To give you some idea as to how difficult (or “old school”) this game is, it was initially called Hardcore. If it retained that title, I could have easily gone with, “Hardcore by name, hardcore by nature” and called it a day.
But of course, I wouldn’t do that. I do actually like to put some effort into these, but I just wanted to use the above as an elaborate framing device. Yet to call Ultracore an old school throwback is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not a new game made with a retro aesthetic. Instead, it’s a game that all but came to fruition in 1994.
So why now, you might be wondering? What’s so special about this game that it took twenty six years to finally come out, yet still looks exactly like a Mega Drive game? Well, let’s find out, shall we…
The story behind Ultracore isn’t necessarily one of developer conflict, nor in-fighting that led to cancellation. It wasn’t a Phil Fish-style tantrum that saw a project buried, only to be revived by a wistful developer some years later.
Instead, it’s a rather simple, if misguided call from a once-highly regarded publisher that prevented the title from seeing general release. Which must have been a real pisser when it was practically ready to go. Digital Illusions (now DICE of Battlefield fame) had this prepped and ready for a simultaneous launch on the Atari, Mega Drive and Sega CD.
And then, Psygnosis pulled it. Fearing that a 16bit shooter wouldn’t hold up in the ever-growing focus on full 3D titles, Hardcore was pulled amid concern of waning sales and interest. Which makes you wonder, what with Konami putting out Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Suikoden, two hybrid 2D/3D titles, that Hard/Ultracore would possibly have reached a similar cult status after an initial poor reception…?
Hypothetical speculation aside, it didn’t happen. Psygnosis said nay, which left Hardcore floundering for the next two and a half decades. Bar a few leaked gameplay videos, it dropped off the radar into obscurity. Even I, someone who has a strong favour for 16bit gaming, had never heard of this one.
It would have continued to go unnoticed, too, if Strictly Limited Games hadn’t started the revival process back in 2018. The real question then is, “What’s all the fuss about?”, and is it worthy of our time?
There’s No School Like The Old School
In terms of gameplay, Ultracore brings nothing new to the genre. But then… why would it? This isn’t an unfinished, broken game that’s been rebuilt with modern inflection.
It’s a run (and gun) of the mill 2D platform/shooter, and it makes absolutely no attempt at hiding it. In fact, the only thing modernised about it is the control scheme. You can, if you’re a purist, play it with a D-pad and minimal face buttons. But, in a similar vein to Neon Abyss, there’s the inclusion of right thumbstick aim/shooting and shoulder button jumping. Again, this may take some getting used to, but honestly, I found it a lot easier than trying to aim with the movement stick whilst pressing two face buttons at once.
Levels are pretty straightforward, yet not completely linear. If anyone’s played Alien 3 back in the SNES days, you’ll be right at home with this. For those that didn’t, Ultracore uses a keycard and terminal system. Pick up a coloured keycard and find either the corresponding door or terminal to open it. It’s a bit hit and miss at times, as the game doesn’t specifically tell you whether it will be door or terminal needed, but it’s not too much of a slog to find out.
Otherwise it’s just a classic case of “shoot all the things”, collecting coins along the way (there’s a shop at intervals for power ups), taking on a sub-boss before going on to fight an end of level boss. Now, that’s not a criticism. I know that it all sounds pretty rote, but this would have been the pinnacle of gaming in 1994. Maybe…
“In The Grim And Distant Future…”
Now, this would normally be the part where I regale you with the elaborate plot synopsis, or at least enough to get you interested. The problem with Ultracore’s plot is, well… it’s a bit weak.
You, a private named H.C and her crew have responded to a distress call on an unnamed planet. Their ship crashes on arrival, which sees you finding bodies littered along corridors as you piece together why you’re being attacked by killer robots, drones and turrets. Turns out, there’s a bad man named Vance who wants to attack Earth with said army of robots, and only you can stop him. Naturally, this means finding another ship, hence the assault through waves of bots and the manufacturing facility.
And… that’s your lot. No Spec Ops: The Line-esque plot twists, no contrived Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots nanomachine monkey-shines. Just a straight up, “old fashioned”, barely-on-par-with-Contra plot. Hell, I only discovered Private H.C was a woman on the Game Over screen. Oh, and now it’s just dawned on me that her name is the abbreviation of Hard and Core. Well done, Digital Illusions.
Blasting To The Beat
Don’t let the above put you off, though. Sarcastic as it was, it just goes to show that Ultracore doesn’t need a story to carry it. No one plays MegaMan for the cutscene-heavy gameplay, do they?
What it does need, and thankfully delivers on, are some top notch weapons and crisp audio assaults to get you hyped to carry on. Weapon variety is pretty well covered, from your standard blaster to submachine guns, laser rifles, twisting beam cannons and single use bombs. Your blaster has unlimited ammunition yet can be upgraded, whilst the collectibles all share from the same ammo pool you nab along the way. It’s not a tactical game, as any weapon can take on anything. There’s no weaknesses or defences, it’s just whichever you prefer to use at that time.
When it comes to soundtrack, however, that’s where Ultracore shines. The standard audio track is a wonder in “retro” synthwave/brooding electronica. It harks back to classic Mega Drive sinister tones heard in darker Streets of Rage levels, or Ecco the Dolphin’s final boss fight (you know the one I mean, with the alien queen). Now, normally that’d be enough, but Strictly Limited have gone one further.
If you bought the physical edition of this strictly limited game (hence why they’re called that), you’ll get the soundtrack CD with the bundle. But this is no ordinary soundtrack CD, as it actually contains songs by popular synthwave artists like Fury Weekend, Mega Drive, Scandroid, Waveshaper and more.
“But what does this mean to me, who’s only got the digital download version?”
In the options, you can choose to play with this soundtrack instead. So Ultracore boasts not one but two banging soundtracks, free of charge. The only caveat is that whilst game scores are designed to loop, Scandroid songs aren’t. So every time you pause, look at a terminal, transition to a new room… the song starts again. It’s a minor inconvenience but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a dealbreaker.
Some Things Should Be Left In The Past
What could potentially be a dealbreaker is just how convoluted Ultracore’s progression system is. Lives and a continue system is one thing, that’s understandable. That’s pure retro, a throwback that fits a title like this.
However, the only means of saving is a passcode system. Oh, a randomly generated passcode system, too. So instead of being able to say, look online as a rudimentary form of level skipping/cheating, you have to make it that far yourself. Alright, you shouldn’t be doing that anyway, otherwise what would be the point in buying it?
But if you’re not paying attention and you skip that end level screen with your code on it, that’s your lot. You’d better hope you make it through the next level with enough lives and continues, or it is back to square one. And whilst this wasn’t a game-destroying bug, the fact that I was pressing Yes on the continue screen to no avail recently had me absolutely spitting tacks.
Considering most emulators, legal or otherwise, offer some form of level-saving progression or save states, it’s a glaring oversight. Admittedly, it would contradict the “time capsule” nature of game, but then why add twinstick support but not save states?
As I say, it’s not a complete dealbreaker, but given that Ultracore does have some occasionally infuriating platforming moments, it will test your patience. To die to a hoard of robots and gunfire is one thing, to lose all progress to some fiddly platforming is another.
This Belongs In A Museum
Archaic progression system aside, Ultracore is a blast to play. I haven’t mentioned the graphics because, well, I don’t really need to say much more than, “It looks like a Mega Drive game”.
It plays just as you would expect an “old school” shooter to play: fundamentally difficult, takes a while to get used to, becomes hellish fun when you start to get the hang of it. My only real complaint would be the platforming sections, where leaps of faith and even what you think are perfectly timed jumps can lead to instant-kill deathtraps.
But much like Treasure’s classics like Gunstar Heroes or Alien Soldier, Ultracore dazzles with its variety of weapons and banging tunes on the soundtrack(s). If we were granted the physical edition, I’d be listening to this in my car.
It brings nothing new to even the oldest of examples I’ve given. Had this actually come out in ’94, it’d be heralded as a well-polished looking game. To judge it by any of today’s offerings wouldn’t be fair. Aside from the more accessible control options, it brings nothing that wouldn’t see it sell well back in the early nineties.
Yet, that’s not a criticism at all. Admittedly, this will only really appeal to those who love their retro titles. Although, even I knew nothing about this, and I’m still enjoying it. If you fancy something a little bit old fashioned, but don’t want to fork out for the Sega Classics Collection, then Ultracore is the game for you.
It doesn’t offer anything new in “old school” regards, but the solid run-and-gun gameplay paired with two cracking soundtrack options should appeal to the curious.
Ultracore is available now for PS4 (reviewed on Pro), Nintendo Switch. A PS Vita port is coming but has no specified date.
Developer: Digital Illusions/Strictly Limited Games
Publisher: Strictly Limited Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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