In 1991, Success Corporation released Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams into arcades. The game was an early example of the cute ‘em up sub-genre and became a hit with Japanese gamers. Subsequently it translated onto a series of consoles, most notably the X68000 and the PlayStation, and spawned a number of sequels. Fast track to 2019 where we now have an updated version of the game in the West, courtesy of developers Rocket Engine and publisher Beep.

As you’d expect from a side-scrolling cute ‘em up adapted from an arcade-to-console port released in the early 90’s, the plot is pretty basic. Adorable juvenile anime witch, Cotton, and her bikini-clad fairy sidekick Silk are on a quest. A darkness has overcome the land and it’s up to Cotton to save the day. Cotton doesn’t seem to care that the world is shrouded in night. The main reason for her participation is to collect a series of Willow candies that she is obsessed with to combine into a giant candy once all the levels are complete. Every time Cotton defeats an end-of-level boss, she receives a candy for her troubles. Once she has gathered all the candies into her possession, the game, for all intents and purposes, is over.

Cotton Reboot! features the option to play the X68000 port of the original arcade release for those players enamoured by traditional pixel art and 90’s side-scrollers. It also offers a Time Attack Mode for players seeking to compete online and against the clock. However, it’s the game’s ‘Arrange’ mode that is the most satisfying play option. ‘Arrange’ raises the stakes considerably in terms of both graphics and gameplay, upcycling the original release in a bid to appeal to modern and retro gamers alike.

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A screenshot from a video game. It is a 2D side-scrolling shoot em up. On the far left is a red-haired witch flying on a broom, shooting fireballs from her wand. Across the screen are flying eyeballs with pink tendrils. In the background are trees and a moon with a skull face on the surface.

Like the original Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, Cotton: Reboot!’s ‘Arrange’ mode is a side-scrolling 2D single-player shoot ‘em up laid out over seven beautifully detailed levels. Each level features a wide range of cartoon enemies for Cotton to combat, though for the most part a few hits from her blaster will quickly eviscerate them.

There are mid-level and end-of-level bosses, which provide a more comprehensive challenge. In keeping with the aesthetics of cute ‘em up shooters, these are a peculiarly designed assortment of monsters, ranging from an energy spewing grim reaper to a bemused rock face with boulders erupting out of its head.

Operating Cotton is pretty straightforward. The controls are limited to toggling the young witch round the screen and shooting and deploying magical attacks via a three-button control system. Cotton is easy to manoeuvre and speedy into the bargain. However, her defensive capabilities leave a lot to be desired. The young witch might be proficient in conjuring a shield to protect herself, but for most of the time she is entirely vulnerable. A single shot from an enemy projectile or accidental collision invariably results in instant death. Whilst during earlier levels this aspect of the game’s mechanics is relatively easy to overlook, it becomes infinitely more irritating as the difficulty level increases – and the number of enemies you encounter, the speed of their attacks, and the projectiles that you have to dodge, multiplies exponentially.

Essentially, unless you are extremely precise in your movements, chances are you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time during the game’s later stages re-spawning and hitting the continue button on the countdown clock, having spent your allotted three lives in frustratingly quick succession.

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Whilst Cotton might not be the most resilient character to grace a side-scrolling shoot ‘em up, she is most certainly one of the genres best equipped. Cotton is able to deploy a range of stunningly effective attacks. Her default blaster does enough damage on its own to see out the game, firing at a colossal rate, even when it’s not being augmented by in-game rewards.

Cotton’s special attack feature, meanwhile, is varied and devastating. Ranging from explosive mushroom bombs, which cause a heck of a lot of damage when appropriately deployed, to wide-beam lightning blasts that annihilate everything in their path, these special additions to Cotton’s arsenal are valuable commodities. They especially come in handy when the screen is clogged with activity and during tricky end-of-level boss fights, when a well-timed flame blast can make all the difference.

For the casual gamer looking for a quick play through, the game’s short spin-cycle affords a rapid, entirely immersive experience that is as entertaining as it is ephemeral. For more seasoned players, however, who are likely to return to the game with a view to improving their high score, a more nuanced gaming experience can be had.

A screenshot from a video game. It is a 2D side-scrolling shoot em up. On the far left is a red-haired witch flying on a broom, shooting fireballs from her wand. To the right is an enemy made out of dark red balls of fire. In the background are clouds and a castle on a mountaintop.

In game rewards come in the shape of bomb pick-ups, extra fairies and rainbow-hued gems dropped by defeated enemies. The gem effects, which vary dependant on their colour, can be used to increase Cotton’s standard shot power, high score, or widen the variety of special attacks available. Savvy gamers will quickly realise that if you shoot through the gems, your shot disseminates, causing increased damage. Also, if you shoot the gems repeatedly you can alter their colour to suit your needs. Learning the various properties of gems dropped by obliterated enemies and using them to enhance gameplay makes for an engaging player experience. It also makes for a deeply satisfying sense of personal achievement when your final score is tallied at the end of each level.

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In terms of presentation, Cotton: Reboot!’s musical accompaniment is annoyingly redundant, buried as it is beneath a digitised cacophony of bullet-hell sound effects. However, for fans of cutesy colour splash shoot ‘em ups, visually the game is a delight. The coin-op’s original anime inspired pixel art graphics have been given a full makeover, resulting in a game brimming with beguilingly reimagined sprites and backgrounds. The game also features a series of polished 80’s inspired anime cutscenes, that serve as artistically diverting narrative pitstops between levels.

Despite the brevity of its core campaign, Cotton: Reboot! is an entirely addictive game which fans of 80’s and 90’s side-scrollers, and pretty much anyone, will be able to enjoy. There are some minor flaws in the mechanics when the action on screen can seem a tad overwhelming, however, this is still a solid, sugar rush of a title that does a smart job of rejuvenating a forgotten classic.

Cotton Reboot! is available now on Nintendo Switch and PS4.

By Mark Anthony Ayling

Mark Anthony Ayling is a Registered Mental Health Nurse and writer whose stories have appeared in Perihelion, Cracked Eye, and The Twisted Tails IX anthology. He has written book reviews for Bookbrowse and BlueInk Reviews and contributed film essays and articles at VHS Revival and Horrified Magazine. A collection of his dystopian fiction, titled Northern Futures, was published by Lillicat in 2016. Ayling is also the author of the periodic film blog/journal/diary The Random Movie Journal.

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