By Aaron Evangelisti / July 15th, 2020
A few weeks back I covered a press release on a “lost game” that had recently launched on modern consoles, that game being Ultracore from Strictly Limited Games and Digital Illusions. My initial reaction to watching the trailer was that it looked pretty cool. I was really intrigued by the idea of a previously lost game, that could have gone on to be a classic retro title, has finally seen the light of day. One thing I have to admit finding a bit off-putting, however, was the price tag of $22.99 USD. That just seems very high for what is effectively a retro title. I have, though, had the opportunity to sit down with the game thanks to a key for Nintendo Switch provided by the publisher to give my impression of Ultracore, and perhaps see if that price tag is warranted.
First, a bit of history: Sometime in the early 90’s, Digital Illusions (now DICE) began development on a game called Hardcore for the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, and the Amiga. However, a dark shadow loomed over Hardcore‘s development, that being the upcoming release of the next generation of consoles. The publisher, Psygnosis, feared that there would be no interest in the game with the next generation just right around the corner, so they decided to pull the plug despite Hardcore being quite far in development. And just like that, it entered the ranks of lost games.
Well at least it was lost until German publisher, Strictly Limited Games, formed a team that included two of the original developers to finish Hardcore for modern consoles in 2018. This team would finish development using an original Sega Genesis development kit. They did run into issues with licensing so Hardcore became Ultracore, and its first official release came out in 2019, included with the Mega Sg, a clone console capable of playing Sega Master System, Genesis, Game Gear, and SG-1000 titles. This wasn’t the end of the story for Ultracore, however, as about a year later it would also be released for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.
Now that we got the history stuff out of the way, let’s actually talk about the meat and potatoes: Ultracore is a side-scrolling, run and gun shooter. It’s not too dissimilar from games like Super Turrican. Your basic goal is simply to reach the end of the level and defeat the boss that’ll be found at the end of said level. Naturally, there are enemies that aim to make that goal not so straightforward. There’s also a slight emphasis in exploration as you’ll need to collect key cards and use them to open certain doors. You have the ability to fire your weapon in seven directions, which is nice because the enemy will be coming at you from every direction. You’ll also acquire a wide range of different guns as you progress through the game. Levels are expansive and pretty long, consisting of a somewhat maze-like design, secrets, multiple bosses, and coins that can be collected for extra lives. The game features two sound options SFX + FM Music and CD Music. CD Music possibly being what might have been experienced had the Sega CD version been released.
There are a few small things about Ultracore I find frustrating. It’s filled with what could be called “beginners traps”. Those are various hazards that are very difficult, or even impossible, to avoid without knowing they’re there. This leads to what feels like many cheap deaths during your first playthrough. This includes things like enemies that blend into the background and are hard to see until they’re right on top of you, death pits that come out of nowhere, and elevator sections where enemies just fall on top of you. In addition to that, some of the level design includes long stretches where a high level of precision platforming is required. I would like to highlight a specific example here:
In the above screenshot you can see I am standing on a platform suspended above a field of light emanating from the floor. I need to get that platform in the upper left hand corner of the screen. Now, not only do I have to deal with that turret to the right, but that platform is actually much higher than my max jump height. If I jump down on the platform I’m standing on it will spring up, and make the jump possible, but still the platform becomes only just reachable, leaving practically no room for error. If you don’t time the jump perfectly, you will fall, and that light coming from the floor I previously mentioned, touching it leads to instant death similar to spikes in many games. And this is only one of multiple similar jumps that have to be made during the segment to progress. This can eat up many of your lives very easily. I’m not necessarily opposed to instant death trap in games, but here they feel inappropriate. This could have been made less frustrating if the light field dealt damage, and gave you a second or two of invulnerability frames, rather than being instant death.
Finally, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, that price tag. Ultracore is, effectively, a port of a retro game, even if it may not have seen an official release back in the 90’s. There are many ports of retro titles available on the Switch eShop, and generally they aren’t priced higher than $7.99 or so. In order to justify $22.99 it would have to be quite modernized, and Ultracore is really lacking in that respect. This isn’t an HD remaster of any sort, these are the same graphics the game would have had in 1994. The CD soundtrack option sounds nice, but for reasons I don’t understand the CD quality audio mutes the sound effects, and when the music track ends, there’s an awkward few seconds of silence before the track restarts. As cool as the CD tracks sound given the loss of sound effects and the awkward looping, I can’t really say it’s favorable to the default sound options. Finally, the biggest ball that was dropped in this release in my opinion, is that the method used to save your progress is passwords. This was of course very common in games back in the day, but let’s face it, having to write down and input passwords is pretty annoying, particularly when those passwords are 16 characters long and the font choice they went with is kind of hard to read. It’s really perplexing that a proper option to save your progress was not included. One feature that is nice, however, is the ability to aim and fire using the right analog stick. It actually took me a while to discover this feature and it’s far easier than trying to both move and aim with the D-pad (or left analog stick).
Ultimately, the price point would be the biggest reason why I feel I couldn’t recommend Ultracore. It’s just too bare bones of a port to justify a $20 plus price. There is some fun to be had with Ultracore, certainly, but around $7.99 or so seems far more reasonable. Maybe if you can catch it on sale, and you don’t mind some occasional frustration and cheap deaths, go for it! But until then, I’m going to say this is a pass.
Ultracore is available now for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. You can buy also buy physical copies over at Strictly Limited Games online store.
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