It must have been around the summer of 1985 that an advert for Palace Software’s Cauldron first caught my eye, dominated by its classical old witch stirring her giant cauldron full of bubbling bug life, though it was one of the Commodore 64 screenshots that really did it – the witch on her broomstick flying in front of a big full moon above a magical forest (they had such great trees on there!) and what is still one of the best-looking old hovels you’ll ever see in a game! This was part Defender-style shooter and part arcade platformer, with your hag searching out keys that would give her access to caverns where she’d find the ingredient for a spell to get rid of the evil Pumpking. It would be a while before I finally got a Spectrum +2, and a bit longer again before I found my way to Cauldron, but I’d never forgotten that single screenshot… So imagine my disappointment when I quickly conceded that the game stank! It was all so awkward and frustrating, and I just didn’t get it. I was a lot quicker off the bat getting the sequel the following year, but got its bouncing pumpkin vibe even less, so despite the Commodore 64 version of the original giving me what is still one of my favourite sights in any game ever, what held so much promise to 13-year old me has been a letdown ever since.
Half a decade later again and a very similar tale is emerging out of 1991, staring longingly at screenshots of this Sega arcade game that has all the witchy shooting and none of the witchy platforming of Cauldron, but with this mind-blowing cutesy-gothic anime art style! Could this be the one? Sadly, this time all that witchiness seemed even more out of reach, then and for no less than the two decades, including the subsequent ports to all kinds of systems that were always impossible or difficult to access! To put it in context, by this time my already limited exposure to arcades when the fair came to town through the eighties had now plummeted to a Hydra machine next to a Pit Fighter machine in a University of Hertfordshire Student Union bar! There was no chance I was getting my hands on this piece of Japanese exotica, whether in its original form or on some fancy and equally out of reach console like the PC-Engine (which turned out to be something like the case a couple of years later). But like Cauldron, I never forgot about it, and when my Sega Astro City Mini console arrived on its European release in the summer of 2021, there was one game I was finally jumping straight into the first time I fired it up, and that was, of course, Cotton, where it’s been a mainstay ever since!
Now, I might have taking my time getting to that original arcade game (Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams to give it its full name), but in all those intervening years I have skirted around other versions, such as Cotton Original on PlayStation, and other installments in the series, such as Cotton 100% on SNES and mad rail-shooter Panorama Cotton on Mega Drive, and in doing so have become a bit of the fan of the series, albeit one a bit like an Arsenal fan that’s never been to the Emirates. Or Highbury. Not only that, but I’ve also become a proper fan of some of the best of the cute ’em up genre it would go on to help define, with some of my all-time favourite shooter series such as TwinBee and Fantasy Zone. And that’s the world into which Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! arrives, and, just for transparency, with a code kindly provided for review.
What we have here is an updated and remastered version of the original Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, built around three game modes… There’s the X68000 original mode, which emulates the 1993 Sharp personal computer port that’s also possibly the definitive version of the game (including arcade); then there’s Arrange mode, and this is where you’ll find the main rebooting, with spectacularly redesigned graphics and characters in an all-new 16:9 format; and finally there’s score attack mode, where you’re competing online for the best possible score in either 2 or 5 minutes.
We’ll come back to all of that in a minute though because now’s a good time to look at what Cotton is actually all about! You’re a young witch called Nata de Cotton, and, accompanied by your saucy, bikini-clad fairy friend Silk, you’re on the hunt for your favourite candy, Willow, and are so crazy about it that you’ll take down anything that gets in your way, which is convenient because everything in your way is behind the demonic infestation that’s also brought darkness upon the world. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all there is to Cotton, which is very welcome in these parts – justify your existence and move on to the action, like John Rambo! You’re travelling left to right and sometimes up and down through increasingly difficult gothic fantasy lands, powering up to overcome fiendish boss monsters and mass waves of their minions, all in the name of Willow.
We’ll have a delve into each game mode, though there’s a lot in common between the two main modes, with the new all-singing, all-dancing, completely bonkers Arrange mode, where most of the reboot in Cotton Reboot takes place, being more grounded in the X68000 version more than the original arcade version. Either way, fans of the original are going to be in very familiar territory throughout, and if you’ve not played it for the last twenty years, this graphical showcase might even be what those rose-tinted spectacles are telling your brain that this is exactly what you remember playing!
What you’re not going to be remembering is the number of enemies coming at you all at the same time though, and this is probably the key difference, because while the technical limitations on pushing sprites around might have been lifted now, once you’re a couple of levels in you’ll notice that you’re entering bullet-hell territory. It’s not full bullet-hell, but a kind of diet bullet-hell – like Nickelback to rock music, or Paranormal Activity to horror movies! All the same, it definitely reboots the gameplay style, and regardless of semantics about bullet-hell, all those enemies and all those “bullets” definitely make life harder despite your equally rebooted firepower.
On top of this, we’ve also got a few quality of life enhancements brought about by being developed for consoles (or ageing PCs) first, plus accessibility and a few mechanical upgrades. Actually, having played an awful lot of arcade Cotton on the Astro City Mini now, the most welcome change in both modes is simply having the bomb button mapped to the fire button by default so you’re getting both at once, because standalone bomb just gets ignored in the heat of battle for flying down low and using regular fire on whatever’s on the ground instead.
Outside of your regular arsenal, you’ll be supported by additional firepower from Silk and up to five more of her fairy friends if you spot them and save them from inprisonment along the way. As you mow down wave after wave of enemies, the screen will start to fill (literally!) with power-up items – there’s a bomb item that looks like a wristwatch, and makes your bomb more and more powerful, and there’s various types of crystal, which is where things start getting complicated in the Arrange mode! Shooting at a crystal effectively diffuses your fire, making it more powerful and more efficient in finding its way to enemies. In addition, these diffused shots are transformed into collectibles when they hit something, and these contribute to an item counter at the bottom-left of the screen, up to 100%. Now, I’m not 100% sure I’ve got this yet, but it’s a kind of multiplier effect, increasing your enemy score for as long as you don’t get hit, which will decrease the item level – whatever it is exactly, don’t get hit and you’ll get more points! And once you’ve got a bit of item level behind you, you can also press X which is going to launch a fever mode, turning fallen enemies into massive multiplier icons for a massive score bonus until doing so has depleted that level indicator.
Back to the crystals, they don’t only diffuse the shot, but they’ll also change colour the more you shoot them, TwinBee-style. Yellow means experience, which you need to power-up your shots. Orange is also experience, but more of it. And there’s a big bar at the bottom of the screen to show how that’s going. There’s also red, blue, purple and green, which are sources of magic, and each gets its own little icon at the bottom of the screen too, and you can store up to six of these, and each can level up three times to give you more magic power. Red gives you Fire Dragon; blue is Lightning; purple is Bomber; and green is Summon. Whichever one is flashing on the left of your group of magic icons is ready to go, and a press of the Switch’s B button will activate that spell. And that’s a good time to mention that if you head into the options menu, you can assign this wherever you like, as well as split the bomb and shot functions if you prefer.
In case you’re still following this crystal stuff, each magic also has a sub-magic function, and a quick press and hold of B will launch that instead for a different effect. A slightly longer hold is going to set your fairy loose with some special moves of her own, and longer again will put a temporary defensive bubble around you… Sounds a bit mad, but there’s enough on-screen indication to see you through with some practice, and I reckon if you reassign the bomb and shot buttons independently you’ll also separate these a bit more. And finally, back on crystals, if you keep shooting a crystal, it will eventually turn black, and this is just a big score item, starting at 10,000 points and getting bigger every time you pick another up. Just don’t forget to stop firing at black crystals, otherwise it will break and all that shooting will have been for nothing. And good luck managing all of that when the screen is full of the things and enemies coming from all directions too! Once you’ve got the hang of it, there’s even more to discover, for example, there are ways of using sub-magics to turn everything to black crystals for mega-scores that you can suck back to Cotton without manually collecting them. For really mega-scores though, here’s a tip that even beginners can get onboard with… At the end of each level there’s what I think are different scoring teabags falling from the sky to collect as bonuses, but if you avoid all of them rather than collect them like it wants you to, there’s secret multi-million point bonuses on offer!
Blimey, now we’ve been through that, there might be more to this reboot thing that I initially hinted at! It’s definitely worth pointing out that you can ignore all of that and just enjoy a fantastic shooter, and this is exactly what I’d recommend to begin with – take in the sights, get a feel for the enemy attacks, which are going to be the same attacks in the same place every game so you’ll be learning their patterns as you go, and this will allow you to start focussing on all that additional depth when you’re ready. You’ve also got infinite continues (plus three difficulties) in both Arrange mode and X68000, so you can even brute force your way to the end of the game if you wish. Whichever way you get to the end, you’re looking at under 45 minutes (and probably nearer 30) to go from point to point, but with all that depth to get to grips with to get those big scores once you’ve learnt your way through every level’s enemies (and minimised your continues if that’s your thing), there’s a lot of value for money here. A clear is also going to unlock Silk and Pril, another witch from the Trouble Witches series that I don’t have any idea about, but being able to play as both is a nice addition!
Arrange mode is just an every day is Halloween thrill ride! You could look at moments where the screen is completely stacked with enemies, bullets, magic and multiplier icons as a bit bewildering, but you’re better off just taking it as completely insane fun through six distinct eighties horror anime-inspired levels, each bookended by similarly-styled cut-scenes, and not forgetting the bonus final boss fight! This visual style is absolutely gorgeous, with beautifully crafted gothic backgrounds, taking in the best-looking haunted forest since Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, gothic mansions, impossible floating castles, mountain ranges, volcanoes, caves and all sorts more. My favourite is the graveyard though, which its dramatic deep sunset skylines reminding me of old Vincent Price movies like Masque of the Red Death. Beautiful! It did seem to lose a little contrast moving from a TV to Switch handheld mode, and that’s where I experienced a few unexpected deaths as I was caught by indistinct enemy fire against dark backgrounds that had lost their clarity on the small screen.
That said, the main character sprite really shines in handheld mode, with Cotton’s hair and clothes and broomstick twigs bouncing around as you move, and its really brought to life by subtle highlights and lowlights. If you have time to cast your eyes towards Silk the fairy, you’ll notice she’s doing her own thing too, with all sorts of animation going on despite her small size; you can even make out just how small and impractical her bikini is for this kind of scrap as well, though no need to look too closely because you’ll get a nice gratuitous shot of that on each end of level summary screen! The mid-level and end of level bosses look great too, even if not massively original or challenging after a few runs at them, and all of the above applies but on a larger scale. I did notice a little jaggedness to these bigger sprites against the much less pixellated (by design) backgrounds, and even more so against the very sharp crystals, bullets and so forth when hooked up to the TV though. You’ve probably seen the regular enemies before too – mostly standard cartoon horror tropes – but they’re enjoyable in the main, though I did find a couple, such as the Frankenstein-type monsters that throw their heads at you, and the grim reapers, a bit too cartoony, and a little jarring in the context of the level design they’re found in. Overall though, it’s the best-looking Cotton you could hope for!
All that cacophony of graphics is perfectly mirrored by the cacophony of noise going on everywhere too! It’s like being in a Japanese arcade (or, in fact, the assault on the senses you get almost anywhere you go in Tokyo), but where everything is concentrated into a single game! To try and break down some of this aural density, there’s the almost continuous sound of your weapon firing and bombs dropping, plus the explosions as they make contact, and the sound of the enemies and the mass of crystals dropping or being collected, interspersed with the sounds of magic when its used, and occasional shouts of “Barrier” and the like from Cotton or Silk or one of the more coherent enemies. Like those highlights that brought the graphics to life, the voice work, when it appears, really does the same with the sound. And the whole time there’s this insane J-pop type soundtrack over the top of everything. None more Japanese!
I know from experience that to the outsider, there are times you need a break from all that Japanese though – as wonderful as it is, there’s only so much of all that visual and audio stimulation that you can take in one go! And that’s where you might want to look at the slightly more considered X68000 mode, where we’re back in the realms of the traditional cute ’em up rather than veering towards bullet-hell. As we’ve already discussed, this is the 1993 Sharp X68000 Japan-only PC port of the original arcade game, where it got some mechanical updates we already discussed, new design features and a graphical overhaul that treated us to some of the best-looking pixel art from that era you’ll ever come across.
Bearing in mind my red-black colourblindness and the fact I’ve just got my Switch running next to my Astro City Mini, I’m seeing much more going on in the X68000 mode, for example in the first level, the addition of reflections of lights in the water, or a layer of wispy, semi-transparent dark clouds providing a parallax effect to the scrolling. There’s also a little more detail in character designs, but a lot more in textures, whether distant water or more immediate buildings, ruins, rocks, trees and the like. The sound seems a bit more meaty too, but I’m not sure how much of that is down to each machine’s speakers and how much is the games themselves. Apart from that, you’ll also notice differences in some of the enemy designs, their attack patterns and its also got its own boss designs. One thing I did notice when playing the two side-by-side was the slightly better-suited controls with the Astro City Mini’s chunky resin arcade stick versus the Switch’s joy-cons, which I think I still prefer over its directional buttons. There’s nothing wrong with it, and actually I was a little concerned it might feel clumsy, which turned out to not be the case at all, but I’m guessing the Switch (or, indeed, the PS4 version) possibly isn’t the most pure way to play Cotton.
The last game mode is Time Attack, which is a kind of online caravan mode that you can set at either 2 or 5 minutes to compete in onboard leaderboards. Here you’ll find yourself in a huge Roman Colosseum-type arena, packed with spectators, that scrolls endlessly (or for 5 minutes, at least) and throws masses of enemies at you so you can put all that stuff you learnt earlier about shooting crystals and fever modes into practice against other players from around the world! The setting doesn’t quite fit with Cotton (except, maybe, when the sun starts setting as the timer runs low), but this is a hell of a lot of fun, apart from being a stark reminder that you’re really not that good at this yet!
For a game that can be finished in half an hour or so, you’re getting an amazing amount of game with Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! There’s the crazy looks, crazy sounds, crazy gameplay and just general craziness of Arrange mode, offering an accessible, modern, polished and did I mention crazy bullet-hell kind of horizontal shooter with a ton of depth if you want it. Then there’s the purity and best-in-class old-school aesthetic of the best version of a pioneering old arcade game that still stands tall with the best of the genre, and also has never been properly available here before! And there’s also the Time Attack mode that will decide if you’re good or not for you, however far you think you’ve come, and if you’re not, then back to Arrange mode with you because there’s sure to be more score you can tease out of that to help you on your way!
I have two go-to horizontal shooters on the Switch – Thunder Force AC and P-47. Whenever I get a quiet minute, or it’s half time in the football on the telly, I’ll fire up one of those and remember that you don’t get good at these things in 15 minute bursts once a week, but I’ll have a great time doing so! Now I’ve got a third and a fourth option with Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! Stunning game in 1991, in 1993 and now in 2021. Take your pick!