Not every shmup is about space ships blasting laser missiles at Giger-esque alien monstrosities. Sometimes, a shmup is just about pastel anime girls firing fairy spells at cute critters and silly ghosts. It’s a prolific subgenre of arcade shooters called cute-’em-ups, and if you ask any old-school fan to name the game that got the cutie-ball rolling, it’d be Cotton. This decade’s old bullet-blasting series has mostly been a collector’s fantasy for ages due to its rarity – but to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the series, a slew of Cotton titles have gotten ports and hefty remakes on modern consoles. Now, to cap off the anniversary delights, a brand new entry in the series is here called Cotton Fantasy – and it’s the cutest shoot-em-up I’ve ever played.
There’s only one main mode in Cotton Fantasy, but don’t be dismayed – it’s a hefty, story-driven shmup campaign that lasts way longer than any standard old-school shmup run. You’ll blast through almost a dozen stages, getting to choose the order you tackle them as you navigate a world-map full of varied locations like a cursed tomb or a gothic castle. Every stage is bookended by super cute and ridiculously funny cutscenes focused on protagonist Cotton and her incredibly reluctant partner in crime Silk. Silk can’t stand Cotton, and it shows. Cotton only cares about eating rare candies called Willows – and it also shows.
The two bombastic anime girls argue nonstop throughout the course of the game as they just barely manage to navigate a variety of challenges that almost always get exacerbated by Cotton’s wild impatience. The art in these scenes is a treat, styled after the adorable 80s’ cover and character art that the franchise is known for. Shmups are rarely about the story, but for your first time through, it adds a huge amount of enjoyment to Cotton Fantasy’s campaign. It’s a massive shame, though, that each stage features a bunch of audio-only character banter in Japanese that never gets translated or subtitled.
Replaying the campaign is highly encouraged, though, thanks to how many different ways there are to experience it. You’ve got three different difficulty options that alter enemy bullet patterns, boss behaviour, and more. The beefier customisation, though, comes from your cast of playable characters – six to start with, and a seventh unlocked after beating the game. These characters aren’t just cute cameos from other iconic Japanese sidescrollers – they massively alter the way you play the game.
Protagonist Cotton operates by picking up multi-coloured crystals dropped by enemies – each crystal type changes her bullet pattern, levels up her weapon power, and gives her different kinds of screen-clearing magic abilities to bust out. Ria, meanwhile, is basically the anime girl equivalent of playing as a high-octane spaceship. Crystals are of no concern – you just need to blast beams and toss bombs. The other cyber-shooter, Fine, lives or dies based on a constantly ticking timer that only gets replenished by gems your fallen foes drop.
I usually run through a shoot-em-up campaign once or twice before feeling satisfied, but with how varied the Cotton Fantasy cast is, I ended up diving back in for hours. It helps that beating the game with each character also unlocks a themed bonus stage that’s added to your selectable pool of levels during the campaign. In a world where so many shmup titles entice replayability with multiple game modes and endless score chasing, the fact that Cotton Fantasy bundles score-chasing antics with a breadth of different play styles and unlockable levels is an awesome change of pace that makes this a cute-em-up worth collecting.