointed noises, depending on your dating performance.
If there is a “metagame” of sorts to Casual Romance Club, it’s in trying to see as many of the possible scenes with all of the girls as possible. Sometimes if you had a particularly good conversation with a character on just the right day, you’ll get the opportunity to see them pondering over recent events in private. And if you’re really lucky… well, this is an 18+ title, after all. And some of these girls are a fair bit naughtier than others!
Interestingly, focusing exclusively on one single girl at all times isn’t necessarily the right way to go to win their hearts. In some cases, the characters feel strongly about ensuring their friends are having a good time, too, so you’ll need to be a decent guy and give everyone a bit of attention. Assuming you want to; as the manual notes, being casual allows you to potentially discover many relationships, after all!
While mechanically Casual Romance Club is very simple — there’s no stat-building as in games like Gal*Gun or True Love, for example — it proves to be a surprisingly compelling and addictive experience if you allow yourself to get immersed in it.
It’s a great example of a game not necessarily needing to be “about” anything in particular to be enjoyable; it’s a pure and simple example of a game that just provides you with an opportunity to hang out with some fun characters — nothing more, nothing less. And it’s rather fun because of it.
Casual Romance Club’s physical edition doesn’t appear to be available any more, but you can pick up a digital copy from JAST USA. The game runs fine on modern Windows 10 systems.
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