Review: Panorama Cotton
The Cotton games are a series of shoot ’em ups (or cute ’em ups, if you prefer) that haven’t seen much popularity outside of their native Japan. Up until this year, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, the franchise’s first entry, was the only one to receive a North American release on the TurboGrafx-CD in 1993, and then again in 2021 under the title Cotton Reboot! That game, as well as its follow-up Cotton 100%, are your typical side-scrolling shmups replete with bright, flashing colors and bullets aplenty.
The third entry, Panorama Cotton for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, made the genre jump to a rail shooter in the style of Space Harrier or Star Fox. The game is especially notable for its emulation of a three-dimensional perspective with exclusively two-dimensional artwork, and this was one of the biggest reasons I was excited to review it.
The original game was developed by Success, and this port was published by ININ Games on October 29th, 2021 for PS4 and Switch. Lamentably, this rerelease of Panorama Cotton—the first release this shmup has seen outside of Japan in 1994—is broken on a fundamental level.
The PS4 version was played for this review on a PS5.
Before delving into the greater issues with the port, we should talk about Panorama Cotton‘s story, as there isn’t a whole lot to dig through. You play as Nata de Cotton, a witch atop a broomstick with a fairy sidekick named Silk in tow. Silk’s sister, Knit, informs them both that Queen Velvet is saying odd things due to the burning of Willows (magical candies established in the previous entries), and so the duo sets off to figure the who, the what, the where, and the why of said Willow burning.
Or so I’m told. The only reason I’m aware of this premise is because it’s listed on the game’s page on the PlayStation Network. Though the menus and such are in English, the cutscenes currently feature only the original Japanese text with no translation for other languages available, although ININ Games has confirmed on Twitter that a patch including the translations is coming “soon.”
Regardless, the story isn’t the primary focus in Panorama Cotton. Although I wasn’t able to read the actual dialogue, I was still able to appreciate the wackiness on display. There was even a unique type of fun in trying to tease out the details of the narrative from just the nonsensical imagery above the text. In that sense, the cutscenes are carried out in just the same fashion as the stages themselves, providing a starry stream of psychedelic silliness wrapped in that classic ’90s anime style.
The story is enjoyable for a game as lighthearted and short as this one is, and who doesn’t love a healthy dosage of fabric puns? It would have been nice to have English text at the time of release, but it doesn’t feel like the experience is all that lessened without it. In fact, the update containing the translations would almost serve as a good reason to come back to the game again, were it not for the sorry state of the port itself.
…But Where Is the Rest of It?
This port of Panorama Cotton features two modes of play: “Challenge Mode,” which is the game as it originally was with limited continues and no frills added, and “Standard Mode,” which is more in line with what you would expect from a remaster of an older game. Standard Mode sports a rewind feature, save states, and cheats (although the last of this list are only available after finishing the game in Challenge Mode).
When you finish the first cutscene and start the game’s first stage, it’s hard not to feel like you were just thrown head-first into the deep end of a pool. Your character is zooming through a field with all the colors of the rainbow on display with a smorgasbord of different enemy types and obstacles fast approaching. It’s a matter of sink or swim, which is a good way to engage the player when the controls are as straightforward as they are.
My first impressions of the gameplay were incredibly positive. As you’d expect from a rail shooter, you have full control to move the character anywhere on-screen, which is wonderful considering there are a million different objects to keep track of at any given moment, and this level of control also extends to the speed at which the witch flies through the environment. I was on the slowest speed for a majority of my first playthrough out of necessity, but I enjoyed having the option as it lends itself to replayability; once you get more familiar with the progression of each stage and the oncoming obstacles, you can really start to make good time through each one.
The different magical attacks you can pick up feel powerful too, especially when you’re able to utilize them successfully and chew through hordes of enemies at a time. All in all, the various gameplay elements are simple enough to get your head around, which allows you to put most of your focus on the stage itself, or more specifically, the enemies that whip through it and directly at you.
Unfortunately, the issue plaguing this port becomes apparent the moment you start stage two. There I was, minding my own business gunning and avoiding the enemies when suddenly, repeatedly, I would take damage from an invisible source. At first, I chalked this up to me being unfamiliar with the game and its high-speed antics, so I switched over to Standard Mode to utilize its rewind feature with the intention of becoming more familiar with what it was I should be avoiding.
The result? I was legitimately losing health to nothing. Flying just fine in one moment, and then taking damage in the next with no discernable rhyme or reason. Confused, I took to YouTube to watch a playthrough of the original Genesis/Mega Drive version and found that the beginning of stage two is supposed to have metallic gates that rise and descend for you to avoid. In the version I was playing on PS4, they were completely invisible due to a rendering issue of some kind. They were “there,” in the sense that I could collide with them and take damage, but I couldn’t actually see them to do anything about it.
This realization evolved into the death knell for my support of this rerelease. After I made it past the portion with the gates, my curiosity wouldn’t let me continue the rest of the stage without cross-referencing the footage of the original, and I was floored by just how much was failing to render on the screen. The gates were far from an isolated incident, as entire enemy types and environmental elements that were supposed to appear simply did not.
I was able to finish the game despite the missing textures and enemies, but my experience was severely dampened by their absence. One of my favorite aspects of the game is the colorfulness and unpredictability of the environments and enemies, and it felt like I was only getting half of the experience more often than not. These issues are something you would expect to deal with when emulating a game yourself, not after purchasing an official rerelease on a modern console.
Putting aside the port’s glaring flaw for a moment, one of the biggest draws of Panorama Cotton is found in its trippy visuals. You’ll have to contend with the likes of pixies made out of fire, a centipede made out of sheep, disembodied hands, what I can only assume to be an armadillo made out of a circus tent, and more as you play. It’s positively steeped in ’90s-era anime adorableness, with an infusion of warped imagery to put a unique flourish on everything.
At every turn, I was surprised by what popped up to attack me, and it was in appreciating this barrage of cuteness that I found I had the most fun—the satisfying shooting was just the cherry on top. With the concessions that had to be made for it to appear 3D it’s a bit of a weird mess sometimes, but it’s a beautiful weird mess. Or rather, it would be if the game ran as it’s supposed to.
It is worth mentioning that the framerate is straight out of the ’90s, too. The game seems to run as well as it did on the Genesis/Mega Drive, which is great for the sake of authenticity, but it would have been nice to have an option to run it more smoothly as well.
Though the menu for the port is the definition of bare bones, I was impressed by the CRT shader available and its eight different options for tweaking and refining to one’s tastes. It includes things like mask intensity and the ability to adjust the curvature of the display to better represent an old convex television screen, and as someone with a particular fondness for CRT scanlines, I appreciated the customizability.
The soundtrack, composed by Kenichi Hirata, is great. It’s catchy, it’s upbeat, and it’s exactly what you’d hope to hear in a game like this. I’m listening to it as I write these words, and I highly recommend listening to it yourself while you wait for an update to patch in the rest of the visuals.
Too Bad, So Sad
I was excited to get my hands on Panorama Cotton. Experiencing a shmup that was able to emulate a three-dimensional perspective on 16-bit hardware was a novelty I was certain I would enjoy, and if things went according to plan, you’d probably be seeing a 7/10 down here. However, a brand new port (retailing at $14.99 at the time of writing) of a 27-year-old game failing to render important visual information as it did on its original console is inexcusable, and no amount of added features could ever salvage this misstep.
It says a lot that the best way to experience this game is grabbing its original cartridge and plunging it into a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive rather than buying it digitally on PS4 or Switch, and the price for this experience is almost humorous given its release proximity with Gleylancer. One would hope this monumental shortcoming can be fixed with a patch, but as it stands, this port of Panorama Cotton—a blast of a game in its original form—is a nonstarter.
Review copy provided by ININ Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of ININ Games.