Cotton Fantasy / Cotton Rock 'n' Roll
The Cute-'em-Up Staple, Cotton, Returns For Another Adventure
Cotton Fantasy is the latest game in the Cotton series, originally released in 1991 in Japanese arcades. It's often attributed as one of the pioneers of the "cute-'em-up" genre of shoot 'em ups. While that honor would go to 1988's Parodius, games like Cotton, Harmful Park, and prototypes to the genre like 1985's Twinbee, would cement the genre. Basically, a "cute-'em-up" is a shmup that features colorful graphics, an aggressive anime aesthetic, and weird enemies for the player to fight against. The protagonists are usually young and energetic while the plots are borderline non-sensical.
It was something that prevailed in the 90s as the "magical girl" archetype was in full swing thanks to anime such as Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura. The Cotton series generally involves the titular character, Nata de Cotton, as she embarks on journies with her fairy friend Silk. While each plot has an overarching theme, this is usually hammered to absolute simplicity thanks to Cotton's one-track mind. Her personal goal in each game is to acquire an edible candy known as Willow, no matter where it ends up taking her. This is brought to comical standards that aren't hindered in Cotton Fantasy.
Anything For A Piece Of Candy, Even If It Puts The World At Risk
With that said, surely players can expect a deep, engaging, and fleshed-out story for Cotton Fantasy? Well, let's take a look at the premise. An elder prophesizes the end of the world that can only be saved by the "azure-robed" one once the "Willows disappear." Rather than being a savior, Cotton only agrees to help Silk with the promise of having all the Willows she can eat. The savior of the world is a selfish young witch who will do anything for a piece of candy. Business as usual for Cotton.
While there is a reason as to how all the Willows wound up disappearing, it's equally as silly as the premise itself. The cutscenes are all fully drawn and voiced in Japanese, providing the same amount of "gusto" one would expect. Cotton's entire personality is an eternal sugar rush, full of energy and incredibly naive. During the levels themselves, Cotton and Silk engage in dialogue describing the situation and locations they are in. I'm not fluent in Japanese, but I was able to catch some words and phrases pertaining to looking for Willows in a tomb, for example.
Cotton Fantasy Combines RPG Elements With Shoot-'em-ups
Cotton isn't the only character players can select from, as there are a total of six, each playing a little bit different from the other. While Cotton is the "default" character, other characters like Ria requires players to take advantage of shmup mechanics. Ria has an upgrade system where the more the player "grazes" bullets, the more experience she gets. Grazing refers to the act of letting bullets and enemies barely touch the player, which benefits from being just out of its hitbox.
Fine is another advanced character who has no lives and a timer that decreases over time. The only way to increase the timer is by collecting crystals. Crystals not only give a player the ability to use magic based on its element, but it also alters the primary fire of the player's attacks. Some crystals also increase the exp gained, leveling the player up to a maximum of 5.
There is at least one character who is actually a cameo from another game, Kawase, from Umihara Kawase. Umihara Kawase is a puzzle platformer developed by Studio Saizensen, who also helped develop Cotton Fantasy. The transition from "platformer" to "shooter" may seem like a tall order for this sushi chef, but she holds her own and is actually fun to play as well.
Despite Its Cute Appearance, Cotton Fantasy Can Trip You Up!
Cotton Fantasy may not be as intense as R-Type Final 2, but it will require players to pay attention. The bullet patterns are equal parts easier to read yet difficult to handle, because of how large everything appears on the screen. The huge sprites mean that bullets are easier to dodge yet it's common to find a player trapped in a tight space. Some levels have traps that the player will need to watch out for as well.
Fortunately, there are infinite continues should the player receive a game over at the cost of their score reset to zero. Players going for high score runes would rather reset at this point, but those who wish to play to the end can continue without worry. Clearing Story Mode once will unlock a bonus character, rounding it to seven characters, and a bonus stage. Clearing each stage in story mode will also unlock it in Training Mode, allowing players to grind their best runs to their heart's content.
While Short, Replayability, And Role As A "Gateway Title" Makes Up For It
A run through Cotton Fantasy's story mode with continues took me about 40 minutes, which I can imagine would be cut to a half-hour for a more competent player. While the bonus rewards are a neat touch, the main fun comes from replaying the game, getting a higher score, and trying each character out. The beauty of shmups is that they are always short enough to fulfill their duty, a testament to the arcade era.
With many titles that were once Japanese exclusive finally making their way to the West as early as 2021, the Cotton series finally has a chance to reach an audience it had trouble with before. If Cotton Fantasy is the future for bringing niche Japanese titles to other regions, then I hope that other developers and publishers take note. I have no doubt that ININ and Success will find, well, "success" in the future! Thank you once again for the chance to review a short yet sweet shooter!
Cotton Fantasy will release on PC, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4 on May 20th, 2022. This review was made possible thanks to ININ games!