Some games take the longest, windiest roads to release. Ultracore didn’t always have this name: it was originally planned to be ‘Hardcore’. It wasn’t going to be first launched on Xbox either. It was due for release on Amiga, Genesis/Megadrive and Sega CD in 1994 before Psygnosis decided that all those platforms were on the wane (PS1 was ruling at this point), so they pulled the plug. That decision was made knowing that Hardcore was 99% complete at the time.
Zip forward to 2018, as physical game specialists Strictly Limited Games partnered with DICE (previously Psygnosis) and some of Hardcore’s former developers to polish the game for the Mega Sg handheld. A few ports and a retitle later (Hardcore was under copyright with Sony) and we have Ultracore in our hands, released with a slew of other shoot ’em ups by ININ Games. It’s taken twenty-nine years and a dozen different platforms, but it’s finally here.
It’s hard not to make assumptions based on that tale. If Ultracore was canceled when 99% complete, then it’s got to be arse, right? And it’s not been covered by a deluge of awards or acclaim since. We arrived to review Ultracore with relatively low expectations.
We needn’t have been concerned. Ultracore may well be a product of its time, lumbered with a few issues that would have been addressed in a modern run-and-gunner, but it’s otherwise absolutely worth picking up. Think of it as Contra with uneven difficult spikes and a reluctance to go outside and you’ve got Ultracore.
There’s a nostalgic Amiga-ness to the graphics in Ultracore. It was what passed for photo-realism at the time: depth through shading, moody lighting and lots of shiny surfaces. It’s very The Chaos Engine. You’ll either love it or find it all a touch bland.
Ultracore doesn’t do itself any favours in that ‘bland’ regard, since it mostly stays indoors in repetitious corridors, with enemies that are nothing more than drones and robots. We’d argue that it’s what Ultracore lacks most: a sense of personality. You can see why Psygnosis didn’t think there was a brand worth preserving in Ultracore, as it never quite finds a unique voice.
But get on the sticks and – through a combination of the original game’s verve and the modernisation from DICE – Ultracore feels great to play. It’s been updated to a twin-stick control scheme, and it works a treat. Outside of the odd moment where it isn’t quite accurate enough to snipe a gun turret at long range, it does everything you’d want. Ultracore could have been a modern game made to look like an Amiga game and we would have believed you.
We played Ultracore tentatively. As much as we wanted to don a red bandanna and jump into the melee, it’s not built that way. Health is to be conserved and enemies can be hidden, latched onto walls or ceilings. You’re clearing rooms like you’re in Rainbow Six Vegas, which sets it a little aside from Contra, Metal Slug and the rest. Which is fine: it’s a taste thing, and we acquired it pretty quickly.
Initially, we thought Ultracore was easy. The title and the retro pedigree led us to believe the opposite would be true. But if you take your time, Ultracore puts you in complete control. Several enemies have a shorter range than you, while others are locked to particular shooting arcs. Other enemies have no attacks at all, looking to cuddle you to death. You soon learn that there are only a few enemies to worry about (a deadly speed-roomba is one of them), and develop counter-measures against them.
Ultracore also gives you a healthy arsenal to defeat the enemy. New guns can be found in weapon boxes, where they’re unlocked permanently. They have finite ammo, again found in the levels, so you might lapse into a pattern – like we did – where the best guns are saved for the bosses and mini bosses. But they’re all situational and very powerful, and made even more powerful by the gun upgrades that are also tucked into secret areas. A tip for the uninitiated: level up your basic rifle first, as it’s what you’ll be using about fifty percent of the time.
But while the base challenge level is easy, there are stupendous difficulty spikes, and these are Ultracore’s second big issue (and, really, there are only two of them). While the shooting is swell, the platforming is below par. And it’s through the platforming that Ultracore becomes difficult. There are two egregious sections that have the same problem: some platforms bounce when you land on them, but that becomes a problem when the platform is moving below spikes. Jump on a platform late, and it will bounce, leaving you impaled on spikes. Another section requires you to wait until the top of the bounce to make a jump, and it’s nowhere near precise or reliable enough to pull that off.
While we can pinpoint two definite sections that are a problem, the platforming is low-level naff throughout. There’s no ability to peek below you, but there are certainly leaps of faith. To make that worse, there is fall damage, so you better make a landing quick sharpish. Land on spikes and you’re insta-killed, which is a problem when there are limited lives and continues. The punishment for falling off a platform is magnitudes worse than getting shot by a drone.
It creates something of a Ying Yang, as the shooting is exquisite and the platforming very much isn’t. As we said earlier, we can’t help think that a modern game would push down the platforming or tinker with the failure states. Credit to ININ Games for adding its customary features that soften the problem, then. You can rewind whole chunks of a level with the press of LB, and an alternative game mode effectively lets you play with infinite lives. ININ have done yet another stellar preservation job.
It’s worth grappling with the platforming, not only because the shooting is fab, but because the level structure is more ambitious than we remembered from games in 1994. It’s not quite a Metroidvania, since the walls you hit are unlocked by keycards more than mechanical abilities, but the levels are definitely more sprawling and undirected than we remember any Megadrive game being. It’s entirely possible to get lost (a map would have been welcome, outside of occasional terminals found in the levels), and Ultracore feels grander and deeper as a result.
That feeling is enriched by Ultracore’s love for a secret. Cracked walls – sometimes no more than a few pixels wide – can be shot to grab one-ups and other collectibles, all tallied at the end of each level to generate a score. There are dozens of them per level, encouraging you to pay attention at all times.
And then there’s the surfeit of bosses. Ultracore takes a Streets of Rage approach and delivers mini bosses as well as bosses, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. Very few of them are particularly challenging, since they have very clear dead spots and memorisable phases, but they at least pose an initial challenge. The fact that there are so many of them is the real wonder. We enjoyed the cognitive shift from the corridor shooting that they represented.
Which is all to say that we can see why Strictly Limited Games resurrected Ultracore. It’s slower paced and more deliberate than its forebears, and it needed to either rip out or improve its platforming, but what is here is slick and gets the adrenaline pumping.
‘Ultra’ is probably overstating it, but any lover of Contra, Mega-Man and Metal Slug will find plenty of value from their £7.99 purchase of Ultracore.