Blissful Death: The technical marvel that is Panorama Cotton

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

Panorama Cotton is the third game in the Cotton series after the original game and Cotton 100% — which of course means that the game actually called Cotton 2 is the fourth entry in the series — and, on its original release, was an absolute technical marvel.

And it’s important to remember that. Panorama Cotton originally came out on the Mega Drive in 1994, and the Mega Drive was a 16-bit platform that, unlike its main rival the Super NES, did not have any native quasi-3D capabilities. While the SNES had its legendary “Mode 7” capabilities, which allowed sprites and images to be scaled and rotated smoothly as if they were flat objects moving in 3D space, the Mega Drive had no such dedicated hardware.

Panorama Cotton

This, of course, makes the existence of Panorama Cotton all the more remarkable, since Panorama Cotton is a game based almost entirely around impressive scaling and rotation effects. Okay, that scaling and rotation may not be quite as smooth and slick as the Super NES might have been capable of — but to see the Mega Drive pulling this off at all is nothing short of incredible, particularly since there’s a solid game attached to the experience, too.

In Panorama Cotton, we once again take control of the young witch Nata de Cotton. This time around, she has learned that nefarious forces have been burning the Willow candies that she loves so much. This, of course, is not something Cotton will stand for under any circumstances, and so she sets off once again with her fairy companion Silk to put a stop to this great injustice. Oh, and she might save the Fairy Queen Velvet from an unknown chaotic influence in the process, but who cares about that? Certainly not our Cotton.

Panorama Cotton marks another shift in aesthetic from the previous Cotton games. While the first Cotton had a fairly melancholic feel and Cotton 100% sported an appealing pastel-shade look, Panorama Cotton goes full-on psychedelic, with abstract level layouts, vibrant cycling colours and a journey that would make no sense anywhere other than in a video game.

Panorama Cotton

Over the course of your travels with Cotton and Silk, you’ll follow a sparkling river along the ground, burst into an underwater tunnel, get flipped around and spun in every direction in a network of twisty little passages and have the opportunity to admire all manner of strange, otherworldly scenery and mysterious ruins. It’s a consistent delight, and each level tends to take you through several distinct areas of scenery just to keep things interesting.

In terms of gameplay, Panorama Cotton is most commonly compared to Sega’s classic Space Harrier in that you view your character from directly behind, move them around the screen in order to dodge objects and enemy projectiles, and keep blasting. As in previous Cotton games, our heroine also has access to her magic spells, which as usual each act in their own very distinct way rather than being simple “smart bombs”.

Blasting your way through enemies earns experience points, and every level up increases the power of Cotton’s shots — you need to be a bit careful, though, since taking damage also reduces Cotton’s experience points by quite a bit and can even lead to a level down if you lose too much. In Panorama Cotton, you don’t have lives; Cotton instead has a health bar that allows her to take quite a few hits before expiring — you can also replenish this slightly every 50,000 points you score, so keep those magic bullets flying and those enemies exploding!

Panorama Cotton

3D shooters from this period can sometimes feel a bit mindless, but Cotton neatly sidesteps this potential issue with some enormously varied levels, some of which are quite reminiscent of what Nintendo did on the Super NES with Star Fox a year earlier.

In some stages, you’ll be flying down tunnels and have to anticipate which directions doors and arrangements of blocks are going to open or move; in others, you’ll be flying sideways rather than into the screen; in others still, you’ll need to take care with your shots, since some enemies will be able to reflect them back at you! And there are some super-creative bosses, too, many of which make use of some “non-shooter” game mechanics such as matching pairs of cards and playing rock-paper-scissors.

Panorama Cotton’s stages are all quite long, though thankfully they feature several checkpoints along the way; this means if you do happen to run out of health and need to continue, you don’t necessarily lose all your progress on a particular stage. You’ll want to improve your skills and try not to die, though — not only does continuing reset your score, there’s also only a limited number of credits to use. No credit-feeding your way right to the end with Panorama Cotton, no sir.

All this ties in quite nicely with the fact that Panorama Cotton is a game that was designed specifically for the home rather than being ported from an arcade machine. Arcade-style games that were developed only for home systems tend to inherently be a lot more fair towards the player because they have no obligation to try and extract money from them; instead, they can focus on providing a more substantial experience that is designed to appeal in the long term.

Panorama Cotton

This is why Panorama Cotton has such substantial stages, and why it deliberately places a hard cap on how many times the player is allowed to fail before they have to start again. Panorama Cotton wants to give the player a challenge that will last them a while — and it knows that not everyone is interested in high score-chasing as a means of extending the lifespan of an arcade-style game. As such, if you want to actually beat Panorama Cotton, you’ll need to put some practice in and really learn the levels — and that might take you some time.

This isn’t to say there’s no longevity for those who do manage to 1CC the thing on their first attempt, mind. Besides the aforementioned high-score chasing, there are a few ways to tweak the difficulty of your experience — with some of the most interesting being the ability to start the game with less health but a significant score bonus. Can you still beat the game if Cotton starts in a state where she can only take a couple of hits before carking it? If so, the rewards are potentially great.

Panorama Cotton is a great game and, like the other recent modern releases in the series, it’s a delight to finally see it freely available to western audiences. Like with Cotton 100%, Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang, it’s a shame that these rereleases don’t come with English translations for the story sequences like Cotton Reboot! does, but solid shoot ’em up gameplay transcends all national boundaries and is universally appealing. So if you’ve spent years lusting after the Mega Drive original — which was supposedly only produced in extremely limited numbers — now’s a great time to finally see what Sega’s little 16-bit wonderbox was really capable of in the right hands.

Panorama Cotton

You can even get yourself a nice physical copy to put on your shelf. Strictly Limited Games is producing cartridges for the American Genesis and PAL Mega Drive as well as collector’s editions for PS4 and Nintendo Switch, plus standard editions for both PS4 and Switch also. These are currently expected to ship in February of 2022.

In the meantime, if you want to enjoy Panorama Cotton right now, it’s available digitally for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. I’ll see you in the skies. WILLOW!

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Pete Davison
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