Rescue is a frequent theme in games, with protagonists habitually venturing journeying through the underworld to save a captive in peril. But with the release of Ultracore, this act of liberation was performed on the game itself. During the mid-nineties, Stockholm-based Digital Illusions (now known as DICE) created a 2D run-and-gun named Hardcore for the Genesis/Mega Drive, and Commodore Amiga.
But when Sony Interactive Entertainment purchased Hardcore’s publisher, Psygnosis in 1995, priorities changed. Sony sought to flaunt their console’s 3D, polygonal abilities. As such, capable two-dimensional titles like Gunner’s Heaven (aka Rapid Reload) never made it stateside. Sadly, the same fate befell the nearly completed, and unflinchingly 2D Hardcore. But now, over a quarter of a century later, Hardcore has been revived by Strictly Limited Games. The result, renamed Ultracore, is available for both PlayStation 4 and Switch (an Analogue Mega Sg iteration was released last year). While the revision boosts a modernized control system, some of the title’s other qualities feel distressingly antiquated.
A Bit of Aliens, A Dash of Apocalypse Now
Similar to mid-nineties contemporaries Super Turrican, Contra III: The Alien Wars, and Cybernator, plotline isn’t a priority for Ultracore. Much like Aliens, protagonist Private H.C. heeds an intergalactic distress signal, leading him to distant outpost. Unsurprisingly, adversity abounds, with the game’s labyrinthine environments abounding with threats. While there’s some backtracking for keycards, layouts aren’t too complex. That’s a good thing because only scarce terminals reveal a layout of each level. Interacting with these definitely conveys the retro-futurism of Aliens and The Terminator.
From perks packs of drones, bipedal mech like-creatures, sentry guns and a succession of bosses, Ultracore rarely lets up. Fortunately, Private H.C. is prepped for confrontation. Beyond an endless procession of standard issue projectiles, you regularly encounter new weapons that provide a more powerful punch but employ finite amounts of ammo.
Two Firing Methods
Opt for Hardcore/Ultracore’s original control scheme, and you’ll struggle with aiming. A straightforward stream of ballistics is easy enough to issue but thinks get tricky when you try to shoot elevated guns, flying enemies, and homing missiles. The game permits players to adjust their firing angle but holding down the trigger locks you aim in place. As such, it can difficult to exterminate the game’s frequent crowds of enemies.
But pleasingly, Strictly Limited allows players to use a twin-stick approach. In execution, it makes Ultracore feel much more like a contemporary shooter, as you fan your bullets to accurately target clusters of foes. That said, there are no adjustments to the jumps that require pixel-perfect precision. Occasionally, you’ll have to take leaps-of-faith as well. These are a mechanic best left in the nineties, that feel obsolete today. Similar, the decision to use alphanumeric codes to save your progress might stoke the flames of nostalgia. But the developers should have at least provided an option to use internal memory.
Lethal Leaps and Inevitable Hits
Premature deaths by missed jumps aside, there’s plenty of satisfaction to be found in Ultacore’s meandering hallways and boss chambers. Unlike some run-and-guns that bombard players with constantly respawn foes, the game’s adversaries stay dead. Not only does this provide players with a convenient bread-crumb trail, but there’s gratification is wiping out every last opponent in an area. While opinion might differ, I appreciated that boss battles weren’t remarkably harder than the fights against armies of subordinate adversaries. But given Private H.C. limited move-set, it would be hard to make these showdowns too complicated.
Had Hardcore arrived during Genesis/Mega Drive’s lifetime, it would be an accomplished visual performer. While the title might not demonstrate all the graphical wizardry of say, Gunstar Heroes, the title’s multitude of sprites dart around without any hint of slowdown. Sure, a couple of enemies and missiles are a bit too diminutive to see clearly when playing in handheld mode, but a few unavoidable hits are part of the experience. To compensate, Ultracore is lenient with both health pick-ups and extra lives, but you’ll have to poke around the environment to gather these. Aurally, the game is competent, with driving rhythms that deliver a hint of brash instrumentalization. Of course, there’s also a new CD-quality synthwave soundtrack to generate a more cinematic nineties vibe.
Your appreciation of Ultracore hinges on a single question: how much do you like rapid-fire run and guns. If you’re the type of player who relishes frenzied titles like Contra, Turrican, and Gunstar Heroes, you’ll probably want to pull the trigger on Ultracore. Sure, there’s some archaic elements, but there’s also a robotic army that’s quite fun to blast through.
Ultracore was played on Switch with review provided by the publisher