Created by a small company named Success and marketed in the arcades by Sega, Cotton is a cutesy shoot-em-up featuring an adorable little witch. The early entries are fairly standard side-scrolling shoot-em-ups, and mostly rely on the adorable pink-haired main character, who rides a broom, who attacks with magic spells and has one of the most hilarious death screams in all of video gaming. The original game saw a release in America for the arcades, TurboGrafx-16 Super CD and Neo Geo Pocket Color, but the rest stayed in Japan.
Nearly all of the Cotton games have silly little intermissions scenes between levels. You see, Cotton is obsessed with these delicious candy called "Willows". They're so good that the sweet little witch will demolish anything to her path just to bask in its glow. Occasionally she might end up destroying some incredible evil in the meantime, but it's all in name of sugar addiction. Cotton is joined by her scantily-clad fairy friend Silk, who occasionally calls upon other companions to act as options during gameplay.
Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton (コットン) - Arcade, TurboGrafx-16 Super CD, PlayStation, X68000, Neo Geo Pocket Color (1991)
The original Cotton is pretty standard shooting fare. For the most part, the system is very much like the original Darius games. You have a regular shot and a bomb button to attack enemies on the ground. Various bad guys drop crystals of one of three different colors - yellow will increase your "experience" gauge (a fancy name for your primary weapon power), red will give you a dragon shot and blue will give you a lightning shot. You can shoot these crystals midair to cycle through the colors a la Twinbee. Cotton can use special attacks by charging your regular weapon. Unfortunately, whenever you get killed, your weapon level drops down one. Considering that some of the enemies can take several hits before exploding, dying too many times in a row can force you into a position that's impossible to escape from. The enemy attacks are relentless, and Cotton is a fairly large target, at least compared to other shooters. You can only continue once in a stage before starting over, making the game even more difficult. Oddly enough, Cotton doesn't rely on pastel graphics and goofy boss characters like Parodius - this game is downright dark, as Cotton flies through dank caves, flaming volcanoes, and gothic castles. There are some freaking weird boss characters too, including a skeleton puppet, a Cleopatra statue with a lion head in its stomach, and a plant creature with one ugly face.
Cotton was ported to the PC Engine Super CD by Hudson, and was one of the few that actually crossed the ocean to be released in America. It's a faithful translation, right down to the difficulty. The biggest addition is the awesome redbook soundtrack - the arcade game's music was rather subdued, but here it's a guitar-laden rockfest similar to Dungeon Explorer 2 and Ys. There was also a port to the PlayStation, but it's exactly the same as the arcade version, as is the X68000 port. The Neo Geo Pocket port is pretty decent for being a handheld, even though some of the levels are cut short.
The original Cotton was surprisingly dark for a game starring an adorable little pink-haired witch. Cotton's only Nintendo outing, Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%, changes all of that. The game puts the color palette of the Super Famicom to use, with featuring bright green forests, snow covered mountains and gorgeous castles. One of the levels is even a cutesy reimagining of the second stage in Cotton - instead of fighting zombies in a graveyard, you fight pumpkin men who lob their heads at you. Instead of being a gigantic skeleton, the boss is a huge, demonic doll. It's also worth noting that Cotton 100% is the only game in the series that doesn't feature a scantily clad fairy at the end of each stage, just a cute picture of Cotton herself. Maybe they were trying to aim more towards kids with this one? It's definitely reflected in the difficulty, which can be toned down so any newbie can beat it. The gameplay is pretty much the same as the original, although you now have three different magic spells that you can switch between. A decent game, if not remarkable. Cotton 100% was also brought to the PlayStation in 2002 under the Super Lite 1500 label, although it's pretty much just a straight port with no enhancements.
If you think Treasure pushed the Genesis to the limits with Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier - wait till you see Panorama Cotton. Essentially it's a 3D action shooter similar to Space Harrier, except with all kinds of fancy effects you never thought the Genesis could pump out. The background scaling alone is impressive, but it looks more amazing when the game suddenly makes sudden twists and turns towards the sky, or when you're swerving through rock formations at amazing speeds. While it's pretty incredible, the technology can't quite handle it all, and sometimes you can't really see what's going on because it's so jerky. And some of the effects, especially on the checkerboard floors, don't quite look right. But it's hard to pick on a game as exciting, fast paced and gorgeous game as Panorama Cotton. The game plays much like its 2D predecessors, except your magic spells temporarily effect your weapons, and you get experience from each enemy killed, rather than gems you collect. Unfortunately, it's one of the rarest and most sought after Mega Drive games, so don't expect to find a real cart unless you want to shell out some dough.
The first true sequel to Cotton appeared in the arcades several years after the original, running on Sega's ST-V hardware. As can be expected, it's filled with gorgeous 2D graphics, especially the gigantic bosses, with limbs that animate independently to fantastic effect. You still collect crystals to power-up your ship, although there are four different magic spells instead of just two. The crystals also determine the element of your primary weapon, similar to Soldier Blade. You also now have a life bar, making the game a bit more forgiving. There are also "command" shots, which are executed by via a fighting game-like motion. These can be used to fire in various directions, which is helpful for clearing out enemies above and below your character. Unfortunately, actually using them during play can be a bit cumbersome.
You can also "seal" enemies, which encases them in a huge, floating orb. They can then be picked up, carried as a shield, and tossed around the screen to destroy other enemies. By keeping this orb on screen and scoring combos, you can eventually rack up points, experience and health. These are all excellent twists that help Cotton form a unique personality beyond the standard cute-em-up fare. There's also a two-player mode, which introduces Cotton's friend/foe Appli, another witch with a thing for Willows. There are some nonsensical interludes after every stage, much like the previous Cotton games. The only real issue is that, like the original, the player sprite is simply way too large, and weaving through enemy fire can sometimes be an incredible pain. Still, it's better balanced than the original game.
Cotton 2 was also released for the Saturn, and it's practically arcade-perfect. There's also a new "Saturn" mode which has some different graphics - the first level has snow over all the mountains, for example - and remixed enemy patterns.
Cotton Boomerang isn't quite a real sequel - almost all of the enemies are very similar, if not identical, to Cotton 2, and the levels are simply changed around a little bit - but it does completely overhaul the game mechanics. At the beginning, you get to choose three out of eight possible characters - three variations of Cotton, three variations of Appli, the fairy Silk or Appli's magical hat Needle. Each character has completely unique shot patterns and attacks. You're also now free to use your power shots as often as you want, putting more firepower at your disposal. The life bar has been removed, so one hit will kill you, and each character is basically a "life". You can switch between characters a limited amount of times, although each change will also cause a large explosion, essentially acting like a bomb. The experience bar is gone, so you automatically go up a level when you get a yellow crystal. The new characters, Silk and Needle, are much smaller than the witches, so it's a lot easier to dodge shots. On the flip side, it's quite possible to lose view of them amidst all of the chaos. Since the life meter is gone, throwing the orbs isn't quite as important as before, but is still important if you're going for high scores.
While most of the graphics are the identical to Cotton 2, many of the backgrounds have been redrawn to look a bit nicer, and certain stages look a bit different - the second stage takes place during the day instead of at night, for instance. The story scenes have been replaced with goofy high res pics of the Cotton gang pining over Willows and generally acting silly. Overall, it's hard to say that Cotton Boomerang is actually better than Cotton 2 - it's just different. Still, it's not really worth it to own both, so Boomerang is probably the one to pick, if only because there's a greater variety of weapons. The Saturn version also includes a nice little art gallery, plus the ability to map the command shots to the spare buttons on the controller.
Rainbow Cotton is technically the sequel to the Mega Drive game Panorama Cotton. It features the same behind-the-back 3D view, except this time with honest to goodness polygons. The game works the same as the original - grab crystals to either power yourself up or get some powerful magic spells. It's definitely a gorgeous game - the first stage is nighttime jaunt through a peaceful European villa, where Christmas lights decorate the pine trees. The second stage is a trip above the clouds, as you fly past floating islands and waterfalls. The third level takes place underwater, complete with little houses amongst the seaweed. Unfortunately, each level tends to drag on for an unnecessarily long time - it's pretty for the first few moments, but the repetitive scenery isn't so spectacular after you've been flying through it for about ten minutes.
But that's the least of Rainbow Cotton's problems. Similar to Panzer Dragoon, you control the crosshairs rather than your character. But for some reason, it's almost impossible to hit anything. If you do, it's not like you could tell - the enemies don't explode and barely make any sounds. It doesn't help that Cotton herself is so huge that she blocks whatever you might be shooting at, in addition to any bad guys coming your way. Furthermore, the crosshairs auto center, so it's quite difficult to keep a steady aim. There's no lock-on missiles either, which really could've helped. Even if you someone come to grips with the terrible controls, the game just isn't much fun - it's slow moving and quite boring, especially compared to the blazing fast speed of Panorama Cotton. You'll find some cool bosses, like the pig blimps and the gigantic fire breathing chicken, but fighting against them is frustrating. The rest of the package is rounding out by some appallingly awful anime cutscenes. They might look fine in still shots, but there are PC Engine CD games with better animation. The fairies that fly around you don't see to do anything except yammer incessantly, which can thankfully be turned off. In the right hands, this could've been a decent game, but otherwise it's just a spectacular failure.
If you're not Japanese, you probably don't give a damn about pachinko. But they love those stupid gambling machines over there, so what better way to exploit fans by sticking some beloved characters into a cheaply made video game and calling it a day? As if the shame of Rainbow Cotton wasn't bad enough, the latest Cotton entry is just a lazy cash-in and completely worthless to pretty much everyone outside of Japanese fans.
The cutesy vibe of Cotton inspired a few direct imitators, most notably Magical Chase for the TurboGrafx-16 and Keio Flying Squadron for the Sega CD. Even so, the series really never grabbed a huge following, especially compared to superior titles like TwinBee. Still, dazzling graphics of Panorama Cotton and innovative mechanics of Cotton 2 and Boomerang Cotton earn it a place on the list of respectable shoot-em-ups. Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said about Success - after releasing that pachinko game, they started sinking lower and began releasing idol-dating games for the PSP.