This trio of retro shmups – Cotton 2, Cotton Boomerang and Guardian Force – came out under the “Saturn Tribute” umbrella (bundled together on a physical cartridge in Japan that was recently announced for the West, or available individually through your local eShop at at the time of writing) and offers more than just a respectful nod to Sega’s beloved underdog. These are real Saturn games, emulated on the Switch. In fact they are so Emulated Cotton 2 always flashes the same “EXT — RAM FOUND!” message on the title screen, indicating the (virtual) presence of a 1MB RAM expansion cartridge from Saturn.
This isn’t the first instance of Saturn emulation on the Switch (that honor seems to go to the phenomenal roguelike dungeon robot Baroque) but it’s a trend we’re more than happy to see continue, especially as the ‘cheap’ Saturn copies of any of the three games here cost at least £ 150 on a good day, making it appear Saturn Tribute on the surface like an absolute godsend.
The emulation settings for all three games are identical and can be accessed by pressing the minus key at any time. There are two language settings available, English and Japanese, but this only affects the text in the options menu – the games themselves remain completely untranslated.
What difference does it make not being able to understand the story in a shmup? A lot, in fact. For both Cottons, this takes away a whole layer of charm – a charm that’s meant to be there and meant to be part of the player’s game experience – and also takes away a reason to engage with them beyond scoring. / perfection, which makes it harder for newcomers to find a friendlier path in the wonderful world of shmups. It also means that English players cannot read the contextual help (sometimes tactical support, sometimes just to cheer you on) that shows up on Cotton 2’s continuous screens or even the names of Guardian Force bosses.
All knobs are fully linkable (directional inputs are however limited to the analog stick / D-pad), with the default setting mapping the Saturn’s “A”, “B” and “C” to the “B”, “” A ‘and’ ZR ‘. This makes sense when it comes to transferring the physical layout from one console controller to another (leftmost button is ‘A’, rightmost button is ‘C’), but this means that in-game you typically use ‘B’ on the Joy-Con to confirm actions, a fact made worse by the emulation’s settings menu still using the standard Switch labeling. Need to reset the game using the emulator menu? It’s as easy as bringing it up in settings and then pressing “A”. It’s A ‘A’ – Joy-Con ‘A’ – not B ‘A’, who is the in game ‘A’.
Confused? This is just how these games work (not quite). Anti-aliasing is another option that technically-sorta does[n’t do] what it’s supposed to do, cover the screen with a really soft down and… well, that’s it. There is no scan line option, nor any ability to transform meshes sometimes used over 20 years ago to simulate transparent colors into true transparencies, a feature offered by some Saturn emulators for years. As for screen sizes, there’s the original, the max (luckily now the right aspect ratio rather than stretching the image), and absolutely nothing else.
On a more positive note, the presence of a fast save / load (only one slot) as well as a fast rewind function and slow motion mode make it easier to practice in a tricky spot or just put the games down and to take a break, and a brief game guide can be displayed for each game at any time, showing a few pages of basic information on controls, flow, etc. Unfortunately, it’s as close to any type of manual as you can get with these games, and the controls page is so basic that it doesn’t even list what each button does (Boomerang, for example, only lists the default assignments of shot / take / change, completely failing to mention that the other five the free buttons of this virtual Saturn pad can be used as shortcuts for many slightly annoying command input plans). So unless you already know otherwise or take the time to experiment, these games can seem a lot more shallow than they actually are.
The good news unfortunately ends there, as the frame lag is also high across all three games (which isn’t exactly surprising considering that, as far as we can tell, these are all titles from. Saturn immersed in the same generic emulation wrapper) and without being unplayable. , there’s a clear delay between entry and action in the genre you need fast and precise entries the most, almost as if the presses only register when you let go with a button rather than pressing. There are also no extras beyond what’s already included in the original versions of Saturn – mostly unlocked by default when available, which goes so far as to tinker with games. It’s a huge disappointment and an obvious hole in the games that are supposed to be part of a 30th anniversary celebratory reissue of the Cotton series.
Overall, the emulation oscillates uncomfortably somewhere between usable and mediocre, so it’s a good thing that the quality of the games themselves is enough to forcefully lift this package above its mediocre setting. All three titles have unique mechanics – ranging from multi-directional scrolling combined with 360 ° turret rotation to selecting a team of characters to switch between the mi-shmup – that not only stand out from each other, but other great shmups on both their new and old homes as well.
Cotton Boomerang may look off-putting close to Cotton 2 in the screenshots, but the two go in very different directions before you even reach the start of stage one and under better emulation circumstances are well worth the time to anyone. All three are more accessible than many more modern “bullet hell” shmups (like Espgaluda II) simply because they don’t try to constantly line the screen with bullets or offer half a dozen balls. Different game modes that require knowledge of three different scoring systems to really enjoy. It’s just a shame that such long-awaited and welcome reissues have been treated with so little care.
Cotton 2, Cotton Boomerang and Guardian Force are a lot of fun and disappointed not with their age but with the quality of these Switch ports. What should have been a full buy for anyone looking for more arcade action is now something to consider carefully first and possibly wait for a sale or patch. There are plenty of other shmups – retro, arcade, and brand new – on Switch that are all more worthy of your hard-earned money.