It's 100% cotton! The classic cute 'em up is back for a new generation of players.
When referring to videogames, the term "cult classic" gets thrown around a lot. This phrase is often used to represent a game that was largely unsuccessful but managed to gain a dedicated and passionate following. Few genres achieve cult status quite as frequently as the humble shoot 'em up, a simple style of game that cemented itself as an arcade and home console staple throughout the 80s and 90s, and continues to remain relevant decades on thanks to committed fans and developers. Within the library of shmups is a sub-genre commonly referred to the "cute-em-up" - these feature the typical bullet-blasting gameplay but instead with adorable characters and enemies, colourful visuals, and often eccentric and unusual designs.
A few examples of classic cute 'em ups.
The perfect example of a cult classic cute 'em up is none other than the classic, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, released originally in 1991 for Japanese arcades. The game shot to popularity after its port to the X68000, a home computer released by Sharp and sold exclusively in Japan. Since this release it has remained an iconic shoot-em-up and is frequently praised by fans of the genre. Now available on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, Cotton Reboot! brings this classic game into the modern age. Are updated visuals and new game modes enough to revive Cotton for a new generation of gamers? Grab your broom and let's find out!
Shmups aren't particularly known for their deep stories, and Cotton is no exception. The story is paper thin and the game definitely knows it! The player is introduced to a brilliant young witch by the name of Nata de Cotton, who just so happens to have quite a sweet tooth. Every witch needs a familiar, and to accompany her on the adventure is a fairy called Silk, who's as sassy as she is adorable.
So what's Cotton's motivation for heading out on an epic quest? To track down delicious candy of course! She's on a mission to find "Willows", delicious sugary spheres to satisfy her cravings. Silk though has other ideas, as collecting them instead of eating them will lead to a legendary confectionary far greater than any others! And so the magical pair set off, with each level rewarding them with a tasty new Willow for their efforts.
You've played one shmup, you've played them all. Well, almost. Cotton is a pretty typical side-scrolling cute 'em up with simple yet addictive gameplay. The game takes place over several side-scrolling (and occasionally vertical-scrolling) levels, each with a mid-boss and final boss at the end of the levels. Enemies come in waves, launch a plethora of projectiles, and can be easily dispatched by Cotton's onslaught of magical bullets. It's very straightforward gameplay and is mostly very forgiving, allowing the game to be enjoyed by players of all skill levels.
Upgrades can be obtained throughout each level in one of three ways: collecting fairies that fight alongside you, destroying enemies to gain experience and level up, or collecting coloured crystals that are occasionally dropped by enemies. Once a crystal appears, the player can choose to continuously attack it, which changes the crystal's colour and its elemental attack. Those aiming for the top of the scoreboards will need to keep firing at the crystals until they turn black, giving the most points especially when chained together.
Each level is fast-paced and frantic, lasting only 5 - 10 minutes. The same goes for the bosses, as these can be defeated quickly especially when learning their attack patterns. Though the speed at which the game can be completed seems almost to be a perk of Cotton, as it's the ideal game to pick up and smash out when you're not in the mood to commit hours to a time-consuming ordeal. I found myself regularly playing this on lunch breaks, taking advantage of the Nintendo Switch's handheld mode, which suits the game perfectly.
Whether playing in handheld or docked mode, the colourful and detailed updated visuals of Cotton Reboot look excellent against its dynamic backgrounds. Players can choose between faithful X68000 mode, which replicates the visuals from the original game to pixel perfection, or the brand new Arrange mode, with its redesigned graphics, 3D backgrounds, and 16:9 widescreen resolution. So if you're a series veteran who prefers retro design, or more recently delving into the shmup genre and enjoying the sleek visuals of modern titles, there's something in the Reboot to please every player.
Admittedly there is a downside to playing with the game's updated visuals. While the game runs smoothly and undeniably looks excellent, the "bonus multipliers" that regularly appear on-screen are massive and will frequently obscure the player's view. When faced with a tight situation surrounded by hundreds of projectiles, being able to know your exact position is imperative, which becomes near impossible when the screen is covered in multipliers. It looks neat, but is mostly a hinderance.
No shmup would be complete without a banging soundtrack, often as frantic and fast-paced as the gameplay itself. Having been released almost 30 years ago, the music of Cotton is well and truly rooted in retro synth and early PC music, with the original composer Kenichi Hirata once again returning to oversee the music for the Reboot. Original songs have been rearranged with live instruments, face-melting guitar riffs, and funky bass riffs to create a more modern feel for these retro tracks.
If you're a fan of the Touhou series, other classic shmups, or just retro game music in general, chances are you're going to thoroughly enjoy the music in Cotton. The game also includes all the tracks from the original release when playing in X68000 mode, which is quite interesting to hear the songs that the arranged versions have been based off.
Once the main story mode has been finished to completion, players will unlock new main characters and also a "time-attack" mode. Between the Arrange mode, X68000 mode, and time-attack, there's a decent amount of replayability and reason enough to play through the game a few times. Though the game caters primarily to those who are proficient enough to rack up massive scores, as these are uploaded automatically to a global leaderboard. Let's just say I'd be scrolling for a couple hours to try find mine...
Aside from these additions, there's not much extra content to keep you coming back for more Cotton. Optional unlockables or an art gallery would have been a nice touch, but sadly nothing of the sort is available, as it overall feels like it's lacking incentive for players who aren't obsessed with high scores.
There's no doubt that Cotton has truly cemented itself as one of the most beloved cult shmups of the '90s and is revered by fans of the genre. Thankfully, Cotton Reboot is not only the best way to experience this classic cute 'em up, but also happens to be the most accessible and affordable! With fresh, detailed graphics, easily approachable gameplay, and a stellar arranged soundtrack, this is certainly a good place to start for players wanting to experience a historic piece of the genre. Although extra content is lacking, the game remains true to the original and offers an updated experience that will please both series veterans and newcomers alike.
So, why should you play it?
Consider yourself a shmup fan? This one's a no brainer.
Vibrant updated visuals with optional classic mode.
Forgiving and easy for newcomers.
Can easily be finished in a single sitting.
But why shouldn't you play it?
New visuals can be distracting and obscure gameplay.
Short gameplay might not appeal for those wanting a more in-depth shooter.
Don't like silly? You probably won't like Cotton.
Story about as deep as a wading pool.
A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com