Friday 2 September 2016

Mega Drive Review - Panorama Cotton (Game 114)

Like the Super Nintendo, many of the best games on the Mega Drive never saw a release in the West. 'Panorama Cotton' is a game that should be enjoyed by everyone and not simply because it exceeds visually what the Mega Drive should be capable of.

Developed By Success Corp
Published By Sunsoft
Released in 1994

With its faster processor the Mega Drive could offer shooting fans an experience that Super Nintendo owners could only dream of. While there were exceptions like 'UN Squadron', for the most part shooters on the Snes were plagued by slow down, even with less enemies on screen than their Mega Drive equivalents. In fact for Nintendo to offer a shooting experience that couldn't be found on a western Sega machine, they had to insert the Super FX chip into a cartridge. While 'Star Fox' looked incredible at the time, its gameplay was actually closer to older titles. Despite the window dressing, all you really have to do is make your spaceship dodge or shoot things as you continually move into the screen. Its solid three dimensional buildings and vector graphics made it look revolutionary but the game is actually very similar to 'Space Harrier' released in 1985. 

Like these games 'Panorama Cotton' is what's known as a rail shooter. Your overall trajectory is fixed with only occasional branching paths, but as you head along this virtual rail you can move your playable character around the screen to engage enemies. It was developed by Success Corp in 1994 exclusively for the Mega Drive and while it’s the third game in the 'Cotton' series' it's the first where the action is viewed from behind the protagonist. The first two games in the series 'Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams' and ‘Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%’ were both viewed from a side-on perspective. Comparable to 'Parodious', both games see you play as Cotton an adorable witch who rides a broomstick through fantastically detailed and beautiful worlds. As she journeys from level to level Cotton enlarges her arsenal of weapons by shooting wave after wave of enemies. Should our friendly witch kill or avoid enough enemies she must then tackle a screen filling end of level boss. Even on normal difficulty the 'Cotton' games pose a huge challenge, something that may he surprising given the cute aesthetic and bouncy joyous music.

'Panorama Cotton' plays much like these predecessors albeit with the shift in viewing angle. Your goal on each level is still to reach the end of a stage either by avoiding or by shooting foes. As before more powerful weapons can be collected throughout the game however in 'Panorama Cotton' these have temporary effects acting more like smart bombs than upgrades. They are easily obtained by killing chains of enemies which builds an XP gauge. It's worth saving these for the end of level bosses though as here enemy fire comes thick and fast. Thankfully, theses level guardians are as inventive as those seen in previous ‘Cotton’ games. The Paper Scissors Stone boss for example can only be defeated by firing at a specific target (in accordance with the rules of the tradition playground game). Another boss is invisible only illuminating when hit. Unseen by the player, this boss can only be defeated if movement patterns are memorised.

Cotton the witch can fly at three different speeds, though it's hard to imagine why you would want to speed the game up. While you get more points, you're far more likely to collide into enemies and obstructions as a result. Even at default speed you'd have to have luck in your side to finish a level on the first go though. En-route hazards always move in the same way every time you play a level, but unless you have prior knowledge, you obviously have to guess which direction they will move. Consequently, on a first run through you'll have to rely on random luck to pick the right direction to move to dodge something.  

'Panorama Cotton' is notable for being one of five superb Mega Drive shooters to never be released outside of Japan. Fans clamoured for a Western releases not only because it plays superbly but also because it's regarded as one of the most graphically impressive games release for Sega's 16 bit machine. Even without on-cart technology like the Super FX chip, 'Panorama Cotton' offers similar visuals to those seen in 'Star Fox'. Indeed one preview even mistakenly called the game "'3D Cotton'" perhaps referencing how the similar looking 'Star Fox' was often called a "3D game". However, Unlike Nintendo's space shooter, with its entirely flat worlds, 'Panorama Cotton' has inclines in the environments with sharp climbs and drops. It actually looks closer to a driving game like 'Outrun' or 'Top Gear', although, of course, the player isn't limited to remaining at the bottom of the screen. If you are obsessed with comparing the game to a Nintendo franchise you should actually ignore 'Star Fox' and look towards the recent 'Kid Icarus' game on the 3DS which has similar fly-into-the screen game mechanics. Like 'Panorama Cotton' this game is set in bright vibrant fantasy worlds, with detailed backgrounds and an abundance of colour.
Some have observed that “stylistically ‘Panorama Cottton’ stands out for having lost any melancholy undertones; instead it simply strives to be uniquely psychedelic”.  With these rich environments the speed at which the obstructions scale and the sheer visual complexity of 'Panorama Cotton' exceed what many thought possible for the Mega Drive. The game is so fast in fact, that it makes the almost constant slow down seen in 'Cotton 100%' all the more embarrassing for Super Nintendo owners. That being said 'Panorama Cotton' does suffer from occasional jerkiness and a weird strobe-like effect where the impressive chequer board floors on some levels flicker. You have to wonder if it's an optical illusion caused by the choice of clashing colours rather than a technical failing however. 

As with previous games, Cotton's onscreen character sprite is detailed and full of charm. If anything she's actually too big on-screen as she does rather obscure the action, making it harder to aim at the enemies. This is made all the more obvious when you finish the game with a million points and can then play as Cotton's scantily clad fairy sidekick Silk. She takes up much less of the screen and the game runs marginally faster with less enemies obscured as a result.

Narrative development never traditionally serves as player motivation in shooting games. Fans of the genre spend their time memorising attack patterns not to advance plot but to beat their personal high-score. With a traditional space aesthetic most scrolling shooters lack cut scenes, they're also devoid of story exposition while you play. In most cases the reason why you're flying a ship against an unstoppable force is only explained in the instruction book. 'Cotton 100%' was different in this regard, setting up a nonsense story about sweet theft and revenge in the opening of the game. This is then built on with each level that passes, though as the game was only released in Japan you'll need a native speaker to understand why Cotton seems to perpetually be angry. Like its predecessor, 'Panorama Cotton' has a quirky plot. 

As we know Cotton loves drinking tea and eating willows; a special types of candy found only in the world of witches and fairies. In 'Panorama Cotton' the Fairy Queen Velvet has started acting oddly and has started talking nonsense. Evidently she has an illness that has been caused by eating willow that has been burnt by monsters under the instruction of the villainous Calmin.

Given her mild addiction to this Willow, the fiery Cotton isn't too pleased to hear this news and vows revenge on whoever is setting fire to her favourite sweets. "I'll never, never, never, let them get away with this. They may be monsters, but whoever they are, they're going to get it!" 

It's an odd story that's rendered all the more silly when you learn at the end of the game that Calmin has been burning the willow sweets simply because he doesn't like them. Much to the shock of Cotton, he once ate too much and got fat which has forever given him a hatred of the confectionary. Much like the player Cotton wonders why Calmin simply didn't "eat less" and "save some for later?" It's a question he never answers, although he does agree to never burn them again. 

 While the previous game had anime style animated sequences between each level, 'Panorama Cotton' only has an animated intro. You don't see any more plot development until you reach the last level when an animated intermission precedes that final boss battle and a longer scene follows if you win the dual. Should you finish the game in hard mode the player will actually get to read the developers apologising for the lack of a fully developed ending. After a single congratulatory screen you read that the director Tamura Hideki "would like to present you with a reward but unfortunately this is the only thing [they] had space of the cartridge for". 

It's a shame as with more cut-scenes the previous 'Cotton 100%' game felt more like an adventure. 'Panorama' feels more like a collection of levels played one after the other. At least what's there looks great, and Cotton is an amusing character; especially if you know what she's saying. On each of her adventures she ultimately saves the world but you always are left with the impressions that this was just an accidental result of her doing whatever she can to get back her Willow sweets. 

Few have heard of the 'Cotton' games but many should have; it's a mystery why 'Panorama Cotton' in particular wasn't released in the West. To try to top Nintendo's 'Star Fox', Sega paraded 'Virtua Racing' a crippled port of a limited arcade game (which was sold to Mega Drive owners on an unnecessarily large cart for twice the price of a normal game). But you have to wonder why they didn't just turn to a witch on a broomstick who simply wanted her sweets back. 

Where did I get this game from?

'Panorama Cotton' had a relatively low print run and reports indicate that less than 1000 copies shipped. As a result it is one of the rarest and most sought after Mega Drive games and usually sells for between £200 and £300 on eBay. You can even stick on another £100 if a hand decorated teacup is included, as these could only be obtained from sending off the games registration card. I didn't pay anywhere this much, I bought a reproduction copy for £5.50 which included postage. 

Sadly the cover was amateurish - a low resolution scan of the box art that even had a website watermark on it. Luckily I have contacts that own industrial printers though so now my copy is far less embarrassing. If you're considering buying an original release do remember that this game lasts only a few hours and is natively region locked. As is so often the case with obscure titles, you should feel no shame in playing this game via emulation. 

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