Growing up there were certain games that had attained mythical status due to their rarity. Most of these games such as Radiant Silvergun, Psychic Killer Taromaru, and Harmful Park are imports but the occasional domestic release would enter those ranks. Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams was all but destined to obscurity: it was a late release for the Turbo Grafx CD add-on in the US and received little promotion. With that in mind for the longest time it was inhumanly expensive, sometimes approaching $1000 for a complete copy. Of course no game is worth anywhere near that much money but when judged on its merits and not price Cotton is solid all around.
As the first in the series it’s actually surprising how standard Fantastic Night Dreams is. While later games would flirt with a third person view to great success there really aren’t any stand out features present here. In fact I found Magical Chase, a similar game released around the same time, to be more impressive from a technical and gameplay perspective. Despite that however the game is still fun if a bit typical. Ignore the mystique surrounding the game due to its price and you’ll be entertained.
Mechanically the game is pretty simple. You have a normal shot and can drop bombs to target ground based enemies. Technically there aren’t any power-ups but you do gain experience which changes and increases the power of your regular shots. Rather than items enemies drop crystals which can be juggled to change it to one of three colors. Yellow is an experience boost, red is a dragon shot, and blue is a blast of thunder. You can hold up to four spells which need to be charged before release which unfortunately means there is no rapid fire. The only other weapons are fairies that will fight beside you one released from their cages; there’s no limit to how many you can gain provided you don’t die.
I suppose the subtitle Fantastic Night Dreams should have been the first clue but this is a pretty dark game compared to the cutesy later installments. The levels encompass such environments as cemeteries, dark volcanoes, creepy forests, and gothic castles. The enemies are pulled from just about everywhere and are the only evidence of the game’s cutesy theme. What’s not cute are the large bosses which are the game’s visual highlight. Oftentimes occupying half the screen these mayors are immaculately designed and are just as much fun to look at as well as battle.
Like many shooters this is not an easy beast to tame. Cotton is a fairly large target and it only takes one hit to die. Unfortunately death downgrades your power one level and by the midpoint you need all the help you can get. There is rarely a moment when several enemies aren’t crowding the screen from all angles which makes the lack of rapid fire really noticeable. One curious addition to this version is a moment of invincibility when casting a spell; abuse the hell out of it! You only have 3 continues but only the first used in a stage will continue where you left off. After that it’s back to the start which is pretty brutal. The difficulty combined with the game’s length mean you are at least getting your money’s worth out of the game.
As a port Hudson has done a pretty damn good job of sticking close to the arcade unit’s graphics. The resolution is lower and some background detail has been scaled back but other than that it’s a good match. Having said that this was not a looker in the arcade and it looks bland most of the time. Despite the wacky story the visual style is incredibly dark. It is a sharp contrast to the vibrant look the series would adapt going forward. Towards the end of the game it becomes more and more impressive with much bigger bosses and a fine amount of detail in the environment that will make you wish that amount of attention was given to the game’s opening levels.
Where the graphics might not impress the soundtrack more than makes up for it. The redbook audio soundtrack is a clear step up from the forgettable arcade soundtrack, heavy on the guitar licks and very energetic. It matches the game’s pace perfectly and is probably its best asset.
There are many better shooters for the system but that doesn’t mean Cotton isn’t worth a look. I really love the series despite their simplicity and just wish they had any kind of domestic presence. I’ll tell you right now that your best bet would be the import PlayStation release; its arcade perfect and only missing the better soundtrack but is significantly cheaper.