The Cotton series of cute ‘em ups has always largely consisted of single-player games, starting with the 1991 arcade original and including the latest entry, Cotton Fantasy (AKA Cotton Rock/n/Roll). However, during a brief, shining period in the 1990s, two co-op entries came along. The first such game, Cotton 2: Magical Night Dreams was originally released in arcades and on Sega Saturn in Japan. Years later, City Connection has re-released that game on PlayStation, Switch, and Steam as Cotton 2 - Saturn Tribute. While the port is relatively low on frills, Cotton 2 remains a delightful shmup, especially when playing in local co-op.
Cotton games always feature wacky storylines, but the worldwide releases usually don’t translate the games’ stories. That applies here: Cotton 2’s story sequences are completely untranslated. That’s a total drag given that the real Saturn version has a fan translation patch – official releases like Cotton 2 – Saturn Tribute should be just as good as emulated versions and fan projects.
The actual story is just as silly and whimsical as ever. Appli, a witch princess who debuts in Cotton 2, has snuck off and lost her kingdom’s prized treasure: the Water Willow. Just as she realizes what happens, she runs into Cotton, the series’ protagonist who absolutely loves to eat willows (fantasy candies). Cotton then spends the rest of the story chasing after Appli, both girls becoming rivals in the quest for the Water Willow. The narrative plays out via mildly animated portraits between stages that are still fun to watch even if you can’t read the accompanying Japanese text.
By default, the first player controls Cotton the witch (who is accompanied by Silk the fairy) and the second player controls Appli and her spirit-infused hat, Needle. Both protagonists play the same in this installment, though they gain differing powers in later games. As with past Cottons, the heroes have a regular shot and a magic shots that consumes crystals to use. Crystals come in four colors, changing your shot type and the actual spell to be cast. There’s also a leveling system that increases the player’s shot power. Speaking of increases, the player sprites are quite large, leading to cramped situations and makes it hard to dodge enemy fire at times. On the plus side, players get life meters in this installment, so you don’t just die in one hit.
Silk and other fairies no longer fly along and offer support fire. Instead, Silk and Needle just ride along and participate in cinematics. In place of the fairies, we have some new mechanics. Cotton and Appli can grab and throw enemies or, in co-op games, each other! Carrying the partner player around could potentially help a weaker player avoid enemy fire, but it seems to be intended as a dramatic attack more than anything.
Command shots, the other new mechanic, tie into the grab system as well. These shots are performed via fighting-game style motions (or mapped to certain buttons), firing either huge blasts or spread shots. Enemies hit by command shots get sealed up in a bubble. They will then drop health when attacked. Sealed enemies can also be grabbed and then carried around as shields or thrown as projectiles. Tossing sealed enemies causes chain explosions and leads to huge combos. You can ignore the command shots and catch-and-throw mechanics, but they add lots of depth and replay value when used skillfully.
Cotton 2 consists of six stages followed by a final boss stage. The stages themselves include typical environments like castles, caves, underwater, volcanoes, and more. They look gorgeous, though, showing off the Saturn-era hardware’s 2D power. Visual effects like parallax scrolling, transparencies, waves, scaling, and rotation all make for fine eye candy. Each boss, from a golem to a plant monster to Wool, the recurring antagonist and demon girl, is huge, varied, and fun to battle. After defeating a boss, the traditional “tea time” sequence plays out, with tea cups raining from the sky for a short while. This time, the cups can be shot for points or collected for health.
The game itself offers two modes: Arcade and Saturn. The Saturn mode remixes some of the stage and enemy visuals, such as adding snow to the first stage and changing the boss’s weapons. Other in-game options include multiple difficulty settings (on top of the emulator’s extra settings, which we’ll discuss later), swapping which player controls Cotton or Appli, and a handful of control settings. By default, the game uses three primary buttons and leaves three unmapped. The extra three buttons can be set to either turbo fire or to perform “command shots” without the need for fighting game-style motions.
This modern version of Cotton 2 is an emulation of the Saturn version of the game presented via City Connection’s Zebra Engine emulator. The emulator and in-game menus are presented in English, thankfully. Visual options include four selectable widescreen borders, scanlines, screen size, and more. The options to enable unlimited credits and to quick save and load make the difficulty manageable for modern audiences. Players can also enable fast loading, which can cause the sound to desync slightly but makes the load times much shorter. Enabling online rankings mode will force certain difficulty settings in exchange for participation in the new online leaderboards.
Despite the untranslated story text, Cotton 2 – Saturn Tribute is a fairly fantastic shoot ‘em up. The characters are as charming and the stakes as dire/ridiculous as ever. Appli makes a great frenemy for Cotton, and seeing her here provides great context for sequels like Cotton Fantasy. Everything in Cotton 2 works really well: gameplay, bosses, graphics, soundtrack, 2 player local co-op – it all makes for one of the best Cotton games. It’s a shame that the last few Cottons don’t allow for co-op, but that just makes this one all the more special.
Cotton 2 – Saturn Tribute costs $17.99 on PlayStation, Switch, and Steam. The Steam version is fully Steam Deck compatible. Strictly Limited Games also sells a limited edition physical bundle containing Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang - Saturn Tribute for Nintendo Switch - get it at Amazon.
A Steam code was provided by the publisher for this review.
The Co-Op Experience: Cotton's rival, Appli, can join in at any time. Players can grab, carry, and throw each other in co-op.
Co-Optimus game reviews focus on the cooperative experience of a game, our final score graphic represents this experience along with an average score for the game overall. For an explanation of our scores please check our Review Score Explanation Guide.