Cotton isn’t exactly a household name, and that’s a damn shame. “Cute-’em-ups” are a delight, with their blend of super-cute presentation and classic shooter action, and 1991’s Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams and its handful of sequels more than earned their place alongside the TwinBees and Fantasy Zones of the world. Sadly, sporadic Western releases meant it never got a chance to be more than a cult hit at best, at least outside Japan.
Cotton Reboot is a chance to fix that. With both a substantial remake and the original game packaged together, this is exactly the reintroduction that the adorable, cheeky, candy-loving witch Cotton deserves.
It’s the new Arrange Mode that really puts the Reboot in “Cotton Reboot”—in essence, a full remake of the original game, keeping the same playful story and creative level designs and boss fights, but with a creative new scoring system, new systems that add welcome new layers to the whole game, more responsive controls, and an energetic new art style.
The most substantial change is how jewels work. In the original Cotton, enemies sometimes drop jewels that either grant experience points towards powering up your shots or give you a stock of powerful magic. Repeatedly shooting a jewel would change its colour, and therefore its effect, but that was about the full extent of their role. Arrange Mode’s jewels still do that, but that’s just a tiny sliver of what is now the cornerstone of the whole game.
Instead of simply absorbing your shots, as they do in the original, jewels now amplify any shots that pass through them: a bullet goes in one side, and two high-powered, angled lasers come out the other, giving some extremely useful screen coverage. But the old colour-changing effect is still at play, too—and with a few new spell pickups and associated colours to cycle through—so there’s a tactical element to when you use jewels for added firepower and when you collect them.
Taking that idea a step further, shooting a jewel enough—and we’re talking quite a substantial amount—will make it turn black. At this point, they block all of your shots, but collecting a black jewel gives you a big score bonus, and a multiplier for chaining them together. You’re sacrificing firepower and potential resources, but getting a potentially massive score payoff in exchange.
But that’s not all. Shooting jewels also charges up the new Fever gauge; when it’s full, you can enter a super-charged state for a few moments of increased attack power, more jewel drops (and therefore more of the benefits that come with them), and a score multiplier. It’s an onslaught of visual effects, scoring, and raw damage output that reminds of Crimzon Clover’s Burst Mode, of all things—not exactly what you’d expect from a retro cute-’em-up, but it fits.
With all of these pieces working in tandem, jewels become the foundation of every aspect of Cotton Reboot: offence, defence, and scoring all come down to smart use of jewels. It’s this that makes Arrange Mode feel decidedly modern, and not just in the sense of having a new coat of paint. It’s not a bullet hell as such, but it’s reminiscent of the way the best bullet hells layer multiple systems in fascinating ways: sure, you can just shoot your way through the game and have a great time, but it’s when you start to explore the interplay between this different systems, and understand how that influences survival and scoring, that the real magic of Arrange Mode comes to the fore.
That said, the score-chasers heaven that is Arrange Mode is missing one crucial thing: a practice mode. When it comes to really trying to pull all these pieces together and aim for the top of the leaderboards, being able to practice individual stage sections at will is a must. Without that, the only way to really fine-tune a section of your route is to play the whole game to that point. This isn’t going to matter to a lot of folks, but for the people Arrange Mode is clearly aimed at, it’s a glaring omission.
It also looks damn good. Instead of the original’s rather muted colours and primitive pixel art, Cotton Reboot has the vibrancy and detail of what was coming out at the end of the 16-bit era. It still has that retro feel to it, but it feels alive in a way that the technical limitations of the day meant Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams never could. There’s also a lot more focus on the functionality of the presentation this time, too, with more intuitive UI and greater visibility given to crucial details like bullets and enemy details. The fact that the screen can get as flooded with stuff as it gets in fever mode while mostly (not always, but mostly) avoiding letting crucial information get lost in the chaos is testament to how effective the redesign is.
That same ethos feeds into the overall brush up of the game’s playability. Boss designs and enemy patterns remain largely the same, but there are a lot of little tweaks to help improve the balance—getting to max shot power no longer requires multiple perfect stages, for instance. Cotton’s movements are more fluid and responsive, and smaller hitboxes help make hit detection feel more reliable—again, taking lessons from modern shmups to improve on what aren’t really flaws in the original, as such, but products of the technical constraints and design standards of the time. There are new spell pickups, a couple of extra characters to unlock, a new time attack mode that, while not quite as enjoyable as the main game—it’s basically just an endless single still makes for a fun time waster every now and then.
Despite all the new ideas the Arrange Mode brings to the table, Cotton Reboot stays true to the playful energy and cute, cheeky tone of the original game. The story remains exactly the same, framing the action with a light-hearted, comical tale of a lazy, bratty witch-in-training who has absolutely no interest in saving the world but is easily tricked into doing exactly that through her obsession with a candy called Willow. The cutscenes that bookend each level are a shot-for-shot re-creation, only with gorgeous high-definition portraits in place of the pixelated stills seen before. The enemies are still the same goofy riffs on fantasy tropes: minotaurs wearing sumo-style mawashi, lava monsters that give you a thumbs up as they sink back into magma, cheeky imps, wide-eyed, cheerful-looking manticores, and the like. It’s a new art style, but the same old adorable, delightfully silly Cotton.
In other words, Cotton Reboot’s Arrange Mode is a substantial remake, one that goes far beyond a simple reskin to completely reimagining the game. It’s faithful to the original in aesthetic and concept, but doesn’t shy away from taking lessons from the genre’s current kings and exploring new ideas in a way that could have proved very controversial for purists.
But, you know what? It works—in part because the remake pulls all its new ideas together so well to create a captivating new shoot-’em-up experience, but also because it doesn’t try to replace the original. Cotton Reboot includes the X68000 version of the Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams—not the arcade original, but the version that many consider to be the definitive release of that game. As much as I enjoy a good remake, the newer, shinier version of a thing should never just erase what came before. Packing the original version (or at least, one version of the original game’s many slightly different ports) is one of the best ways to ensure a remake doesn’t paint away its own history.
That’s not to say the retro mode doesn’t feel dated, especially next to its arranged counterpart. It’s less flashy, with controls that feel more finicky and lower visibility of vital things like enemy bullets. It’s got a rudimentary scoring system, and lacks the layers that Arrange Mode’s revamped jewel system introduces. I’d be lying if I said I played X68000 as anything more than an occasional novelty, with most of my attention focused on—and most of my enjoyment coming from—Arrange Mode. But that’s beside the point; including the original mode isn’t about expecting to have aged like fine wine. It’s about preserving a piece of history, and that’s a far more important thing than a lot of publishers would care to admit.
Cotton Reboot is the way to do a remake. It’s a bold reimagining of a cult classic, one that remains authentic to the cheeky, playful energy of the original game, but isn’t afraid to rework it to a significant degree and introduce an inventive new scoring system, creating an exciting new shmup outing in the process. But by including the original game, faithfully preserved and presented on equal footing, the remake never tries to replace the original. They’re different sides of the same coin, each serving a different purpose but providing the perfect complement to one another—and also laying the groundwork for when Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll: Superlative Night Dreams lands later this year.
Publisher: BEEP / ININ Games
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.