Review by SamIAm
Reviewed: 09/26/04 | Updated: 10/21/04
The Crowning Achievement of the Cute-em-up Queen
The Cotton series began in 1989 with an arcade game for the Sega System16 board called Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton. It was developed by Success and released in Japan and the US. For its time, Cotton was a very creative shooter in terms of both gameplay and the design of its setting, which set it apart from all other games around. With a unique main character of a cute anime witch and a sexy fairy for her sidekick, Cotton saw enough acclaim and success to merit a career in video games. A few years later, Success ported this game to the NEC Turbo Grafx-16 CD (or PCEngine CD in Japan), added a rocking CD soundtrack to the mix, and released it in both Japan and the US. The home version of Cotton became one of the best titles for its system, but unfortunately, so few people in the US owned the console that Cotton would continue to remain obscure outside of her nation of origin. Sadly, after the first installment of the series, Success has been reluctant to release any other Cotton game, arcade or home version, in the west at all.
However, Cotton continued to receive attention in Japan all through the 1990s. In 1993, two years after the release of the PCEngine CD version of Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton, it was ported yet again to the Japanese X68000 computer, and with updated graphics over the PCE-CD version. Around the same time, Success released a re-hashed (and admittedly half-assed) episode of the original Cotton on the Super Nintendo, titled Cotton 100%. Finally, when Success wondered if Sega, makers of the original arcade games hardware, should get a port on their SegaCD console, they instead opted to make the next game in the series on the Sega Genesis. That game, released in August 1994, was Panorama Cotton.
Unlike its horizontally scrolling predecessors, Panorama Cotton is a chase-view shooter, very similar in gameplay mechanics to the classic Space Harrier. In a nutshell, the player controls the shooting vehicle within a completely two dimensional area, while enemies, bullets, and other obstacles work within a confined three dimensional zone in front of the vehicle. The term chase-view comes from the way the player is fixed in a position behind the vehicle, as though chasing it.
Panorama Cotton goes above and beyond its peers in the chase-view sub-genre in almost every aspect. The most important of all of these, of course, is gameplay, and Cotton doesnt disappoint. First, with regard to control, many chase-view shooters suffer problems related to the way they work in pseudo-3D. The strange and unnatural perspective often leads to messy control and difficulties in making well judged responses to enemies and their attacks. Ironically, Space Harrier, the very first chase-view shooter, does not suffer from this at all, and its because it still tries to adhere to 2D mechanics as much as possible. Panorama Cotton mimics Space Harrier very closely in this regard, which is why its control is as tight as one could hope for.
The level at which Panorama Cottons gameplay exceeds the others begins with the capabilities of Cotton herself. Space Harrier only had a single-shot type gun, while other such shooters opted to add only things like screen clearing bombs. Cotton, on the other hand, has 5 different levels of power for her shots based on experience gained by shooting enemies. Better yet, she has access to up to 6 different magic spells, with a variety of different effects between them. Finally, Cotton has the unique ability to control the speed of her broom; that is, players can change the rate at which they fly through stage (enemies act faster as well), and there are generous time bonuses available for anyone who can manage high speeds.
The true beauty of Panorama Cottons gameplay design comes through in the form of the construction of the stages. Other chase shooters seem to know only how to move forward into the screen, but Panorama Cotton takes the opportunity to scroll horizontally, vertically, diagonally, and at all sorts of other angles while maintaining the chase-view. On top of that, each stage is quite unique to the others, and several of them utilize multiple stage paths. Realizing all this, games world takes on a depth much greater than any of its relatively bland peers.
The other great asset of Panorama Cottons gameplay is the placing and behavior of the enemies. No other chase-view offers so much variety in this department, yet there are no shortcomings to be found in this game whatsoever. All enemies and obstacles are completely fair; when they hit you, its your fault. This game also lives up to the series' reputation of having exceptionally creative enemies, even to the point that they take on their own character. Few games can boast that.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is not completely solid, and its few minor flaws are what keep me from giving Panorama Cotton a full 10/10. My main complaint is that a couple of the magic spells couldve been executed differently to make them more useful. Honestly, I avoid getting some of them, because they can be a great impediment in certain situations. Also, Cottons sprite looks great, but its big enough that the player will have a hard time seeing around it at times, which is a frequent problem with these types of games. Then theres the scoring system, which is reasonably well laid out, but doesnt offer enough bonuses to allow for a wide score spectrum. This wouldnt be as much of a problem if the game wasnt quite as easy, but it is, and thats another little problem in itself. Finally, although it certainly wasnt the fault of the designers, some of the scaling is choppy enough to cause some confusion to new players, and occasionally the game will suffer some heavy lag, which can be tough to deal with. None of these faults are really major, but they are there, and as much as I love this game, I have to acknowledge them.
In spite of any aforementioned problems, when it comes to graphics, Panorama Cotton still manages to be arguably the single most impressive title on its system. In fact, as a technical demonstration of the capabilities of the Genesis, it is a step above any of the other well known wonders. Gunstar Heroes, Red Zone, Vectorman, they all play second fiddle to Panorama Cotton, if only because it has so many tricks up its sleeve. Along with pushing the ceiling in terms of sprite manipulation, Panorama Cotton boasts deep parallax, scaling and rotation, warping and mode-7 effects, and even pseudo-polygonal corridors that are guaranteed to impress. It also makes remarkable use of the Genesis color palette and loads levels dynamically as you fly through them. If all that doesnt sound impressive, imagine many of these things happening simultaneously.
But best of all, the graphics of Panorama Cotton have their own style, and theyre like nothing else. All I can say is that everything is extremely creative and unique, as well as psychedelic and intense. Its enough that this game is one that I would consider a work of art, and stylistically an embodiment of the best in an era of video games.
Finally, I cant help but put in a good word for the story and setting of this game, which go hand in hand with the graphics. I wont bother to explain everything in detail, but I do have to make note of how outstanding it all is. RPG fans might not find it as engrossing and fulfilling as some of their favorites in that genre, but its silly to expect that much from a shooter. Panorama Cotton puts together a splendid combination of a suitable, light-hearted plot and kooky characters, and places them in a very fitting anime-fantasy setting. The introduction and ending sequences are played out with remarkable animated cutscenes that are an achievement in themselves on the Genesis, and they construct and conclude the plot very enjoyably. Better yet, the progression of the stages is actually logical, and it makes for one of the most imaginative journeys in the history of shooters. In the end, few games have as much heart as this one.
The music coming from the Panorama Cotton could be fairly criticized as being overly simple and repetitious, even for a Genesis title. Thats an opinion I can respect, but I find myself enjoying the music anyway simply because its catchy, there are no bad songs, and every tune fits its setting perfectly. The music suits the style of the game so well that I actually cant imagine anything that would be better, other than maybe extended remixes of the original tunes. As it stands, I really have no qualms with Panorama Cottons soundtrack.
Regardless of what one thinks of the melody, however, just about everyone will agree that the types of sounds coming from the Genesis are just as impressive as the graphics. The music uses well chosen instrumentation that is about as clean as it gets, and it also uses QSound stereo. The sound effects are simply phenomenal, to the point that they rival many 32-bit games. To hear is to believe with this one.
Without an intricate scoring system and lots of big bonuses, and without a high degree of challenge, it may seem like Panorama Cotton doesnt offer much in the way of replay value. This can be true for some, but anyone who likes the game in the first place will probably find that all the alternate paths and fun gimmicks this game has to offer will keep them coming back again and again. Ive had this game for over a year now, and I still enjoy playing it about once a week.
Its a crying shame that Panorama Cotton is so incredibly rare. I dont know how many copies were produced (Ive heard less than 10,000), but I have yet to see this title go for less than $100. I understand that for a lot of gamers, thats just too much to spend on a single game, and for the most part, I agree. However, I still strongly encourage anyone who can find a way to play this game on their Genesis to do so (emulation is OK, but it doesnt do the game justice in my opinion). If Panorama Cotton rubs you the right way, then youre in for a wonderful treat.
Dont forget to check out the Cotton installments on the Sega Saturn, titled Magical Night Dreams: Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang (essentially a remix of Cotton 2). Both games are horizontal shooters like the original, but they employ gameplay mechanics that are totally unique to any shooter out there. The new system works, and the games are great fun. Not to mention, theyre some of the most beautiful 2D games ever made.
Theres also an episode of Cotton on the Dreamcast called Rainbow Cotton, and its actually a chase-view shooter like Panorama Cotton. I have not played this one, and Ive heard mixed reviews, so youll just have to investigate it yourself. Its the last major game in the series.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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