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Daily Classic: With Cotton, TG-16 Shooters Got Adorable

Success' whimsical arcade shooter was like the meet cute of shooters and anime.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

On very rare occasions, Americans have been granted a small glimpse into a game genre indigenous to Japan known as the "cute-'em-up." As you might gather from the name, cute-'em-ups are cute shoot-'em-ups. It's as self-explanatory as it is far-removed from the gaming American mainstream.

There are entire franchises of cutesy shooters that have never made their way to the U.S., most notably Konami's Parodius games. A parody of the Gradius games (geddit?), Parodius has been around for more than two decades, yet the closest we've ever come to a legit U.S. release for the series was the recent bizarre offshoot Otomedius, which replaced the lunacy and satire with sloppy mechanics and a sort of desperate, pandering sleaze -- sure, the shooting is awkward, but look at the girl dressed up as a half-naked Simon Belmont! Almost every shooter worth its salt has seen a cute, parodic, or super-deformed offshoot, even the noble Galaga (in the form of the wonderful Cosmo Gang: The Video). Yet you can basically count the number of cutesy shooters to have made it to America -- Fantasy Zone, Stinger, Ordyne, Keio Flying Squadron -- on one hand.

It's like that one boss from Life Force -- except cuter!

But few cute-'em-ups were quite as cute, or quite as seemingly unsuitable for manly American audiences, as Success' sugar-coated fantasy shooter Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams... which makes the fact that it was actually localized all the more bizarre. After debuting in Japanese arcades in 1989, Cotton made its way to practically every non-Nintendo platform under the sun. And somehow, inexplicably, four years later, the Turbo CD version managed to escape the grasping gravity of Japan and ended up appearing as an English release.

Perhaps publisher Hudson was banking on sex appeal to sell the game. While there's nothing at all sexy about the titular protagonist, Cotton -- a childlike witch whose mop of pink hair suggests her name refers to cotton candy rather than the so-called "fabric of our lives" (TM) -- her faerie companion Silk features prominently on the box art, clad only in a revealing purple bikini. Of course, in-game, there's hilariously little of that to be seen; outside of the obligatory anime-style cut scenes, Cotton reduces its characters to chubby little sprites fighting against ridiculous-looking fantasy monsters, raging pumpkins, dopey-looking fish-men and so forth. Cotton isn't much larger on-screen than your typical tiny spaceship, and Silk -- playing the Option to Cotton's Vic Viper -- flutters around as little more than an abstract smudge.

This is about as risqué as girly console games got in 1993. Compile Heart and Idea Factory are enough to make ya pine for the olden times of relative innocence (and poofy hairstyles).

No, there's not much sexy about Cotton, despite the cover art. It was a quintessential cute-'em-up, which means the entire affair was drenched in pastel colors and populated by utterly adorable enemies. Visually, it made for a striking contrast to other TurboGrafx shooters, which usually went for a darker style -- technological dystopia or biological horror, that sort of thing. Cotton, on the other hand, had to do with a witch who wanted to gorge herself on candy and was determined to shoot down every cuddly, chubby harpy that got in her way.

Where Cotton did resemble the rest of the TG16 library was in its difficulty, which didn't feel at all like you'd expect from a pastel journey through faerie-land. Apparently searching for willow candy is serious business, because Cotton faced off against some unflinchingly brutal challenges along the course of her journey. The power-up mechanics worked like a hybrid of the standard Hudson shooter system and -- fittingly enough -- Twinbee's bells. But the harsh checkpoint system and small stock of lives made for a shooter hiding vicious fangs beneath its willowy, pillowy exterior.

Admittedly, while Cotton may not be sexy in action, this guy is nauseatingly NSFW. I'm sorry if this article gets you fired.

The Cotton series would go on to inspire quite a few sequels, including a technological marvel called Panorama Cotton that pushed the Sega Mega Drive to remarkable heights of 3D graphics. Eventually, though, the series fizzled out about a decade later in the wake of an uninspired Dreamcast chapter, Rainbow Cotton, though the protagonist did show up in Success' wickedly difficult DS strategy game Rondo of Swords a few years back. Despite its relatively short life, the Cotton series seems to have been remarkably influential. Developer Quest created a shameless clone called Magical Chase a few years after the original Cotton's debut; interestingly, the Witch-class characters in the Ogre Battle series look an awful like Magical Chase's protagonist Ripple. The Cotton format was also adopted wholesale by Victor's Keio Flying Squadron, which was slightly less obvious about its pilfering by dressing its young heroine in a bunny costume (despite its medieval Japanese setting). And then there's Touhou, a rabbit hole far too deep to be spelunked within the parameters of this humble retrospective.

Despite somehow making its way to the U.S., the original Cotton appears to have been almost entirely forgotten by American gamers. No doubt its being a niche release on a niche add-on for a niche console didn't really do its sales many favors (though it certainly has helped the game's aftermarket value). Still, it's a fascinating curio: One of the few instances of an oddball sub-genre to make its way to America. It's also an artifact of a very specific time, with its decidedly '80s anime look and attitude. In a lot of ways, the cute-'em-up died through commoditization, as the idea of selling hardcore game genres by dressing them up with scantily clad girls has become more or less the standard for much of the Japanese games industry rather than the exception -- though the relative restraint demonstrated by Cotton (only one female character appears nearly naked rather than all of them!) has long since disappeared.

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  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #1 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    Cotton 100% for the Super Famicom was one of the first import titles I ever bought as a kid. I remember getting a pretty good deal on it at the now defunct Game Cave in Texas while on vacation one summer.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @davidbabb52 Interestingly, Cotton 100% was one of the first import games I ever saw in a shop (also in Texas). I didn't buy it because the art style made me assume it was a kids game based on a cartoon or something -- I didn't realize at the time that Japan is OK mixing hardcore games with cuddly artwork.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #3 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    Argh, you have reignited my desire to get a Turbo Duo.
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  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #4 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I mostly picked it up after the clerk told me that it was a shooter and pretty easy to play through with little to no knowledge of the Japanese language. the box art was a bit too cute, but the game was pretty good!
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  • Avatar for cscaskie #5 cscaskie 4 years ago
    An article about Cotton? I love USGamer
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  • Avatar for gigantor21 #6 gigantor21 4 years ago
    Hudson Soft... :(

    We barely knew ye.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @gigantor21 Oh wow, I guess Konami owns a piece of this pie, huh? I'm surprised Silk didn't show up in Otomedius.
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 4 years ago
    It’s silly in hindsight, but I didn’t know this kind of shoot em’ ups were actually identified as a sub-genre despite being aware of them since Pocky & Rocky for the SNES. Shows you can expand your gaming culture every day.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #9 TernBird 4 years ago
    The shamelessness with which many games--Japanese or otherwise--trot out over-sexualized women does make me pine for the older days. Would Phantasy Star's Alys have been as cool as she was back in the '80s if she had been made today? Would Phantasy Star II's Nei have been blood-related to Rolf?

    Changing the subject to Success, I have to give them credit: their attempt at hiding a (simple) rogue-like behind a busty, pink-haired ninja girl in the form of Izuna the Unemployed Ninja got me into rogue-likes in general. I'm actually kind of sad that Success has faded into the ether: Izuna 2 got somewhat-more shameless (a hot springs scene where you use the DS's microphone to blow away the smoke!), but they also introduced fascinating gameplay concepts: two-man parties, co-op attacks, a simple world-map... maybe the third Izuna game would have been a simple turn-based RPG? We can only speculate.

    Also: I really do miss the 80s and 90s school of anime character design. Jawlines! Poofy hair! Noses! Dull-ish, hand-drawn colors!
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  • Avatar for Sturat #10 Sturat 4 years ago
    I haven't played it in a while, but I always considered Cotton to be a horror game, not a cute-'em-up...
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  • Avatar for boxofficepoison #11 boxofficepoison 4 years ago
    @davidbabb52 Strangely enough Cotton was one of the first imports I ever bought too. I was lucky enough that my babbages started carrying Saturn imports when there was nothing left to release here in the states and wound up picking up cotton boomerang for something like $25 dollars I believe. Still think for 2d that game had some of the better visuals I've seen.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #12 metalangel 4 years ago
    I am the very proud owner of the rare English language release of Cotton for the Neo Geo Pocket Colour! Great little game, but something to remember from that period is that marketers just didn't think anime would fly in the West on game covers. So instead we got really bad airbrushed style art that looked absolutely nothing like the game itself (which, naturally, still had anime-style artwork)
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #13 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I've played a little bit of Cotton through emulation. Really wish they would get a release on Virtual Console, since I think I would better enjoy them on that platform. Of course, this would require Nintendo to start adding VC games from other platforms, but that's a whole 'nother article.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #14 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @DiscordInc I would love to pinpoint the exact moment that Nintendo decided to stop giving a crap about making Virtual Console an industry standard.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #15 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I'd love to read an article/interview with someone at Nintendo carting the behind the scenes history of Virtual Console. Probably too soon to get them to speak frankly about it though.
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  • Avatar for soupbones #16 soupbones 4 years ago
    Panorama Cotton was one of my favorite import games on the Genesis - and actually got my girlfriend at the time into gaming for a while. This and YuYu Hakashu got massive amounts of playtime and made me frequent the Diehard store in Long Island, NY to drop my hard earned paychecks.

    I recently picked up Cotton for the Saturn (I forget the name) and it's awesome. Highly recommended.
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  • Avatar for tyetheczar #17 tyetheczar 4 years ago
    @cscaskie
    Fun Fact:
    Magical Chase was created by Quest, folks including Yasumi Matsuno and Hitoshi Sakimoto who later went on create tactical classics such as Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, MadWorld(Matsuno wrote the story) and now Unsung Story on Kickstarter.
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  • Avatar for cscaskie #18 cscaskie 4 years ago
    @tyetheczar I didn't know that, but it makes alot of sense. I'm a huge fan of Matsuno and Sakimoto's work together. I find Matsuno's early work (pre Ogre series) really fascinating. I also really like Conquest of the Crystal Palace on the NES, which is one of his first works.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #19 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @tyetheczar I'm not sure that Matsuno worked on Magical Chase. I had thought he did, but the credits list Hiroshi Minagawa (Matsuno's favorite go-to art director) as designer. Still, that and Conquest of the Crystal Palace are odd entries in the Matsunoverse.
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #20 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    I always wished Rainbow Cotton would've come westward for the Dreamcast. Always was interested in this series, if just for the colorful art and great 80's-anime soundtracks. And Rainbow Cotton, being a Star-Fox style "corridor shooter", always seems like something I would've loved. Also love Panzer Dragoon, Sin & Punishment and the excellent rebooted Yar's Revenge... I would've probably dug Rainbow Cotton too.

    I am SUPER sad to see 80's/90's anime design after this week of Daily Classics. I really love that aesthetic. I'm kinda sad that Lunar: The Silver Star Story for Sega CD didn't pop up; or any game from that platform with those super anime intros (complete with vocal music tracks most of the time).

    Btw, didn't a Cotton game come out for the Neo Geo Pocket Color here in the 'states too?Edited February 2014 by Critical_Hit
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