Building upon the ideas of Cotton 100% (which we reviewed here), Panorama Cotton takes the series out of 2D and into pseudo-3D, using the Super Scaler technology of the Sega Mega Drive. The gameplay as a result becomes similar to titles like Star Fox or Space Harrier, where players follow behind the protagonist as they zoom through levels and avoid enemy gunfire. They don’t make many games like this any longer, and the style feels quainter and more obsolete compared to the scrolling shooter. But out of the games which do share this design ethos, Panorama Cotton stands out far above the pack.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t a fan of the Super Scaler games on the Mega Drive. The ones I played – Space Harrier 2, Super Thunder Blade, and Outrun – were awful. They often ran at single digit frame rates, but this was compounded by just how good their arcade equivalents were. SEGA came out with a new arcade chip every year in the 90’s, effortlessly delivering fast sprite scaling games that used speed to create the illusion of 3D. In their home-console incarnations, the illusion was broken, and it becomes crushingly clear that the games themselves, without their sense of spectacle, weren’t all that fun to play.
But somehow, Success poured their heart and soul into making Panorama Cotton work, and it shows. The game was natively made for the Mega Drive and is gorgeously smooth even in its original release. Environments are enchantingly psychedelic, with enough careful design to suggest a physical space rather than the amorphous landscapes of the Space Harrier games. Players are able to choose the pace Cotton flies with a toggle – slower speed is more skill intensive since you can actually aim your shots instead of firing wildly, but faster speed feels exhilarating as you zoom straight through levels.
The core mechanics of the earlier Cotton games make their way into Panorama – players still accumulate experience by picking up scrolls, and charge up magic spells to augment their standard attacks. The boss designs remain engaging, but the real standouts are the levels themselves, with branching paths depending on which side of the screen the player leans on. Across a single level players might find themselves travelling through tunnels, vertically up walls, travelling along rivers and shooting enemies in the clouds. A clever combination of ornamental sprites and vector math makes the scenes come to life, with a true sensation of depth that’s sometimes even more impressive than actual 3D polygons.
It’s not a perfect time though – gameplay does slow down when the screen gets really busy, and the occasional sprite flicker makes it hard to tell when your shots are landing. It’s a consequence of the genre rather than the game; all pseudo-3D shooters end up sacrificing skill for spectacle to some degree. If you’re looking for the smoothest experience, you’ll still want to pick up the SEGA AGES arcade port of Space Harrier or Outrun instead, since as a port of a Mega Drive game, Panorama Cotton still shows its limitations. But in terms of mechanics and replayability, Panorama Cotton sits as my favourite of its kind.
The emulation quality is serviceable, with the addition of save states and a handy rewind feature in “Standard” mode, which ensure all players will be able to see the games through to the end. There are also cheats available, but these must be unlocked by completing each game on its “Challenge” mode – no rewind, and with Game Overs enabled.
Considering playthroughs as both Cotton and Silk, Panorama Cotton will take about two hours to fully clear, but Challenge Mode will require some practice before players master the best routes. But the spectacle of this game never gets old – each level is so bright and colourful and happy that it’s just a joy to fly through over and over. Panorama Cotton is truly an unexpected gem that’s a delight for its entire runtime, and thanks to a modern rerelease which makes it more accessible to all sorts of players, it’s about time that more people discover this rare import title.
– Harvard L.