Rainbow Cotton Review

I hadn’t heard of the Cotton series at all before this wave of ports, remasters, and surprise sequels kicked off in the last few years. My frame of reference for a lot of shoot-em-up history is through remasters and fan games, so getting an insight into how big Cotton was in the world of cute-em-ups has been really eye-opening. I thought all of the games in this series were varying takes on the same 2D bullet-hell style, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It turns out that a fully 3D entry in the series came out on Dreamcast all the way back in 2000, and at the time it wasn’t received all too well. Now, Rainbow Cotton is accessible and playable on modern hardware, but I’m not entirely sure if that accessibility translates to fun.

Rainbow Cotton, like the other games in this silly series, kicks off with what you could technically call “a story” – but ultimately it’s just an excuse to animate some quirky fairy girls and bring our protagonist Cotton back for another afternoon of spell-casting and candy-collecting. I really love all of the animated scenes in this game in particular, though. Both the anime-style opening cutscene and the pre-level animations of character portraits talking against a backdrop of the stage you’re about to visit are full of charm, and drop some of the cutesy chibi style of prior games for a more detailed, 90s anime OVA feel. It’s just a bummer that these cutscenes weren’t remastered in any meaningful way – they look like blurry YouTube rips and have a noticeable filter on them that sours the experience a bit.

Visuals in the actual game, though, are massively remastered and updated – in fact, they’re practically the only thing this re-release of Rainbow Cotton goes so hard to update. Unlike other games in the franchise, this entry goes for a Panzer Dragoon approach and has you piloting Cotton from behind as she flies through fully-3D stages. It feels massively ambitious for a 2000 Dreamcast game, and the visual upgrades remain faithful to that – resolution is high and colors are vivid, but enemy models and environments retain the low-detail chunkiness you’d expect from an early 3D game. It’s an interesting contrast, flying through a silky-smooth widescreen world while the sights and sounds you encounter scream old-school at you as they whizz by.

Unfortunately, a fresh coat of paint isn’t enough to make the ambitions of this Dreamcast rail shooter shine any brighter. Rainbow Cotton is not nearly as fun, fast, or responsive as it’s 2D shoot-em-up contemporaries in the series. It adapts the same core concepts from those games, with you firing standard bullets at enemies, grabbing the crystals they drop to charge your magic power or shooting said crystals first to change their color and swap into different elemental magic powers. My biggest problem with this 3D rendition is that there’s a complete lack of impact from projectiles fired by you and at you.

Cotton’s magic is slow, and quiet, and obscured by her large character model. Plus, you need to fire her small bullets manually in a carpal-tunnel-inducing fit. When I first started the game, I genuinely couldn’t tell if I was firing any bullets for a solid few minutes. Most enemies either float slowly toward you or fire bullets so fast they don’t register as projectiles, muddying the tension even further. Boss battles are at least impressive from a sense of scale and creativity, but the gameplay challenge presented there isn’t any more enjoyable.

Rainbow Cotton is far more enjoyable as a window into the past and a preservation of a piece of gaming history, but even on that front it stumbles. There are virtually no options, toggles, or extras to speak of in this game. The two major optional features are underwhelming – co-op mode only lets your 2nd player control a non-combative fairy on-screen to collect gems, and Retro Mode just slaps a warped CRT filter onto the current game instead of letting you play an actual emulation of the Dreamcast original. Plus, there’s the oversight of fairy chatter – your companion characters talk constantly in each level, and none of this dialogue is translated at all.

Overall, this new release of Rainbow Cotton is an incredibly mixed bag. I can’t say I had all that much fun playing it, but I can’t hate a game from this adorable historic franchise just for being a bit crusty. At the same time, though, trying to enjoy this as a piece of history is hard when it’s contained in such a bare-bones presentation and package. A die-hard fan of Cotton will love this release with no hesitations, but said fan will also want so much more from it, just like I do.

Summary
Rainbow Cotton is an interesting peak into the history of Dreamcast gaming, but it lacks the gameplay upgrades and presentation flourishes to make it a genuinely enjoyable game outside of that context.
Good
  • Fun to appreciate as a piece of cute-em-up history
  • Gorgeous old-school cutscene illustrations
Bad
  • Lack of options or toggles
  • Untranslated in-game dialogue
  • Slow, floaty, unsatisfying gameplay
6
Written by
I'm a writer, voice actor, and 3D artist living la vida loca in New York City. I'm into a pretty wide variety of games, and shows, and films, and music, and comics and anime. Anime and video games are my biggest vice, though, so feel free to talk to me about those. Bury me with my money.