Space Harrier in a Cotton skin on a Mega Drive should have been right up my alley, but while the best things in life might be free, they don’t necessarily hold much value! I’ve always tried to curate my emulated systems, which is why I’m such a fan of the various Mini consoles because someone else has done it for me, but even so, when you’re faced with even a focussed mass of stuff you’ve never played before, there’s always a good chance that it will never be given a chance! And that’s what happened when I first played Panorama Cotton a few years ago – seemed alright, will come back to it after I’ve tried Road Rash 3, Strider and a dozen other newly essential games, then never did. In my defence though (such as it is, balancing on slightly dodgy legal ground!), my love for Cotton is built on horizontal cute ‘em ups, and I’ve got plenty of proper versions of Space Harrier and it’s sequel on everything from the ZX Spectrum to the Nintendo Switch for when I fancy that kind of 3D nonsense!

Sometimes you just need a prod though, and I certainly value being given occasional review codes, so it’s finally time to give Panorama Cotton its chance to shine! Coming on the back of Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams Reboot along with SNES classic Cotton 100%, as part of Cotton’s 30th anniversary celebrations, ININ Games has launched digital versions of Panorama Cotton for Nintendo Switch (reviewed here) and PlayStation 4 for the first time on those or anywhere else in the West, while Strictly Limited Games also has physical Limited and Collector’s Editions.

Panorama Cotton was originally released on the Sega Mega Drive in Japan in August 1994, not long after the SNES (or Super Famicon there) got the more familiar 2D side-scrolling shooter Cotton 100%, which remixed the original arcade game a bit but pretty much lifted the same story, with the witch Cotton and her sexy fairy friend Silk returning light to the world by reclaiming seven magical Willow candies, which Cotton also happens to be addicted to eating!

This third entry in the series picks up the bonkers story when Silk’s sister Knit warns Fairy Queen Velvet that all is not well in the world again, and the Queen charges off to prevent the chaos she fears is coming, but that’s the last anyone sees of her. Silk and Knit then come across a piece of burnt Willow candy in the Queen’s garden, and fearing it’s responsible for the strange goings on, decide to banish it far away where it can’t do any more harm. However, on the way to far away, Cotton suddenly reappears, grabs the Willow from Silk and eats it. Horrified at the taste, she vows to stop whatever evil force is burning her favourite sweeties and in turn threatening the world’s very existence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the addition of this fascinating new dimension to Cotton’s lore after the SNES only got a retread, but the real attraction here – yes, even more so than that plot – is taking the gameplay itself into a new dimension! Sega loved its sprite scaling, and developer Success Corporation was more than happy to jump ship to pseudo-3D rail shooting after its previous traditional Cotton efforts.

As such, you’re travelling behind Cotton on her broomstick on a pre-defined route through five pretty substantial levels, shooting stuff and collecting magic gems to gradually get more powerful so you can take on all the big bosses, all of which is narrated by occasional anime cutscenes. Which sounds just like a Cotton game!

Considering the Mega Drive / Genesis couldn’t do hardware sprite scaling, and didn’t always have a great track record for doing it in software (I’m looking at you, Super Thunder Blade), this is just black magic; it’s absolutely stunning. If the SNES went nuts with introducing wonderfully lurid colours to Cottons multitude of gothic backdrops in Cotton 100%, then this is going a step further by replacing all that spookiness with equally wild, bright and bold fantasy environments. And bizarrely, this all put me in mind of some kind of magical mash-up between Trailblazer on Commodore 64 and Secret of Mana on SNES!

It’s all being thrown around at such a rate of knots too, and all so smoothly in all directions, to the extent that some of the more vertical areas are almost vertigo-inducing! So impressive, and I’m once again left wondering why I gave this literally seconds before consigning it to gather digital dust the first time around! The only slight complaint I have graphics-wise is with the Cotton sprite – being from behind, we’re losing some of her personality by default, but not a great deal of effort seems to have gone into detailing her hair or broomstick, for example, which are always so carefully attended to in the 2D games where it’s less prominent. It’s a big sprite too, which, if I’m being pedantic, can also get in the way of the action from time to time.

The action never really gets that frantic that often though – which I guess helps with handling the 3D graphics – and outside of boss fights I usually came to an end as a result of colliding with obstacles rather than anything combat related. There’s a nice RPG-like mechanic going on here, where as you shoot stuff you’ll gain experience and level up, boosting your firepower, but taking damage reduces experience as well as health, so you can level down too. You can also enlist the help of your fairy friends for a powerful shot of magic, and there’s the regular Cotton elemental magic at your disposal too, which you charge up by collecting gems, but shooting them first will change their colour, thereby changing the type of magic you’re charging. There’s also occasional health boosts to collect, but mostly you’ll need to get to the end of the level to recover some health, which is proportional to how well you’ve scored.

Most levels follow the same formula – shoot stuff, avoid stuff, fight a boss, but there’s plenty of variety in all of that as you traverse searing deserts and lush fields, waterfalls, canyons, caverns and even complex temples with multiple paths that scroll in every direction. There are plenty of straightforward, obstacle-ridden psychedelic corridors to test your flying skills too, and I found it takes a while to get your head around some of these – despite some initially unpredictable obstacle movement, they’re not massively complex, but it’s sometimes hard to judge how far away things are. Like these environments, enemy designs take their cue from cartoon fantasy over their more gothic predecessors, while the bosses are full-on acid trip, with takes on Aladdin, kangaroos, giant chickens, some kind of Zulu Easter egg with a rodent face and less easy to identify mad stuff!

Like its current-day partner in crime Cotton 100%, this is by no means the most difficult game in the series, but you’ve got three difficulty levels should you need them. I like the normal default one though. It’s a blast from the outset! The bosses take a bit of learning, but they’re fair, and apart from that minor irk about spatial awareness, it feels good to control. Almost forgot, unlike Cotton 100%’s slightly lightweight soundtrack, this sounds the part too! Trademark thumping Mega Drive drumbeats over an array of shining melodies that also wouldn’t be out of place in Secret of Mana and the like! There’s density to the myriad sound effects that accompany the action, reminiscent of the not so distantly related TwinBee or Fantasy Zone, or even the wonderful X68000 remaster of the original Cotton!

The game translates perfectly well to Switch, whether handheld or on a TV, though in both cases I found my preference to be the Joy-Con’s directional stick over the pad, which I found a little sticky in comparison. On firing the game up you’ll be offered a choice of Standard mode, which provides rewind, save states and cheats (if you meet the right criteria), where Challenge mode is the original game, no modern hand-holding. You can also access a bunch of screen ratio and shader effect options, with various mask types and intensities, scan lines and so on – enough to be too intimidating for a philistine like me to be messing around with! My only complaint with this rerelease is the lack of translation on the cutscenes – while whatever it says is going to be ultimately nonsensical, when they appear there’s tons of text, and as nice as it is to look at anime fairies in tiny bikinis on some thoughtfully animated backgrounds, I wouldn’t mind knowing what was going on in the other half of the screen! I do understand that it will be translated via a patch at some point in the weeks after launch though.

Considering that this is one of the priciest game cartridges you could try and pick up on a Mega Drive today, £12.99 to have it on your Switch is a no-brainer. There’s not a lot new, but it’s still a looker so I’m good with a multitude of display options, rewind and save states. And it still plays like a great variation on a great game!