The shoot ’em up genre is in and of itself a very niche genre, often aimed at the most hardcore of audiences. While quite popular in America during the arcade era as well as the third and fourth console generations thanks to Konami classics such as Gradius, Life Force and Axelay…their relevance began to fizzle out in the States by the time the fifth wave of consoles rolled out.
On the other side of the world, however, the shoot ’em up (or shm’up for short) continues to be a beloved genre whether traditional or of the “bullet hell” variety. The Cotton franchise was a pioneer of the “cute ’em up” subgenre, which exchanged the frequently seen militaristic and sci-fi themes of these games in favor of a cutesy and colorful aesthetic. Unfortunately, it’s also a franchise that never quite made a showing in America until now. Following several delays in both its Japanese and American releases, Cotton Reboot has finally arrived for all major platforms thanks to the efforts of Beep Studio and Inin Games. As an avid fan of games like Twinbee and Air Zonk, I was more than eager to see what we’ve been missing out on.
Cotton Reboot contains two games- the X68000 port of the original Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton, as well as an Arrange Mode. The former is a big deal; this port is considered the superior Cotton experience. But it’s also the first time the game has ever seen an official release in the United States.
Regardless of what mode you dive into first- the plot remains silly and nonsensical, as one might expect. You assume the role of red-haired witch Nata de Cotton, who sets out on a quest for magical pieces of candy called willows. She is accompanied by a scantily clad fairy (thus reminding us that we’re playing a Japanese game) named Silk, who serves a role similar to the “Option” power-up found in Gradius during actual gameplay. Each of the game’s six stages is book-ended by story sequences with a wonderfully presented anime aesthetic. These look equally impressive in both versions.
While both the X68000 and Arranged Mode share the same story, setpieces, and central mechanics- they’re very different on the gameplay front. The original X68000 version plays very similarly to your typical side-scrolling shm’up from the ’90s with a few twists. First, Cotton can level up her firing power by collecting yellow and orange crystals dropped by enemies and bosses to gain additional strength through an “Experience” system similar to RPGs. Shooting crystals repeatedly will eventually cause them to turn red or blue, granting Cotton the ability to cast spells (think smart bombs from any other shm’up you might have played).
Red crystals represent the element of fire, whereas blue crystals represent electricity. These spells also have alternate uses triggered by holding the fire button down and allowing your fairy companions to twirl around you. Charging a fire spell will launch your little friends across the screen chaotically as a crew of fireballs, whereas charging the electricity spell will reward you with a handy shield. The result is a game that is incredibly challenging yet satisfying, thanks to its risk-and-reward system.
The Arranged Mode, however, is where I think the overall package truly shines. It offers a far more contemporary take on the Cotton formula, creating an experience that’s in line with the (ironically) more forgiving bullet-hell subgenre. In addition, it uses the same stage layouts and gameplay mechanics that made Fantastic Night Dreams a joy to play.
The emphasis on racking up insane scores and managing crystals and spells has been bumped up several notches in Arranged, as have the number of projectiles and enemies on screen. Unlike the original game, crystals don’t fall off-screen- there’s no need to juggle them about Twinbee style until it’s safe to swoop in and pick them up. You’ll want to keep many of the shiny jewels on screen as much as possible because your firepower is now amplified by blasting through them. In addition to the Red and Blue spells (which can also be evolved into even stronger attacks by collecting enough in a row), Cotton’s arsenal now contains Purple and Green spells. The former allows her to drop an exploding ball of death that’s perfect for cutting down a boss’s life bar and clearing the screen (or transforming all gems on the screen to black gems- more on those later). In contrast, the latter will send a shower of stones down upon enemies.
There are two more significant additions to Arranged Mode- black gems and “Fever Mode.” Black gems result from shooting crystals enough times to cycle through all of their colors. They will grant massive score bonuses if picked up-but they can also be broken if reshot. “Fever Mode” must be charged up by destroying enemies and, once enabled, will allow even more opportunities to shoot your score up. Not only does this power-up temporarily augments Cotton’s firepower while blasting through crystals, but it also tacks on a massive multiplier to anything that gets destroyed during this time. While it takes a while to get the hang of, it’s oh-so-satisfying to see those numbers flash across the screen and keep the screen real estate from getting too crowded in one fell swoop.
One subtle touch I appreciated in Arranged was the addition of an attack that allows you to clear out enemies and projectiles from behind. The original game didn’t have any tail-gun or means of taking out enemies from behind. This means that hovering towards the left-hand side of the screen spelled a dead witch towards the later levels. If you’ve ever played Air Zonk, this move works very similarly. You’re not going to be able to mow down everything with this back attack, as the hitbox is confined to the end of Cotton’s broomstick and does little damage-per-second. However, it’s an excellent tool when learning the stage layouts and is nigh essential in vertical corridors.
A player can theoretically see everything either title has to offer in thirty minutes, thanks to unlimited continues. However, the authentic way to play these games (as well as any other arcade game or shm’up) is to shoot for a one-credit-clear or high score. In that regard, the replay value is through the roof with this approach. It took me several hours to reach a point where I could consistently one-credit-clear the Arranged mode on its default setting. Even after this, I’ve still found myself coming back to see where I could make better use of Fever Mode and spells in the pursuit of a higher spot on the Online Leaderboards. It’s also worth noting that you’ll unlock two new characters upon beating the game on any amount of credits. The first is Silk and the second is a character from Beep’s Trouble Witches series. The former makes the game more forgiving thanks to the character’s diminutive size and thus a smaller hitbox. Making her a good fit for people who aren’t that great at these games. (Guilty as charged)
Praise aside, there is one major issue with Arrange mode that may turn veteran shm’up players (or those sensitive to flashing lights) away- the visual noise frequently on screen. As mentioned earlier, Fever Mode” will cause massive, flashing point bonuses to splash on the screen. In addition, due to just how packed things can be between enemies, projectiles, and your fire-you’re inevitably going to unfairly take a hit here and there because of hazards masked in Fever Mode.
Moments of intense visual vomit in the Arranged mode aside, Cotton Reboot is still a great time and has something on tap for both the hardcore and casual fans of shooters. Even if you’re not the kind of person, who invests dozens of hours memorizing a half-hour of projectiles thrown at you, the cutesy aesthetic and surprisingly deep power-up system is sure to put a smile on your face. Ultimately, though, score chasers and those looking to finish the game in a single continue are the ones who will get the most out of Cotton Reboot—especially considering its relatively high asking price of $39.99.
>Package brings a game that is incredibly rare (and expensive) to modern consoles for the first time in the US
>Incredibly charming presentation, whether playing the classic game or arranged mode
>The power-up system is surprisingly deep and fun to learn, especially in arranged
>Unlockable characters and complex scoring system shoots the reply value up for score chasers and shm’up enthusiasts
>Zero performance issues on Switch in both docked and handheld mode (even during the most intense moments in arranged mode)
>Arranged mode gets too visually busy for its own good at times, sometimes leading to unfair deaths
>Still a rather high price point for anyone who intends to “quarter feed” their way to the end
Cotton Reboot is out now for all major platforms, both digitally and physically.