This might not come as a surprise to anyone who has been around the toaster for a while, but I love shmups. As a genre, they deliver fast-paced, addictive action without any of the fluff. You can pick one up, play for 20 minutes, and walk away feeling like you had an absolute blast. That being said, the genre is niche. Shmups come, and shmups go, but the truly great ones stick in the communities minds. Magical Night Dreams Cotton 2 came out on the Sega Saturn way back when and has never been seen again – until now.
Cotton Is Back!
Along with Magical Night Dreams Cotton Boomerang and Guardian Force, the Saturn Tribute brings three legendary classics to modern audiences. Cotton 2, which is actually the fourth game in the Cotton series, takes a well-established genre and formula and turns it on its head. Cotton 2 might look like a traditional title, but it is far from it.
Right off the bat, if you play Cotton 2 like any other shmup on the market, you are going to have a bad time. Cotton’s damage is pitifully low, her sprite is huge and she moves like a tank. Add to this a high bullet density and buckets of enemies, and things are looking grim. But all is not lost. Cotton 2 has many systems and mechanics that not only make the process easier to manage but also uniquely brilliant.
Cotton 2 controls more like a fighter than anything else. Your basic shot acts more like a jab than a primary method of attack. Inputting in half circle motions, and various other fighting game inputs causes Cotton to unleash a special attack. This could be a powerful tornado shot, a wide shot, or even a burst of bullets aimed above and below her. These attacks are not only more damaging than her standard shot, but also key to messing with the Seal system.
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If you kill an enemy with one of your command attacks, then that enemy is enveloped in a magical field. If another enemy gets close to that field, then it will cause a chain explosion, resulting in entire enemy formations getting vaporized instantly. Chaining like this not only nets you points, but it makes the game substantially easier. Basic enemies can take a pounding with your standard shot, but a single tornado command can wipe out whole hordes of enemies. You can even turn on Command shortcuts, which map most of them to buttons on your controller – a welcome addition.
If Cotton shoots a Sealed enemy, she starts to juggle it. This allows you to gently nudge it towards other enemy formations to continue the chain of carnage. On top of that, the more you shoot a sealed enemy, the more points it’s worth when that bubble finally pops. Shoot it enough times, and it will drop a huge ball of points and a large healing item. Utilizing these systems not only nets you more points, healing, and higher damage, but it reduces the number of enemies on screen and the number of bullets your chonky sprite needs to dodge. Every stage is set up to allow maximum destruction with a little bit of practice, rewarding you every step of the way.
Bosses and mini-bosses are also affected by this system. Both seem to have ludicrously high health pools and attack patterns that can only be described as unfair for a game starring a lass this disproportionately massive. Every boss encounter, mini or not, can be felled by knowing how to exploit the seal system. A giant lobster may seem like a dangerous foe, but an observant player will notice his body is segmented due to its carapace. Shoot the tip of its tail with a couple of tornado commands and then his whole body will erupt into a chain explosion as each segment triggers the next- killing it instantly.
As fun as this system is to mess around with – and believe me, it’s an absolute riot, especially with a friend in co-op – there is more to Cotton 2 than just this. Cotton can also grab objects, enemies, and even Sealed enemies. With a single button press, you can yeet all manner of objects across the screen and deal huge damage. This is most obviously useful for turning your Sealed foes into tactical nukes, but there is more to it than that. Some bosses brandish hefty armaments. You better believe a tiny pre-teen girl can overpower a club-wielding ogre and use that club to conk him on the bonce.
The final piece of the Cotton 2 tapestry is the magic system. Cotton is a witch, after all, so she has access to some pretty powerful screen clears. Cotton can hold up to three magical gems, and these give her power over the elements. Red; fire, Blue; Ice; Green; wind, and White; heavenly laser beams of death. With a single button press, Cotton can expend a gem’s magic and unleash a visually impressive hurricane or fire dragon, to name a few.
There is some risk-reward to this system, however. Cotton 2 is nothing but layered. Cotton’s basic attacks and commands are affected by what gem she has in hand at any given time. How Sealed enemies act is based entirely on your magic gem, and even your attack hitboxes alter based on what you are using. You need to plan your strategy around your gems, and using all of them completely removes your ability to Seal.
I cannot praise Cotton 2’s gameplay enough. It’s deep, unique, and a total hoot. The game even looks gorgeous, with some of the best sprite work the Saturn had to offer. Beautifully detailed sprites, lavish backgrounds, and not a single dip in framerate. Cotton 2 also rocks a fantastic soundtrack – arguably one of the best the genre has to offer. Each stage gets you pumped with these catchy masterpieces that have stood the test of time. There are even some remixes thrown in here too, which got the Cotton fan in me all giddy. Cotton never shuts up mind you, and you can’t turn that nonsense off.
If I were to end the review here, I would give this game a hefty score that is brushing up against a perfect 10. Unfortunately, the review doesn’t end here, and I need to talk about the port itself. Let me say straight away, it ain’t great. I’ll start with the positives first. The port has to save states, a rewind feature, and the ability to enable Slow Mode, which, as the name implies, slows the game down. These are all welcome features that deserve praise.
Here come the negatives. Cotton 2 has not been translated to English – not fully. Cotton is known for its over-the-top, anime-style cutscenes and charming dialogue. You don’t get this here. What you get is text box after text box of Japanese gibberish. This was quite the letdown and screams lazy. That pales in comparison to the input delay that eats away at the game’s longevity. Cotton 2 suffers from a staggeringly high 10 frames of delay. Whilst this doesn’t make the game impossible to play, it does make the game noticeably sluggish. To put into context, Cotton 2 has two-to-three times more delay than your standard port.
For newbies to the genre, this won’t be a massive issue. The game is still playable – heck, it’s still enjoyable. Where this becomes a problem is when genre veterans try to go for 1CC runs or high scores. Those two things are what give shmups their replay value. Without incentive to push those boards, or try to nab that prestigious clear, this becomes a 20 minute game, not a 20 hour exercise in mastery.
Cotton 2: Saturn Tribute is an amazing game marred by a rushed, lazy port. A game this good deserves so much more than this. As it stands, unless you are a diehard Cotton fan, or you genuinely don’t care about frame delay, then give this game a miss. Hopefully, a patch will swoop in and fix the game up.
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