Blissful Death: The tangled threads of Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

The original Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams and its subsequent modernised Cotton Reboot! release are thoroughly lovely games. They’re challenging but accessible; easy to learn, hard to master. The perfect arcade games. Cotton 2: Magical Night Dreams, meanwhile, is an entirely different beast.

This isn’t to say that Cotton 2 isn’t a thoroughly lovely game, either, mind you — it most certainly is — but for those of you coming from the relative simplicity of the original or its rebooted incarnation, you should probably be ready for a bit of a rude awakening!

Cotton 2

Like its predecessor, Cotton 2 hasn’t been readily available in the west until quite recently. But now, it’s available as part of a set of three “Saturn Tribute” games released for Nintendo Switch, along with its remixed version Cotton Boomerang (which we’ll talk about in a moment) and another excellent shooter called Guardian Force, which is a subject for another day.

Unlike Cotton Reboot!, however, Cotton 2 hasn’t been fully translated — what you get as part of the “Saturn Tribute” package is simply a straight port of the original Japan-only Sega Saturn release, with a few modern extras such as online leaderboards and high-resolution bezel art to fill up the rest of a 16:9 screen.

This is a bit of a shame, but it’s still pretty noteworthy in its own right — Sega Saturn emulation has, up until now, been regarded as very difficult and impractical to implement, so for one of the platform’s most beloved games to finally make it to today’s consoles with minimal compromise is a big deal — even if it means we still have to play it with Japanese text for the story sequences.

Cotton 2

Only the story sequences, mind; the rest of Cotton 2 (and Cotton Boomerang, for that matter) is fully in English, so you can navigate the menus without needing to know how to read Japanese text. And if you don’t fancy skipping through cutscenes filled with text you can’t read, you can actually turn the cutscenes off altogether in the game’s options menu and simply play through the game’s levels in succession.

The story behind Cotton 2 sees our greedy witch heroine Cotton and her new rival Appli (who can be controlled by a second player) traversing a Halloween-themed world in an attempt to retrieve the magical Water Willow and save the Pumpkin Kingdom from ruin. In true Cotton tradition, both Cotton and Appli are kind of dumb, greedy and selfish, though their respective companions Silk the fairy and Needle the hat do their best to keep them in line — usually unsuccessfully.

When you start playing, Cotton 2 might initially seem fairly similar to its predecessor with a few tweaks — Cotton (and/or Appli) now has a life bar, for example, rather than simply losing a life when she takes damage. That said, the default settings for the game mean that you only have a single life before having to continue — though this can be changed in the options menu.

Cotton 2

Indeed, you can actually play Cotton 2 as a reasonably straightforward shoot ’em up if you so desire; simply hammer the fire button to shoot, use the Magic button to unleash spells, which work like bombs, and do your best to survive. You can likely make it through the whole game like this — though you won’t get particularly high scores.

Nope, to truly get the best scores in Cotton 2 you’ll need to fully engage with its more… peculiar mechanics.

Chief among these is the concept of the “Command Shot”, which allows Cotton or Appli to unleash various types of special shot by inputting fighting game-style directional commands prior to pressing the fire button. Alternatively, you can set it so the extra buttons on the Saturn (or Switch) control pad automatically set off the various types of Command Shot, which is a much more enjoyable and practical way to play.

The Command Shots aren’t just different shot patterns — though a couple of them do allow you to hit targets above and below you a little more easily. No, their main function is to “seal” enemies into a ball of magic, at which point you can do several things with them.

Cotton 2

Firstly, you can shoot a sealed enemy repeatedly for a bonus according to how many times you hit them; this also produces a Willow that Cotton or Appli can eat in order to restore their health, so it’s a very helpful technique to master if you’re facing a particularly intense onslaught of enemies.

Secondly, and perhaps most significantly for the sake of your score, you can grab and throw a sealed enemy into other enemies, which causes chain reactions of explosions and seals to happen. The longer you can keep a single chain going, the more points and experience you’ll get — yes, the RPG-style power-up system is back — and as such you’ll want to watch out for conveniently arranged enemy formations such as nice long strings of popcorn enemies that can be easily chained together.

This latter mechanic completely changes the feel of Cotton 2 from a straightforward shoot ’em up into something that, at times, feels more akin to a puzzle game — indeed, when setting off massive chain reactions of enemies that last for a significant chunk of a level, it’s easy to see how Neo Geo classic “puzzle shooter” Twinkle Star Sprites drew inspiration from the Cotton series — and likely Cotton 2 in particular.

It’s a real delight to play once you get your head around what you’re “supposed” to be doing — but it’s also quite an adjustment if you’re coming straight from the original Cotton. But what is life without a bit of spicy variety to enjoy, eh?

Cotton Boomerang

Speaking of variety, Cotton Boomerang is best thought of as something of a “companion piece” to Cotton 2 in that rather than being an entirely new game, it is instead something of a remix of Cotton 2. It’s quite a bit harder, too, thanks to some tweaks to the mechanics that make quite a difference to the overall feel of what is going on.

Probably the most significant difference between Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang is the fact that the health bar is no more; instead, your playable character can only take a single hit before dying. However, by default you do have three characters in reserve, which effectively act as lives. And those characters don’t have to be just Cotton or Appli — at the start of the game (and upon every continue) you can choose from a selection of characters, which include several different coloured incarnations of both Cotton and Appli, as well as Silk and Needle as their own independent characters.

Each character has their own distinct shot pattern as well as a favoured element, meaning that they all handle a little bit differently, and this adds some interesting variety to the game. You can actually switch semi-freely between them during gameplay, too; the elemental crystals that power Cotton’s spells in Cotton 2 have been replaced by “Changes”, which allow you to swap between the characters while causing a large explosion. Interestingly, the spells that were “bombs” in Cotton 2 can now be unleashed simply by holding the fire button, and there’s no limit on how much you can use these.

Cotton Boomerang

Once again, Command Shots are an important part of the experience, and thankfully you can still map them to the extra buttons on the controller. Since there’s no health bar, the sealing of enemies is now entirely in the service of high scores rather than healing oneself, which changes the balance of the game somewhat; when coupled with the greater number of bullets on screen — and the fact that sealed enemies can often cancel larger projectiles, adding to your chain — you can really hammer out some huge scores if you time your orb throws properly.

It’s perhaps questionable as to whether or not you really need to own both Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang, since they’re both variations on the same theme — but they’re perhaps best thought of as the alternate modes seen in other console shoot ’em ups we’ve seen in the past, only as separate releases. The Cotton equivalent of something like Dodonpachi Resurrection’s “Black Label” or “Arrange” modes, in other words.

Back in the days when the Cotton series was only available through expensive imports of the Saturn versions, most people’s recommendation would probably be to go for Cotton Boomerang; while it’s a significantly tougher game than Cotton 2, it has a bit more variety and long-term interest with the various playable characters. But now they’re £13.49 each on the eShop — buying them both is less than half the price of Cotton Reboot! — it’s probably worth picking them both up if you want the truly complete Cotton experience.

Plus it’s also worth noting that Strictly Limited Games is doing a physical release of Cotton 2, Cotton Boomerang and Guardian Force all in one single package for £33.99 — get on that if you’re a collector, since there’s not a lot left at the time of writing!

Cotton Boomerang

Well, the truly complete Cotton 2 experience, I suppose — since there are still more Cotton games for us to explore. That’s a tale for another day, though!

Note: Some players have complained of input lag in both Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang; we didn’t notice anything that affected the gameplay too much during our playthroughs, but a patch is, at the time of writing, currently being worked on to address the issue for those who have encountered it.

Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang are available on the Nintendo eShop.

Thanks to the folks at ININ Games for the review codes.

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Pete Davison
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