Cotton’s 30th anniversary year has, without doubt, been far kinder to us Western fans of the classic witchy cute ’em up than the intervening ones ever were since the first game, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, first hit Japanese arcades in 1991. In fact, it took that long for me to even get my hands on a proper copy of it, first with the remarkable Sega Astro City Mini console, and then shortly after we got Fantastic Night Dreams – Cotton Reboot! which, as well as a fancy and totally insane modern incarnation, included X68000 Original Mode, emulating the 1993 Sharp personal computer port that’s also possibly the definitive version of the original arcade game. And with the floodgates now open, the Cotton kept on coming!

Over the decades, one way or another I’ve come into contact with some of the series’ SNES, Mega Drive, PC-Engine CD, Neo-Geo Pocket and original PlayStation instalments, and, more recently, some of its Sega Saturn and Dreamcast outings too, but it’s also worth recapping everything else that’s finally become official here thanks to ININ Games during this anniversary year… We got Cotton Guardian Force Saturn Tribute, bringing together the Sega Saturn version of the sequel, Cotton 2, it’s remix, Cotton Boomerang, as well as the less witchy retro shoot ‘em up Guardian Force. We also got Cotton 100%, originally released in 1994 on the Super Famicom then later on the original PlayStation, with a bright, colourful palette and lower difficulty that made it ideal for newcomers – some of the best graphics I ever saw on the SNES too! And then there was Panorama Cotton, also from 1994, but this time a “pseudo 3D” shoot ‘em up that was considered something of a technical prodigy when it was released on the Mega Drive; bit of a Space Harrier vibe and just as much fun! And that’s us, up to date and now totally bedecked in Cotton, but I reckon there’s room for just a tiny bit more embellishment…

Cotton Fantasy (also known as Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll in Japan) is a brand-new entry in the Cotton series from original developer SUCCESS, together with ININ Games in the West, that sees our favourite little witch, Nata de Cotton, and her saucy fairy friend Silk embarking on an all-new nonsensical adventure on PS4 and Nintendo Switch, but after about twenty years since the last new outing will it still be true to its roots behind all those new-fangled graphics and modern gameplay? We’re going to find out, but I should first mention that the publisher was kind enough to provide me with a review code… However, I have also ordered the very unnecessary but oh-so lavish Switch Collector’s Edition out of my own pocket, so whenever that turns up I’m sure we’ll have a separate look at that too!

I promised you nonsense and here it comes, but fans of the series will be pleased to hear that it’s the usual nonsense we’ve come to know and love involving Cotton’s favourite magical candy, Willow, disappearing from all over Fairyland. Again! And once again, the Fairy Queen has entrusted your scantily-clad fairy sidekick, Silk, with solving the sinister mystery behind this devious ploy, and in return for an all-you-can-eat lifetime supply of tasty Willows, you’re both off to save Fairyland! Which mostly involves shooting stuff in a mostly 2D, mostly horizontal, but, in a nod to some of the series’ other outings, sometimes 3D cute ‘em up!

It’s perhaps because I’m a bit of a fan-boy that my first impressions of Cotton Fantasy were a bit on the lukewarm side. Firstly, there was no score attack or caravan mode in the main menu like we had in last year’s Cotton Reboot, just story mode and training mode, which lets you play stages you’ve already unlocked with various difficulty tweaks and modifiers available if you want them. Instead, the main source of longevity is to be found in the story mode, where, as well as three difficulty levels, you’ll get to choose from an initial line-up of six characters (plus more for finishing the game), and behind them is hidden away some enormous depth! We’ll come back to those in a second though… Choosing Cotton first, you get a quick overview of how to play, then we’re into the first of the most beautiful set of partially animated, classic Cotton anime cutscenes to date, spoken in Japanese with English subtitles, just how they should be! We then get a world map (which reminded me of Pac-Land’s!) and that will later act as stage select, and we’re off, and honestly it’s all a bit sterile, in a kind of modern-day Darius or that R-Type Dimensions way; that’s particularly true of the enemies too, which wouldn’t look out of place in a Kirby game on Nintendo Switch. Give it a minute though, and the sumptuous gothic colours we might expect from Cotton (as well as its trademark moon) start to emerge, and by stage two it’s even hinting at being absolutely glorious to look at… And I’m not just talking about Silk in the least amount of clothes in the highest resolution we’ve ever experienced between stages! Actually, what really turned things around for me – still on my very first go – was the familiar ping of a PlayStation trophy appearing at the end of the regular Cotton Tea-Time bonus round after beating the first boss, received for knowing that the biggest bonuses in Cotton are awarded for completely avoiding any bonus items altogether. I was really pleased with that bit of fan-service!

First impressions are improving as they become second and third, so let’s delve a bit deeper into that cast of playable characters because it turns out that they’re going to define our gameplay experience each time they’re selected. It’s worth noting that whichever character you choose, the story plays out from Cotton’s perspective, which I guess is understandable, but I’d have loved to have seen where the others fitted in, or even just had an explanation of who they are and why they’re here! I’ve got a good idea for a few of them, but we’ll stay with Cotton to begin with. The pre-game tutorial explains that you’ve got a normal shot, which changes between a fireball, what’s either an icy blast or a blob of electricity, and a kind of homing arrow, depending on whether the crystal you’ve last collected from a fallen enemy was red, blue or green respectively, as well as the always welcome auto-bomb. Holding down the normal shot button will cast whatever magic type is waiting next in your little queue of magic slots – these are powerful charged attacks also dictated by those crystal colours, with red for a dragon, blue for an icy lightning bolt thing and green for a tornado. And there’s a yellow crystal which gives you experience to gradually level you up. After a while you’ll get to grips with methodically shooting the crystals to change their colours, but for the first couple of hours, in my case at least, they were just something else on the screen I needed to shoot at, and I took whatever colour they were when I eventually collided with them! Finally, you can send any fairy companions you’ve collected on the way off on a suicide-bombing mission if you need a quick screen clear or a bit of extra oomph for a boss, but once they’re gone they’re gone, and so is the additional regular firepower they offer.

I had to look up the next character on the little character select carousel, Luffee, but despite a bit of internet confusion over L and R and Japanese pronunciation, I think she’s from an old PlayStation RPG called Doki Doki Poyatchio!! which, as far as I can tell, is about a boy helping his cousin at her bakery in the school holidays! The mind boggles, but for our purposes her normal shot is a laser, her charged shot is a bigger laser, and she’s also got a bomb, and that relative simplicity makes for a pretty good beginner experience, with a single crystal colour just racking up XP. Fine is an interesting character because she’s bringing her mechanics from an old PlayStation shooter this time, Sanvein, where she doesn’t have lives but a timer that ticks down faster if you get hit, but can be topped up by collecting crystals, and where her special attack button simply changes her normal shot type. This one’s a pretty frantic, but really feels like a whole different way to play! Next up is Ria, who’s only got a single main shot, but you can level that up by grazing past enemies rather than shooting them, which is lifted from Success’ arcade shooter Psyvariar (where I guess she’s a character). I’m not sure about this one because I don’t think Cotton’s hit boxing (or lack of) really suits this style of gameplay, but with practice you’re building up bullet shields that allow for brute-forcing through places you couldn’t normally go, and it’s another unique way to play, maybe more suited to the higher difficulty levels though. And this is a good place to mention what happens when you finish the game…

Now, I’m going to avoid spoiling this too much, but finishing the game as any character unlocks you a special extra level built around that character. In the case of Ria, that means a Psyvaria-themed level, but what they’ve done is spin its regular vertical shoot ‘em up gameplay around to horizontal, but anyone that’s played it is going to be familiar with its stage design, enemies and gameplay! So impressive, and it’s the same for all six (and, avoiding further spoilers, maybe more) playable characters. Getting away from potential spoilers and back to our tour of the characters, there’s two to go… Kawase, who I think comes the Umihara Kawase platforming games that started on the SNES, has a fairly mundane regular shot that changes depending on the colour of crystals collected, but playing as this master sushi chef is all about using her fishing lure special, which pulls in enemies that you can then fire out like a bazooka! I’m not sure about this one yet – some of these feel a bit shoe-horned in, and don’t necessarily suit the gameplay like Cotton (obviously) does. Last up is another witch, Appli, who won’t need any introduction to an fans of the Cotton games as a regular unlockable playable character, and plays a lot like Cotton herself, making her a far better fit.

While the game is more or less but never outrageously difficult as any character in normal mode, the level designs themselves, as well as the bosses, take a bit of learning. It’s not so much what’s on the screen that’s the challenge to your survival, but what isn’t, whether that’s the first level boss firing at you from behind after you’ve just avoided its dash attack, or getting stuck behind a ledge you can’t see coming yet in one of the vertically-scrolling areas in the Ancient Ruins stage, for example, but there’s a lot more like this elsewhere too. I mentioned the hit box already, which I’m still not massively comfortable with, but am treating as the entire character rather than a “box” even though I’m not convinced you are taking damage in every area of your sprite for every character; while there are hints at bullet-hell, until the very end it’s not really, so up to then this generally isn’t a huge problem once you’ve got a fix on enemy attack patterns. That said, there were more than a few times where I totally lost track of my character when the screen filled up and was dead before I could track myself down again. Play it enough to get to my measure of success for these things though, which is see the end in as many continues as you’d have had coins in your pocket to pay for them in an arcade, and you won’t be worrying too much about any of that stuff.

In regular gameplay, after the first stage the next five can be selected in any order you like from the world map, with the last two stages fixed, and then you’ve got at least six more bonus levels on top of those that we know about… Let’s start at the beginning. Castle Garden offers a bit of everything, with the faux-realism of its pre-rendered wooded backdrop giving way to a rollercoaster journey up and down and around through rocks and caves before returning for its giant spider boss. The keen-eyed will notice the bosses and the mini-bosses being hinted at as you go, Darius-style, and it’s a similar thrill. Actually, this whole level is a bit of a thrill ride, fairly light on enemies of note but it gets your heart pumping for what’s to come! The boss here has a couple of attack patterns, and after your first go you’ll have worked them out for next time, making impatience the greatest danger, which is true of most of the bosses to come, at least until you get to the last couple where things get very intense! What was a shame here is that the second phase of this boss battle comes way too late, if at all, because you can take it down before it triggers, and it’s my favourite boss bit in the game! In general, the boss fights are a real highlight though, and even on occasions when they’re less impressive to look at than others, the gameplay makes up for that, so despite the first boss there’s plenty more where that comes from regardless.

From there you can choose from the absolutely gorgeous Riverside, where those regular enemy attacks are suddenly going to pick up, or the vertical depths of Ancient Ruins, or the Ancient Egyptian splendour of Royal Tomb, which, if you read my recent piece on Atari 7800 Golden Falcon, you’ll know was one place in the game I was desperate to experience in the previews! From the second you’re literally sucked inside its pyramid, you’re confronted by Indiana Jones-style hazards and pitfalls, with no let up from the increasing bullet count from hordes of flying undead! Movement often becomes a quick-thinking puzzle, and then the level itself starts moving to reveal new secrets, all against a surprisingly authentic backdrop, towards a really fun climax. From there we’re heading into the psychedelic fog of Twilight, with its floating windmills and, er, hammerhead sharks, and then into the clouds… From this point I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into where it goes next, but it’s unexpected and is undoubtedly where the exhilaration really picks up, although I really recommend the two harder difficulties for more of an immediate thrill ride. Which is not so much the case for the couple of 3D bonus levels you’ll encounter between all of the above – think the aforementioned Panorama Cotton, but it’s a only a simple nod to that, with you collecting bonus items coming at you from out of the sky. They’re fine but relatively there’s not a lot to them.

Visuals are a mixed bag. Earlier on I said things were a little sterile, and while the environments grew on me the further I got, the cannon-fodder enemies remained so, seemingly built for style over character, and that style is a bit too Disney-minimal for my taste. Bosses do their own thing, sometimes to the point of inconsistency, but they’re mostly big and impressive, and sometimes even hiding some of that character missing elsewhere in their minions! The backdrops to each level are varied, combining both memories of previous games as well as some neat new ideas, but work best when they’re acting as pure backdrop rather than part of the level. On the whole though, I can’t help wishing it all looked like last year’s Cotton Reboot, because that absolutely nailed the current-gen (ish!) take on the Castlevania-esque cartoon-gothic vision of the earlier Cotton games, where Fantasy doesn’t seem quite so comfortable with that level of decadence, and every time it goes there it checks itself and polishes everything clean again instead. When it’s at its best though, with a screen full of chaos in front of a sinister, living forest as a giant spider turns into a gothed-up sorceress, it’s the best!

Not speaking Japanese, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with the voice acting, but all the same, that’s probably my favourite part of the audio experience here. You don’t need a translation for passion, and as slick as they look, this really makes the cutscenes pop. The non-stop quips between Cotton and Silk do the same as you play too, offering a unique cacophony on top of the chaos of the magical violence happening all over the screen! There’s a bombastic soundtrack moving everything along too, and while I didn’t go back to check my facts here, it’s sounding like Cotton’s greatest hits re-recorded by a J-pop techno electronic orchestra of some kind! Whatever it is, I can confirm the main title theme has never sounded better!

To see the credits is going to take around forty minutes, including cutscenes, which I reckon is on the generous side for most games of this ilk, but even before you think about repeating it using the various different characters, you’re going to want to be better than an infinite credit feed to the end, even though that is possible. There’s also online leaderboards if you get into scoring, which is a relatively straightforward maintaining a multiplier system but, all the same, makes for some wonderful chaos on the screen when you’re scoring big! I just wish that aspect was a bit more fleshed out with its own modes though – Caravan, Arrange, something like Cave’s Black Label and so on would have really sealed the deal for me.

I know I’ve gone a bit hot and cold as we’ve gone through the game here, but while this might struggle to get into my top five Cotton games, it’s definitely a Cotton game, and after all this time it’s a new one, and if that means anything to you then you’re probably going to get your money’s worth out of what I think is the £35 asking price (on Switch at least as, at the time of writing, I can’t see it listed on PS4). And while I’d like a tiny bit more, there’s still an enormous amount of magical candy to rot your witchy teeth on here, especially if you’re a schmup fan familiar with the extra characters on offer from elsewhere or looking for multiple gameplay experiences in one place, but even more so if you’d like to be a schmup fan because I can’t think of any better starting point! More welcoming than overwhelming, full of energy, life and personality, and loads of cute ‘em up fun.

Note from the future… There’s a full unboxing of the Cotton Fantasy Collector’s Edition as well as a review update for the Switch version here!