Pocket Power: Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams

Handheld gaming is more than a compromise of power and portability. Whether it’s the ability to play anywhere, multitask or hold an entire console in your hands, it’s a special experience consoles have never replicated. In a world where high resolutions and teraflops reign supreme, we take a look at a portable relic every month and reflect on what makes it memorable. Be warned, spoilers may occasionally populate these articles.

As retro game collectors are painfully aware, some of the rarer titles cost a pretty penny, which can make owning a physical copy not exactly practical. Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams for Neo Geo Pocket is one such game where collectors need to choose to between owning a copy of the game or making their rent payment. Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams originated in Japanese arcades in 1991 and has seen numerous ports to different platforms. All of the classic ports are expensive to own with the Neo Geo Pocket ones being exceptionally pricy. This isn’t too surprising as Neo Geo was never known for its affordability. As is the case with most collectibles the rarity has a greater factor in setting the price point than overall quality of the item, though both factors do play a role. Cotton is a fun little game, but is there enough fun to be had to justify a four figure price tag?

Cotton is a classic arcade shoot ’em up, or more specifically one of the earlier examples of the cute ’em up subgenre with its bright colors and whimsical art direction. In contrast to sci-fi alien monsters of Gradius or the militarized warzones of UN Squadron, the titular Cotton is a witch who is joined by her fairy companion Silk. They are fighting against an evil witch who is trying to take over the land of fairies. Cotton is not really concerned about the plight of fairies. Her motivation for helping Silk is primarily derived from desiring the Willow candy that is plentiful in the fairyland, so Cotton is essentially a mercenary who is paid in candy treats. Despite being considered one of the more important titles among cute ’em ups some of the levels and boss designs are somewhat grim.

The odds are against Cotton in her quest to get an endless supply of candy, but as a witch she has ways to level the playing field. She can collect power ups to raise her basic attack up to thirteen levels. Unfortunately, like many shooters of the era, she’s a fragile witch and it only takes one shot to take her out of commission. This will undo her power ups, so there’s motivation to not die frequently. There are also crystals to collect that offer additional benefits, though getting them to land somewhere for safe retrieval can be its own challenge. Shooting the crystals will change its color: yellow will increase experience for the primary weapon, red will give a spell that unleashes dragon fire and blue will grant a lightning bolt spell. These spells are limited use items and can be useful in taking out bosses or clearing a crowded screen.

There are seven levels in Cotton with each level having two boss fights. Cotton presents a challenge, but it’s one of the more forgiving shooters, making it a more accessible entry point into the genre. The straightforward gameplay is easy to figure out and while it may take time to master it, it’s one of the easier shoot ’em ups out there, at least compared to some of the more recent bullet hell games. The challenge never feels unfair and progressing through the levels does bring with it a certain feeling of satisfaction. The level and boss design are varied and interesting enough where it’s easy to see how Cotton developed such a strong cult following. Once the player has mastered the game, it can be completed in 20-30 minutes.

The lingering question with Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams is whether or not it’s worth the asking price on most second markets. This is debatable among collectors and based on personal budgets, but at the current time of writing this paragraph, there are five copies of Cotton for Neo Geo Pocket on a popular online auction site that range between $900 and $1499.99, and on a game journalist salary the answer is a no without any hesitation. It’s a good game and worth playing for any fan of the genre but it just isn’t extraordinary enough to justify the price tag.

Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams is a fun and colorful shoot ’em up that can be enjoyed on many platforms. While it’s a good game, it isn’t life changing in a way that would justify the going rate save for the satisfaction of having a very rare piece of plastic in one’s game collection. While not the same as the vintage experience, a reboot was recently released for Switch and PS4 which is a more practical option for those wishing to play Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams without having to put a second mortgage on their house.

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