#1 A solid harem anime
Rin is a young guy who lives together with his childhood friend Kaede, following the death of his parents (and Kaede’s mother) in a tragic accident. They go to the same school together and are in the same class, but they aren’t officially a couple yet, even if other girls are hesitant about intruding on their relationship.
This changes on the day where two new students are meant to transfer in, who reveal themselves to be the princesses of Demons and Gods respectively. Both are in love with Rin and have come to the Human realm specifically to make him a bridal candidate. Sia is the hot-tempered, seductive princess of heaven and Nerine is a reserved beauty destined to rule over Demonkind. With the taboo of intruding on Rin & Kaede’s “friendship” shattered, other girls begin expressing interest as well. This mainly includes the tomboyish senpai Asa Shigure and the mysterious Primula, who followed Nerine to the Human world.
Shuffle! is very clearly based on a romantic visual novel and does a great job at handling its harem story. All the girls are very likable and well-written, with interesting (back)stories that are explored as they befriend each other and try to win Rin’s affection. There are good reasons for rooting for any one of them and Shuffle! is good at giving every character a fair chance of becoming Rin’s partner. Nobody feels like a hopeless tag-along and everybody gets ample time in the spotlights.
#2 Light fantasy
Okay, that intro may have been a tad confusing.
While Shuffle! is set on Earth, the world has an urban fantasy twist to it. Some years before the story begins, the world of the Gods and the world of the Demons came into contact with Humanity and travel between their realms was made possible. All the races look pretty much the same barring some physical differences, so for the longest time I mistakenly believed that Shuffle! was a dating sim about elves.
The fantastical themes are important to the story, but they aren’t dominating the plot. Much of Shuffle! is just a normal high school romcom, except a sizable part of the main cast and side-characters can use magic and have a different cultural background. It lends itself to some fun moments that can give a neat twist to familiar scenes, like Nerine accidentally blasting two punks into the hospital with magic when they try to come unto her.
#3 Quality character designs
Harem stories owe their success to the appeal of their characters and Shuffle! does not fall short in that regard. While very clearly a product of the mid-2000s, the character design and attention to detail made the Shuffle! girls stand out from their peers and continues to be very appealing to this day.
The brightly-colored hair and Key-like faces are nice, and the Elfish features are a cool look that certainly got me curious enough to pick up the series. Fanservice is also present in abundance, especially in the more flirtatious characters like Sia and Asa. This too looked exquisite and struck my niche where the characters are sexy, but have modest, sensible designs. The exclusions being the homeroom teacher whose looks are more for comedy’s sake and, arguably, the tragically un-endowed Mayumi. Depending on the version of the show you watch, there is uncensored nudity sparingly throughout the series.
Another point I was very excited about was the show’s stellar fashion. Characters wear several different outfits throughout the show and many of these looked absolutely gorgeous on them. I always get a kick out of good outfit designs in anime and Shuffle! even managed to make its comedic relief pervert character look fly as fuck whenever he got to don some streetwear.
#4 An MC that doesn’t suck
Harem recipients have a habit of being… kinda shit. Be it because they are utterly dense, manipulative bastards, or unlikable twits that still get showered in female attention regardless. Rin is by no means perfect, but he’s a cool guy whose story I enjoyed following.
Even though the plot starts off with the relevant cast already being in love with him, Rin still frequently lives up to their expectations and does his best to deepen his relationship with these characters, both as a friend and as a potential lover. Even though I was wary about Primula’s arc, her being a much younger girl in a ecchi romcom and all, Rin really grew on me throughout that story. He even has some genuinely heroic moments.
I also just like how he approaches the web of romance that one day forms around him. He is understandably overwhelmed, but still open to it. Girls ask him out on dates and he accepts, without that being a definitive commitment to a romance. He goes out with them so they can learn more about each other and sort out their feelings, which sometimes lead him to realize his feelings aren’t love. It’s surprisingly mature.
#5 Dramatic, personal storylines
I am going to keep spoilers to a minimum, so without giving too much away… the story of Shuffle! gets extreme at times.
Cozy romcom is plentiful enough, but spread through the series are story arcs that delve into unseen parts of the characters’ personalities or grim problems they have been hiding from their friends. Just like with the fantasy aspect of the story, I applaud Shuffle! for not over-committing to drama. There is no turning point from whereon the story is constantly tragic and depressing, it’s an ebb and flow of overcoming problems and returning to normalcy.
Some of these story arcs were real tearjerkers and they leave a lasting impact on the characters and their relations, even well after they are sorted out.