Word on the street is that Cotton’s back, and it’s better than ever. Given that the series hasn’t had much exposure in the west, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that western gamers who didn’t survive on a diet of imported Saturn shmups were even aware of this series’ existence. Yet here we are in the 21st century and there is a brand-new entry, in full HD.
Starting out on the Japan-exclusive Sharp X68000 computer before eventually making its way to the Mega Drive and Saturn, Cotton is a ‘cute ’em up’ starring the titular witch. She rides a broomstick and casts magic with her fairy familiar to defeat dozens of waves of vaguely fantasy-themed enemies, and celebrates by drinking tea. That’s the gist, anyway.
The first thing to know about Cotton, in general, is that magic is the key to playing well. Each of the playable characters (six in total) has a ‘main’ method of fire, usually a straight rapid fire. The bulk of the characters can collect red, green, or blue crystals to change their shot type and grant access to magic, essentially a charge beam of sorts that eats enemy bullets and turns any onscreen threat it touches into collectible candy for points, increasing a score multiplier.
There’s a stock of magic displayed at the bottom of the screen. When charged-fire magic is used, it’s lost and you’re onto the next weapon in stock; or the default pea-shooter fire if the last one is used, which isn’t a problem as the coloured crystals are numerous – and can be shot to change their colour to the desired one as per your personal strategy.
This tripped me up initially. Preferring the homing ‘green’ weapon for general shooting, I found it distracting and cumbersome to keep juggling these crystals to get the one I wanted. Which was, of course, doing it wrong. If you want to play well at Cotton, get used to using the magic. All of the magic. This is where the multipliers and points will be coming from, and it’s good practice – satisfying, even – to keep it at x99 for as long as possible.
Sometimes this means letting the screen fill with bullets to let off magic in a glorious shower of onscreen candy and score numbers. It’s playable popping candy, only it makes your brain fizz pleasantly instead of your mouth. Delicious. And it’s a pretty good system to cajole the player into trying out all the flavours of weapon. A great thing since they’re all useful.
There is, of course, a ridiculous excuse plot about Cotton craving some candies called Willows, but it’s all rather tedious. A good excuse for the various boss characters in the game though, most of which are well-designed affairs with secondary ‘pinch’ forms that arrive maybe a little too late to impress. But they’re good fights and demand mastery of the mechanics – which can differ from character to character.
A few are variants of the classic Cotton gameplay, such as a couple that can snare and shoot off enemies a la Cotton 2 (or perhaps Zero Wing), and there are even a couple of ‘experimental’ characters with their own mechanics; one that rather pleasingly turns the game into a bullet-grazer akin to a horizontal Psyvariar, and one that eschews the game’s traditional lives system in favour of a strict, ever-decreasing time limit that is eaten into upon death, or restored by collecting crystals.
It’s therefore a pretty complete package, with a lot to offer both fans of the genre and those who have never played a Cotton game before. It’s presented well, but I have some thoughts about that – the sound is great, and some of the music is absolutely stellar; the kind of thing I’ll probably end up listening to in the background as I do other things. It’s good stuff.
The graphics, on the other hand, I don’t think so much of. Looking back at older entries in the series, there’s always been a coherent pixel art aesthetic that is lacking here. A transition to HD usually means either clean hand-drawn anime-esque characters or 3D models. Here it’s both, and it feels somewhat clunky and jarring to look at, which does affect the gameplay.
For one, the various witch characters can be somewhat clumsy and feel oversized. There’s a small hitbox, as per bullet hell convention, but seeing the sprite intended to indicate this can be a hell of a task when the screen is full of projectiles. And secondly, the move to 3D backgrounds is a showy affair, with the levels ending up trying to be a tour de force of the scenery, only for it to end up distracting from the important foreground action. A hybrid castle/airship stage late on in sees much more happening in the background than the foreground, leading to more than a handful of ‘mystery’ deaths.
But, with repeated play, the levels can be learned. And that’s the crux of the whole deal, with the disparate mechanics offered by the various characters and well-designed levels in general, Cotton Fantasy does indeed invite repeated playthroughs. I think I’ll be chasing that ‘one-credit completion’ at my own leisure, because despite my initial misunderstanding of the basic mechanics, this is a fun package that has made another fan of one more hitherto-unknowing style shooting.
ININ Games’ Cotton Fantasy is out now on Switch and PS4.