By Evan Norris 20th Jul 2021 | 1,557 views
The Cotton franchise isn't exactly a household name. Heck, even casual shoot-em-up fans may have missed it entirely, due to the fact so many of its games launched exclusively in Japan; believe it or not, the last time American consumers enjoyed a Cotton game, outside of imports, was all the way back in 1993. Enter Cotton Reboot!, which aims to return the "cute-em-up" series to a worldwide audience. Careful, though: "reboot" isn't exactly the right word. This package is really more of a celebration and a remake of the premier game in the franchise: 1991's Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams.
If you're interested only in that original game and not any modern bells and whistles, worry not. Developer Rocket Engine has ported over the 1993 X68000 variant of Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, generally considered superior to the 1991 arcade version. It's represented here in all its glory, for Cotton purists and for folks who want to see how it all began.
You might retire the X68000 version permanently, however, when you meet the real star of the show: Arrange Mode. This is a modernized take on Fantastic Night Dreams with HD graphics; remixed music; deeper, more strategic gameplay; and multiple playable characters. It's a true remake, and an experience arguably superior to the 30-year-old original. It takes what worked in the premier game — a silly storyline, imaginative monsters and bosses, and tactical action — and kicks everything up to 11, with flashier graphics and more nuanced mechanics.
Here's a quick primer on the X68000 port and the new arranged version. In the original game, the cute witch Cotton flies left to right across seven horizontally-scrolling stages, firing her main projectile weapon and dropping bombs. Her attendant is Silk, a helpful fairy who revolves around her like an "Option" in Gradius. When Cotton defeats certain enemies they leave behind crystals that, when shot, change color. Depending on the color of the crystal, Cotton will absorb a certain power-up. A yellow crystal, the default, powers up the witch's main weapon. Orange will strengthen the main weapon even more. Red and blue will grant Cotton fire and electricity magic, respectively. So, players can decide how much to shoot a particular crystal, depending on whether they wish to fortify the main cannon or stow away magic spells for later. Moreover, each spell has two variants, depending on how long you hold the B button.
As you can tell, the original Cotton game already boasts a few interesting tactical options. Yet Rocket Engine has doubled down, adding several additional wrinkles that grant the arranged version even greater strategic depth. Everything listed in the preceding paragraph is here, along with the following: two new spells, purple (bomb) and green (summon); stackable spells, ranging from level 1 to 3; a black crystal, which awards a huge amount of points; and a "fever" button that increases your score multiplier. Last but not least, crystals now stay airborne — as opposed to falling to the ground in the original — and refract incoming shots from Cotton, bestowing upon them greater power and coverage.
If that seems like a lot, it is. Luckily, the game comes with a helpful manual, narrated by Cotton and Silk themselves, that unpacks several of these mechanics. Even so, it should take you a few attempts to fully wrap your head around all the tactical options and how to organize your power-ups for offense, defense, or maximum score.
While Arrange Mode is overall a success it has a few small flaws. With greater enemy density, refracted shots flying everywhere, and giant score multipliers filling the screen, there is at times a lot of visual chaos that obscures enemy projectiles; it's not uncommon to catch a stray bullet in the heat of battle. Furthermore, the Arranged version suffers from two flaws inherited from the original: poorly-telegraphed boss attack patterns and a few level designs where enemies approach from behind; these are frustrating because Cotton, outside of screen-clearing spells, has no ability to attack backward.
The new version is also on the easy side — even on the default "normal" difficulty — and, like most of the genre, very short; you could wrap up your first playthrough in approximately 30 minutes. That's missing the point, of course. With four playable characters, multiple difficulty options, and online leaderboards, there are plenty of reasons to replay the game again and again. There's also a nifty score attack mode, where players compete for high scores in timed sessions of two or five minutes.
In terms of graphics and performance, Rocket Engine has delivered the goods. The X68000 port appears to be pixel perfect, and the updated visuals in Arrange Mode really shine. Backgrounds in particular look great. There's one especially amazing backdrop in the middle of level two with sparkling constellations and a skeletal crescent moon; in the X68000 version it's only a gray sky with a few hazy clouds. The remixed music is good too — throatier and fuller than the original.
Cotton Reboot! won't grant the Cotton series the cachet of Space Invaders, or even Gradius, but it will make a lot of shoot-em-up fans happy. This is a fine remake, with new mechanics, flashier gameplay, reimagined visuals, and reworked sound. As a bonus, it includes a score attack mode, a port of the 1993 X68000 version of Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, and online leaderboards. Some of the warts of the original title remain, and the arranged version is a touch too chaotic at times, but in general this is the best way to enjoy the very first Cotton game.