Review: “Cotton Reboot!” (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch)

In the era between arcade classics like Defender and “bullet hell” shoot-em-ups like Ikaruga, the 2D shooter genre really hit its stride. The greatest titles of the 80s and 90s featured a mishmash of several genres, including sci-fi space shooters (R-Type, Thunder Force), fantasy (Wings of Wor, Lords of Thunder), and even underwater warfare (In the Hunt). However, one of the more interesting subgenres to arise was the “cute-em-up”, shooters that coupled overly colorful graphics, cute characters and bouncy soundtracks with the same challenging gameplay of a typical “shoot-em-up.”

Enter Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, a cute-em-up developed by Success and released in 1991 for the Sharp X68000 computer (X68K). Long considered to be one of the top titles in the genre, Cotton has now been fully remastered by developer BEEP as Cotton Reboot!, which includes both the original X68K version of Cotton along with an updated “arrange” mode.*

So what kind of magic did BEEP weave after 30 years?

“The touch…”

Cotton is a 2D side-scrolling shooter featuring the titular young witch who battles the demons of darkness, all to collect seven pieces of magical willow candy, or so she thinks. In fact, Cotton is tricked into fighting these demons by a fairy named Silk, who is secretly trying to collect all of the willow to restore light to the fairy world.

Cotton has an impressive set of skills at her disposal, including super-powered spells and magic bolts that can be upgraded as you collect experience crystals. This “Reboot!” version also adds an entirely new dimension to the crystals, though, as Cotton’s magic refracts when she shoots them, causing her magic bolts to fork and cover quite a bit more of the screen. As a result, you’ll often dispense with enemies with ease, and spend most of your time fully powered up. This makes arranged mode markedly easier than X68K original mode, even when playing on the hardest difficulty setting.

Another big gameplay enhancement in arranged mode is “crystal fever”, which can be activated once you fill your fever gauge at the bottom left of the screen. This supercharges any magical bolts that are refracted by the power up crystals. You will often feel nearly invincible during these moments, and if you learn to manage your fever well, the game will become far easier as a result (seeing a pattern here?).

Silk also accompanies you and acts as an option (is that old Gradius term still in use these days?), which is essentially an invincible familiar/satellite who follows you around the screen and also shoots at enemies. You can also add a whole train of fairies as you rescue more of them throughout the game. Very useful.

Now THAT’S what I call “shock and awe”, Mr. President

“…The feel of Cotton…”

Together with Silk, Cotton must traverse seven stages to collect all the magical willow candy. These stages have a nice variety of backdrops, including caves, a cemetery, ancient ruins, a volcano, and others. The cemetery stage looks especially great in Reboot’s “arranged” mode, complete with a fight against a giant tree and a sky filled with spooky constellations.

Of course, the stages are all crawling with hordes of beasts, most of which are still colorful and cute, despite their demonic flare. These enemies include flying eyeballs, archer elves, axe-tossing dwarves, zombies, manticores, and more. Despite having a generously small hit-box, Cotton is still taken out with a single hit from the demons, although there are some enemies that merely bounce her around rather than kill her (i.e. clouds and bubbles).

The main attraction with many shooters is the boss fights, and Cotton has a decent variety of them, including a fire dragon, Medusa, Death, a giant evil fairy, and a monkey-like Cyclops thing that BEEP gave a suit of armor to in the arranged mode, for some reason. Other than the graphical refresh, all of these bosses learned a few new tricks in arranged mode, so don’t expect all of the old X68K strategies or patterns to work as well as they did before.

From the X68000 “original” mode – still looks great

Despite a few darker backgrounds, Cotton Reboot! remains a very vibrant game thanks to all of the flash and bang of all your magic bolts flying across the playfield. There is often quite a bit happening onscreen, which occasionally makes it hard to see where you are, but your hit-box (in the form of a tiny heart) is pretty much always visible. It does take some time to adjust, though. In any case, the Reboot! visual upgrade looks sharp, and BEEP should be commended for sticking to a largely hand-drawn style (rather than trying to recreate using trash 3D graphics).

The music remains light and bouncy, and the remixed tunes sound great. However, the endless sound effects will almost certainly overpower the music unless you rebalance it in the options screen. Cotton and crew are also fully voiced in the cinematic story sequences between stages, albeit in Japanese (English speaking voice actors would have just screwed it up, anyway).

Okay, so Death isn’t all that “cute”

“…the fabric of our lives?”

Overall, the aesthetics and gameplay in Cotton Reboot! are mostly solid, but are there places where the game’s magic loses its luster? The only gripe I have with the level designs are the vertical sequences, which will be a pain in the neck regardless of which version of the game you play. Cotton can’t shoot backwards at the enemies on the left walls in these moments, and it’s sometimes difficult to see enemies when they come from above or below you.

Otherwise, I have to say that Cotton Reboot’s biggest fault is its replayabilty. It is only a 40 minute game (even shorter if you skip the cutscenes), and you are given infinite continues on every difficulty level (“free play” style), making even “hard” mode pretty simple to complete. This essentially makes Cotton: Reboot! a score attack game, as your best scores are posted online. Sure, there is a time attack mode, and upon completing arrange mode for the first time you unlock Silk as a playable character (who is slightly faster than Cotton), but you can easily see all that the Cotton Reboot! package has to offer in just a couple of hours. While this type of experience may suit some gamers just fine, it would have been nice to see a mode with limited continues or a few more bonuses to unlock.

Still, it’s difficult to beat finally having such an excellent recreation of a cherished retro rarity like Cotton. While you aren’t likely to spend an entire weekend trying squeeze out a few extra thousand points, Cotton Reboot! is perfect to revisit every now and then for a beautiful, well-crafted – and yes – “cute” shoot-em-up experience. In fact, it may be perfect to pick up and play as a Halloween game if you want something that isn’t too scary.

Hm… I think I have an idea for an upcoming “Top Ten” list this October…

*Disclosure: A copy of Cotton Reboot! was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

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