Switch version tested
Review code provided
Ultracore is a 16-bit 2D run ‘n’ gun game that requires razor-sharp precision and fast fingers to overcome a hell-like cybernetic army. Set against a futuristic sci-fi landscape, Ultracore has a retro vibe that runs through its very core (pun intended) and can be found on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and even the PlayStation Vita – yes there’s life in the Sony handheld (pun intended again). From an initial glance, you may be forgiven for thinking that this title is a generic rip-off of something you’d find on a Sega Mega Drive greatest hits collection and that’s not too far from the truth, in a roundabout way. Let me explain.
The game was originally developed by Swedish company Digital Illusions (DICE) during the early 90s under the working title Hardcore. It was practically finished and set for release on the Amiga and Sega platforms (Mega Drive / Genesis / SEGA CD) before ultimately it was canned by publisher Psygnosis. The decision was made to divert focus towards working on titles for the upcoming next generation of consoles, including Sony’s PlayStation which boasted powerful 3D graphics.
It was believed the game was lost forever. And it was until recently when an old hard drive was found, probably in someone’s basement under a pile of dads ‘magazines’, that contained the source code. Supported by Strictly Limited Games and ININ Games the project was finally finished using the methods and limitations of the original hardware before porting and delivering a playable game for modern consoles. Rebranded as Ultracore it is now available both digitally and for a limited physical run.
So what about the game itself, well that is quite an interesting question. Ultracore sits atop of a highwire perfectly balanced, on one side the game looks and feels fairly generic providing little that hasn’t been seen or done before and on the other side, it is a fun game that if released when originally intended could have brought something to the table. For retro enthusiasts and those interested in gaming history, this will certainly provoke intrigue. You play as a soldier, not too dissimilar to Kyle Reese. on a mission to save the day by collect power-ups, key cards and uncovering previously locked areas while battling through five large levels ending with epic BOSS BATTLES.
The level design is good and offers a reasonable amount of challenge, the learning curve can be a tad steep. Controls are logical, use the stick to move coupled with jump, fire, weapon select and an action function all of which are mapped to the main buttons. In addition, gunfire is also available on the second analogue adding a twin-stick element. The bottom portion of the screen is host to some vital stats including health, ammo and time remaining. I did find the added timer restricted exploration somewhat which is a key part of this Metroidvania feeling title, thankfully additional time can be collected and after a few attempts you get to grips with the location of important collectables.
Most enemies are forgettable with a handful of variants on offer and generally only take a few hits to terminate. Lazers and rocket launchers attached to walls become an annoyance but don’t let it overwhelm, keep moving and gunning. Terminals can be used to activate key cards and elevators or look at a pretty useless mini-map. Collect coins to gain extra lives and use continues if needed. BOSS BATTLES tend to provide more of a challenge, to be expected, but all follow a set pattern of attack and once understood become a breeze.
Visually Ultracore holds its own when compared to modern pixel art games. The animation of our protagonist is fluid and the backgrounds are full of gritty, dark detail. The use of parallax scrolling adds that great layered effect and boosts the limited colour scheme employed. Ultracore is on par with say Alien 3 or Turrican in many respects, just with more of a Terminator vibe. The soundtrack is pure 80s sci-fi synth with bullet effects and explosions hitting the intended target, the finished package is impressive if a little lacking. It would have been nice if some quality of life extras had been included, save states (as well as the level codes) and the option to adjust or stretch the image into fullscreen would have elevated Ultracore.
Ultracore, or Harcore as originally intended, is a fun title that will have appeal to retro gamers. The gameplay is enjoyable with exploration key in getting the most out of this gun ‘n’ gun title which, at times, can be a little hampered by the timer. The visual and soundtrack are appealing if a little generic. Overall gamers will have a great time with this once lost piece of gaming history, let’s hope that we see similar preservation efforts in the future.
TBG Score: 7.5/10
Platform: PlayStation, Nintendo
Release Date: 23/06/2020
No. of Players: 1
Category: Shooter, Action
Developer: Digital Illusions (DICE)
Publisher: Strictly Limited / ININ Games
Download link: eShop