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Ultracore (NS)

By Evan Norris 28th Jun 2020 | 4,414 views 

Rage against the machine.

Playing Ultracore in 2020 feels like a miracle. Designed in the early 90s by Digital Illusions (currently known as DICE) Ultracore — at that time titled Hardcore — was cancelled at the last minute by publisher Psygnosis, who feared the Mega Drive game would flop in the shadow of Sony's PlayStation. Fast forward to 2019, when Strictly Limited Games salvaged the code, revived the game, and packaged it alongside the aftermarket Mega Sg console. Now, in 2020, the game officially cancelled in 1994 has come to Switch and PS4. The question remains: was it worth saving?

Judged on its story alone, probably not. It's simple, cliched, and altogether inconsequential. The villain Vance orders his machines to invade your home planet. With your outposts destroyed and your base under attack, you, the lone surviving solider, must find and destroy Vance.

Story is beside the point in a game like Ultracore, however. A 2D run-and-gun game in the style of Turrican, all it really needs is a reason to blow things up and a target at which to point a weapon. Evaluated against its original peers — the Turricans, Contras, and Gunstar Heroes of the world — the game fares decently, with visceral action, large levels with plenty of secrets, and a solid collection of bosses.

Ultracore boast five levels in total, each guarded by a mid-stage and final boss, filled with hidden chambers and power-ups, and swarming with deadly robots — some bipedal, some airborne, others rooted to the ceiling and walls as turrets. Shooting these robotic foes is good fun, thanks to the one major modern concession Strictly Limited Games added to the source code: twin-stick controls. The importance of the twin-stick set-up shouldn't be overestimated. The original control scheme, whereby you can either root yourself and aim or run and gun simultaneously, is stiff and awkward.

Outside of twin-stick aiming and shooting, Ultracore plays almost exactly as it would have in 1994. True to the genre and the era, that translates into some aggravating, punishing gameplay. The main culprits: fussy platforming sections and death traps. While the title finds a comfortable difficulty level in combat, it's almost cruel in terms of level navigation. Several jumps require pixel-perfect precision — there's one area early in the game where you need to bounce on a platform and then leap at the height of the bounce to reach the next platform safely, or else fall to your death — and there are more than a few "gotcha" traps designed only to part you from one of your very valuable extra lives. 

Those lives are truly precious, as you'll have only a limited number of them, alongside finite continues, to make it through all five levels. The game supports a password system that allows players to pick up at later stages, but it feels absolutely antiquated in 2020. A stage select function would have been a nice compromise, to go along with twin-stick controls.

While Strictly Limited Games didn't make edits to the game's save system, it did leave its own stamp on sound. Included in Ultracore is its already-awesome chiptune metal music, plus a completely new synthwave soundtrack from 12 different modern artists, including Scandroid, Mega Drive, and 3Force. Both soundtracks, old and new, are great. Graphics, meanwhile, remain untouched.

Was Ultracore worth saving? Yes. It's a fair take on the run-and-gun genre, with rewarding exploration, interesting boss battles, great music, and entertaining action — thanks to a retrofitted twin-stick control scheme. At the same time, however, it suffers from punishing platforming, cheap deaths, and an outdated password system. No matter what, it's great news that Ultracore can now see the light of day, after 25 years in the dark.

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This review is based on a digital copy of Ultracore for the NS, provided by the publisher.

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