Trick or treat! I’m taking a break from handing out habaneros to bring you another thrilling review. I know it’s not Hallowe’en, but I can be tricky like that. Today’s a good day for tricks.
Cuddly witch Cotton is more interested in treats. She loves sugary “willow” candies, and she’ll brave creepy forests, foggy caverns, and dark cathedrals of dread to get them. Along the way, she’ll save the fairy kingdom, but she’s not worried about that. She just wants candy! As in Cotton’s first adventure — perhaps you played it on the Turbo CD — a nearly-naked fairy named Silk tags along to play the role of “option” to the broom-bound witch. Sexy sylphs make for more pleasing cutscenes than glowing orbs of light do, that’s for sure.
The original Cotton was just another cute shoot-em-up, a game best known for its fanciful aesthetics, but Cotton 2: Magical Night Dreams is a breed otherwise unseen. That’s not because of shooter nuances like “the fireball power-up actually launches a series of fireballs” — Cotton 2′s originality is apparent as soon as you fly up to a malevolent nymph, grab it, and then hurl the saucy wench back at her fiendish flying friends. This is Super Mario Bros. 2 meets Parodius, and tossing enemies around is just as fun as it was back in 1988.
By executing fighter-style commands, Cotton and her witchy rival/partner Appli (this is a two-player cooperative shooter) cast magical spells to seal vegetable-spewing jack o’lanterns or pitchfork-wielding demons inside elemental cages: wind, ice, fire, or the rare-but-worth-it light. This creates a big glowing monster-ball that can be thrown — igniting or freezing any other beasts it bounces against — or shot to rack up additional points.
If Cotton keeps slamming these spheres into enemies, then she’ll create a chain combo, which is worth lots of points. That’s right, points. You still care about high scores, don’t you? If not, for shame — back to Sega Saturn school for you! Cotton 2 is a beautiful game for the eyes, and those who really try to master its mechanics will discover that Cotton 2 is a beautiful game for the mind. Creating modest chains is easy, but creating massive chains is not. True maniacs can even pop the disc into their PC to read a text file about the game’s physics (look for maniax.txt).
Back in late ’97, Cotton 2 made developer Success appear poised for stardom. From the first stage, it feels high-budget and extraordinarily well-planned. The charming 2D visuals, quirky concepts, and ability to excel beyond simply “winning” all come together in a digital bliss that domestic Saturn owners were too often denied. When the valiant writer Sho mentions bowing down in supplication to the Sega Saturn, this is the kind of game he’s talking about. In addition to the arcade mode, there’s also a “Saturn” mode that noticeably alters the visuals while mixing up enemy placement and boss attacks.
It’s tragic that Success didn’t thrive in the gaming world, although they still make a lot of cool games that no one buys (see: The Dark Spire). It’s a harsh world for developers. Thanks to games like Cotton 2, it’s a beautiful world for players.
Random fact: If you combine the initials of all the default high scores, it spells out “BIG COTTON PANTSU”.