Monday, January 7, 2013

Try this game: Cottoning to Cotton

at 6:24 PM
You're forgiven if you've never heard of Cotton. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go now in love and peace to serve the SNES. Amen.

Does the word "cotton" meaning "to come to like" come from a mispronunciation of "caught on"? Perhaps with some kind of Boston accent? Seems wildly unlikely. Etymologists, write in.

Seriously, Ad Caption Guy???
Cotton is a pretty tiny series of shoot-'em-ups (shmups) spanning from the early '90s to about '03. The chronology is so convoluted that I'm just going to refer you to Hardcore Gaming 101, though suffice to say that there are only two primary series entries: Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams and Cotton 2: Magical Night Dreams, both of which debuted in arcades and were subsequently ported/arranged*/spun-off onto every major Japanese console of the time. Only a single - hilariously chosen - release ever made it to the West: the Turbo-CD port of the first arcade game. The series graced every console from the Famicom (NES) to the Dreamcast, yet the publishers chose the Turbo-CD version to bring to North America? Did you know that less than three (3!) Turbo-CD units were owned by live humans in its active lifespan? Did you know that if there were as many humans as there are molecules in the universe, and were the Turbo-CD's sales numbers adjusted proportionally, it still would have moved less units than the N64 did with Earth's existent population of ~6 billion? Did you know that science considers it a statistical impossibility to own a Turbo-CD? 

Let me give you a quick sense of Cotton's raison d'raisin before I send you off to your local ROM conservatory to legally enjoy the most fulfilling of life's pleasures, trying out new games. The name itself, Cotton, refers to a lil' witch gal who serves as the series' recurring protagonist, perennially accompanied by one of anime's other great tropes: a completely inappropriately clothed buxom fairy. This bipolar protagonistic pairing sets the scene for a veritable Lethal Weapon of tales, though Cotton ought to be exclaiming "I'm too young for this shit!" in place of Danny Glover's filmic line. Generally the series is undeservedly lumped into that deservedly unpopular subgenre, the cute-'em-up**, but aside from Cotton herself, the game's fantasy setting is relatively dark and serious. Check out these screenshots and videos if you don't believe me.

I've experimented with everything in the series short of Dreamcast's Rainbow Cotton and found that you can basically get the full experience through just three games, which I'll describe in detail... after these messages!
A screen from the surprisingly dark arcade original
Maerchen Adventure Cotton 100% (Super Famicom):
For those just being introduced to the shmup, a fast-paced and accessible experience
Though the sprites have strangely become cutesy, this is otherwise what Cotton is all about. A bare-bones level up / down system, one-hit deaths, bouncy power-ups a la Twinbee, and frequent boss battles. The pared down mechanics and forgiving balance make 100% a great place to start for anyone new to the genre. It's not too tough, keeps the scenery changing, and provides a pretty comprehensible scoring mechanic that is instructively tied to power-ups. If Gradius and R-Type scared the shit out of you and Fantasy Zone was a yawn, don't give up on the genre yet - MAC100% may be just the game you're looking for. And PLEASE do me a favor and appreciate the laziest title screen music ever.

Magical Night Dreams: Cotton 2 (Arcade):
For longtime shmup fans looking for a new experience, this is the Mischief Makers of the genre
Cotton 2 is kinda silly for a few reasons - it's definitely one of those games that you may not 'get' after dicking around for ten minutes, then you'll go to Youtube to check out a walkthrough and say, "OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH". Now that you can skip that step, we can talk about how the entire game revolves around grabbing enemies and tossing them out to ricochet off each other around the planet. In fact, the need to keep alive your makeshift projectiles (by shooting them, re-grabbing them, or making sure they keep hitting enemies) calls to mind pinball - turn the game on its side and turn off the scrolling, and you'd be damn close. It's a neat twist, if not necessarily brilliant, and I certainly can't think of another game that plays the same.

Panorama Cotton (Mega Drive):
For, well, anyone with even the slightest appetite for oldies. If you've enjoyed a single 16-bit game since 1994, you owe it to yourself to track this down
Here's the game that gives the whole series a reason to exist, and as the king of irony (Jeff Daniels) would have it, it's the most unique in terms of gameplay.  Panorama Cotton belongs to the tragically small genre of 3D rail-shmups (Star Fox, Space Harrier, and the present day Kid Icarus: Uprising and Sin & Punishment). Fans will get a kick out of seeing all the ideas of the series adapted into this presentation - this is still very much Cotton. Newcomers won't care about that, but have to be impressed by the extent to which the game pushes not just the Genesis, but 2D sprite games altogether. Beautiful aesthetics are about seeing a vision and pushing it through with utter disregard for technical limitation; while Panorama's choppy framerate and jaggies might turn off a blind snob, it's hard not to be blown away when the game takes you swooping over a cliff and down through a waterfall, or up into the skies above the clouds. This is the antithesis of Star Fox, and everything classics are made of. A complete fuck you to what "can" be accomplished.

So go play a Cotton game. Not because you're guaranteed to like it, but because I'm sure at least one of them is like nothing you've played before.

*arrange: a term relating almost exclusively to shmups, an arrange is like a remix of a song - same core elements with a new twist, be it new controls, score mechanics, or power-ups. Think Super Street Fighter II.

**cute-em-up: a shoot-em-up with "cutesy" style graphics and a comic tone, usually with very simple mechanics, large sprites, a slow pace, etc. See: Parodius.

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