Thanks to ININ Games for the review code
Title: Cotton Fantasy
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 05/20/2022
In this brand new, original Cotton adventure, you take control of the witch Cotton once more, as she’s summoned on yet another adventure with the promise of Willows! This time around, there’s plenty of playable characters, though only Cotton is the focus of the story, with the other characters just being here for the sake of their gameplay, and thus not appearing in the cutscenes at all. You can even disable the story sequences entirely to make things more seamless, if you wish.
Cotton Fantasy follows up from last year’s Cotton Reboot, which was a sprite-based remake of the original Cotton game (the X6800 port) and brought everything to a gorgeous new coat of paint, with my main gripe with that style being that the flashy effects and multiplier pop-ups could get too obnoxious, so much to the point score chasing could became an eye-sore. Still, the OG game was included as well, and in general Reboot served a good purpose.
Yet here with Fantasy, I feel they really nailed it and did a much better job at modernizing the look of a Cotton game. You have 3D models over a 2D perspective, making this a 2.5D horizontal shooter, and they animate surprisingly well, capturing a lot of the charm of the older games. The backgrounds look lovely and so do the stages, and whenever score items overflow the screen, they have a distinct outline that doesn’t make them too distracting, allowing for maintained focus on enemy projectiles. You can even toggle your hitbox to see the exact spot where your character is vulnerable, making for some great strategy! All in all, the game looks great, and while some may lament the lack of sprites, I still find this style to be much better than some of the other styles Cotton has tried out, such as the ugly Rainbow Cotton. Some stages do slow the game down in handheld mode, especially the final stage, but in docked mode this doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.
However, the biggest aspect of the presentation that absolutely shook me to my core was the game’s soundtrack. Until now, I considered the PCE version of the original Cotton to be the best the franchise has ever sounded, with those remixes being really damn hard to top. Somehow, Fantasy managed to do so with ease, with a soundtrack consisting of mostly original songs! Shmup composer veterans took to working on this game’s soundtrack, and they nailed a high-energy, beautifully crafted set of songs to accompany each stage and boss. The Penultimate Boss theme might just very well be the best song in the entire Cotton franchise, it’s that amazing. Even better, since this game has a variety of guest characters with tribute stages to unlock, said tributes include remixes from those respective games, so hearing some glorious songs from Psyvariar made even better, in this awesome soundtrack? Pure bliss, with not a single guest track to complain about. This is an absolute must-own soundtrack to purchase, if it ever becomes available as a CD or Digital Album.
Just like always, Cotton Fantasy tasks you with controlling Cotton, who uses her magic skills to progress through a variety of stages and shoot down every foe in her path. Unlike the other Cotton titles however, Silk isn’t used for Magic, but is rather a screen clearing bomb, thus leaving Cotton’s magic to be charged attacks you have to conserve very wisely. Still, you have a variety of shots you can obtain by picking up the colored crystals, and as per series tradition, yellow ones level up your shot over time, so you should be able to get the hang of this even if you haven’t played a previous Cotton title.
However, instead of Fantasy being a linear series of stages, the first stage is instead a fixed stage, before the next batch of levels open up to be tackled in any order you wish, the only limits are your skill level! This adds some fun variety and routing to the mix, leading to some scorechasing potential right off the bat, and helping to make repeat playthroughs not so repetitive.
After every few stages, you get taken to a bonus stage that’s a behind the camera perspective, akin to Panorama and Rainbow Cotton, with the second of these being the prelude to the final stages. You have unlimited continues, even on the hardest setting, so beating the game is very possible with credit feeding, yet the fun of Fantasy comes from trying to maintain the highest score possible for the leaderboards, which isn’t doable if you continue and reset your score constantly. Luckily, Online Leaderboards are here as a fun incentive.
Now Cotton by herself is pretty fun at the end of the day, but upon beating the game once with anyone, you’ll unlock the Final Boss as a playable character, and a tribute stage based off the character you cleared the game as, including several guests! Umihara Kawase, Psyvariar, Cotton 2, and a few other games get their own playable representation here, and they’re all remarkably fun to play, each being very different from Cotton. Psyvariar’s tribute character is a pretty addicting one, with her buzz ability being ripped straight from the aforementioned game, leading to the risk and reward aspect I loved so much in Delta, and she uses the same two kinds of shots that you had in that game, along with your standard shooter bomb attack.
However, my absolute favorite character to play as is Fine, a character from a PS1 Shooter I had never heard of before. Her gimmick is that she cannot die by taking damage, and is instead reliant on a timer, where damage decreases it, and gathering crystals charges it back up. Upon death, she immediately gets a game over, leading to 1CC attempts with her being frantic attempts to save as much time as possible while also avoiding getting hit. Yet, instead of picking up different weapons from enemies or using a bomb, Fine has three weapons she can switch between at all times, including a super handy charge beam that turns enemy projectiles into point items; a lot of the characters usually have a move that can lead to this, but Fine is absolutely insane. If you get very, very risky, you can go for millions of points in no time at all, but just one or two hits could end your run, leading to a super addicting play style I fell hard in love with, and that’s just one of the several characters in the game! Each character even has their own leaderboard alongside with the combined one, so you can pick a favorite and tackle their online masters, if you so wish.
Despite all this jam-packed, score chasing fun, there are some minor gripes here, and that maintains to the modes on offer. You have a typical Arcade/Story mode, and a Training mode for practicing stages on any difficulty as any character. That’s literally it, outside of the three difficulty modes on offer, which thankfully provide a lot of the replay value. There’s a harder difficulty, which is what you’d expect, and an Extra difficulty, which makes every enemy explode into bullets akin to Recca’s Zanki Attack.
If you combine this frantic mayhem with a point-guzzling character like Fine, then you have yourself one hell of a leaderboard challenge to go for, but also a challenge that’s so, so damn fun, to the point I can’t really describe it in further detail: just imagine the best one more try feeling you had, amplified by a hundred, all as you get eager every time you manage to nail a tricky flood of point bonuses. Truly, the characters and scorechasing is where Cotton Fantasy shines the most, and that’s not even counting the unlockable tribute stages, which also appear on the map as selectable levels, thus meaning you can even skip some stages outright on further replays. (as you have to always play around ten of them each time)
In conclusion, Cotton Fantasy absolutely blew me away. What seemed like a shallow game at first quickly revealed itself to have amazing scoring mechanics, with a huge boatload of characters and so much variety that it’s ridiculous. As a Cotton-only experience, it’s a super well-polished, enjoyable romp that manages to take the best aspects of the old while refining the newer elements, but as a general shmup, there are so many playstyles to toy with and tons of score chasing obsessions to go after, to the point that this game might very well become addicting for anyone daring to tackle the scoreboards.
Success could have just stuck with a paint by numbers revival, playing it safe, but somehow, they managed to make a new entry in this classic series that not only lived up to the best of the older games, but obliterated them in every possible way. The sheer variety of levels, choosing your own route, the differing playstyles, and the online leaderboards easily make Cotton Fantasy one of the best modern shmups available on the Nintendo Switch, with the lack of a dedicated Caravan Mode being my only real gripe here. Still, thanks to online leaderboards and good character variety, this is a shooter that’ll keep any scorechaser fan in bliss.
I give a Cotton Fantasy a 9 out of 10.