Cotton Fantasy Review - Screenshot 1 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

When it comes to the cute-’em-up sub-genre, the characterful witch Cotton and the series to which she lends her name are effectively royalty. There are other games that have been important in defining a niche where shmups’ staple fighter craft, tanks and laser turrets are replaced with kittens, candy canes and cuddly toys, of course. Konami’s Gradius spin-off series Parodius, and SEGA’s beloved Fantasy Zone titles, for example, have long delighted players and troubled collectors’ savings. But the Cotton games’ blend of charismatic presentation and hyperactive action has made them among the best loved shmups there are, cute or otherwise.

And now, amidst a flurry of Cotton ports and remasters timed to just about coincide with the first game’s 30th anniversary, Cotton Rock 'n' Roll: Superlative Night Dreams has arrived on Switch, landing shortly after two slightly distinct arcade versions. Western console owners will soon be able to pick up a digital and limited physical release locally under the name Cotton Fantasy — but importing a copy proved tricky to resist when the series’ name alone promises a bounty of quality. Fortunately, Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll almost entirely meets the expectation set by its heritage.

Cotton Fantasy Review - Screenshot 2 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Firing up Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll for the first time, however, it appears to be a rather bare bones offering. There is the main game mode, and the opportunity to practice single levels that you have completed. That could be deemed rather measly at a time when so many shmup releases go with bundling up several versions and arrangements in a single package — or even a collection of titles.

But Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll’s single game mode in fact offers a striking variety of different experiences, delivering not just depth of experience, but also tremendous breadth. There are a lot of ways to play — and master — what Success’ latest has to offer.

Before we get to that, though, it’s worth picking through the core game that sits at Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll’s heart. Firstly, this is no bullet hell shooter. The projectile count does have its moments in the later stage game, but early on bullets are notably low in number unless you crank up the difficulty. That doesn’t mean Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll doesn’t have plenty going on from the off — but it isn’t simply about pounding you with densely packed streams of neon ordnance.

Cotton Fantasy Review - Screenshot 3 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

What Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll is is pacey and energetic. Set in a cheerfully gothic world, it’s protagonist witch has set out to uncover the mystery of the disappearance of the series’ magical candy known as Willow. That takes her to a place exuding personality, where a flow of eccentric enemies constantly fill the screen. Things move fast, and thanks to a superb variety of approaches to level design, you’ll face all kinds of different challenges, from claustrophobic sections somewhat reminiscent of R-Type’s core gameplay to battles with level-sized flying fortresses, as well as vertically scrolling horizontal sections and races tearing through continually closing gaps. Play through from beginning to end, and you’re consuming a diverse feast of shmup experiences.

And it is the level design that is one of Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll’s strongest elements. Dynamic, detailed and full of sweeping set-pieces and elegant shifts around the player characters, they also prove that polygonal visuals can bring style and class to a game set in a 2D playfield. The odd character model is a little rough around the edges on closer inspection, but visually, Cotton’s latest presents a sumptuous world.

The bosses also showcase confident design flair, and are packed with interesting concepts, attacks that engender all kinds of different playstyles, and the same abundance of characters found throughout the game. Indeed, their only weakness is that the bosses don't last too long played at the default ‘Normal’ difficulty. Too often, their second form only reveals itself with a handful of seconds left until they meet their end.

Cotton Fantasy Review - Screenshot 4 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

On the matter of difficulty, Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll is comparable to Cave’s own witch-centric shooter Deathsmiles, in that played purely to survive, it is more welcoming that it is overwhelming. Play seriously for score, though, and you’ll find yourself in a space with a skill ceiling high enough to satisfy the most devoted, skilled shmup players. That’s all the more true at higher difficulty levels, where you do get to see a little more of what the wonderfully weird boss battles have to offer.

And whatever your skill level, Cotton has a great deal to explore and master. It essentially comes down to the cast of player characters available. Across the six playable characters — plus at least one more if you beat the game on any number of credits — a dizzyingly varied ability set is offered. Each effectively brings an entirely different way to play and score.

Cotton is the main character, of course. Beyond a standard shot and bomb, she can release various magical attacks that clear much of the screen of danger while spawning reams of point scoring items. Downing certain enemies, meanwhile, produces colour changing crystals. Depending on the colour at the point of pick up, they will either grant magic attacks or add to a metre that levels up your attacks. Cotton’s set-up demands fast, reactive play, darting about the screen to juggle priorities.

Cotton Fantasy Review - Screenshot 5 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Tackle the game with Ria, meanwhile, and you essentially get a reproduction of the weapon and scoring systems of Success’ wonderful shooter series Psyvariar. As such, there are almost no gems, no magic attacks and very different billowing clouds of point items. Instead, ‘buzzing’ enemy bullets levels up your weapons, frequently providing a brief shield that lets you smash through bullet patterns to spawn point items, or point blank enemies. Play through the game’s same eight stages with Ria instead of Cotton, and you have to develop entirely different survival and scoring strategies.

Or there’s Fine from Success’ most niche shmup, Sanvien, where a time system keeps you moments from death. Or Luffee, who boils the game down to a much more traditional shooter. You’ll even unlock the game’s antagonist final boss, who again brings new ways to play with a throwable option in a play system similar to R-Type’s.

If that weren’t enough variety, completing the game with each character unlocks a fresh console-exclusive level built around their theme and abilities — at least with every character we’ve bested Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll with thus far. So with Ria you are treated to a horizontal interpretation of the previously-vertical Psyvariar, right down to enemies, bullet patterns and backdrops. Cotton, meanwhile, unlocks a modern reworking of a classic opening stage from her past.

Cotton Fantasy Review - Screenshot 6 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Any playthrough of Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll lets you choose a certain number of stages in any order you choose. Swapping out standard levels for the extra means even more ways to explore new means to score.

With all that interacting variety there are some cases where a character's abilities seem an awkward fit with the stage design. This seems to be a title first and foremost designed to pair with Cotton’s abilities. Yet there are few shmups with so much potential variety in a single game mode. There are moments where the screen gets so cluttered with activity it can be hard to track those pesky bullets. And Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll certainly looks better when played with the Switch docked.

But this release meets a quality bar that has defined much of Cotton’s 20-year history. Few shmups offer so many ways to play, nor deliver such an enchanting world quite so alive with personality. So whether you’re a shmup devotee, or have always longed for a gateway to the shooter genre, Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll offers a colossal amount to enjoy.

Conclusion

While staying true to the series that it extends, Cotton Rock ‘n’ Roll / Fantasy brings so many different experiences in a single shmup that it may as well be a compilation release — and unlike the arcade versions, it is all presented in English language. The more time you give it, the more the replay value snowballs. The faults to be found are few and far between, while sharp level design and a joyful, even mischievous personality define Success’ latest. Simply put, Cotton Fantasy has a lot of fun to give.