Most people were probably not expecting DICE’s next project to be a side-scrolling 2.5D shooter.
Something before Battlefield 6? Surely not. But what’s even more interesting is that Ultracore was an abandoned project from way back in 1994. At the time, it was due to be published by Psygnosis who decided to can the project.
Psygnosis had recently been bought out by Sony and turns out they had a 3D focus in their future, with games like Wipeout, Destruction Derby, and 3D Lemmings setting the tone for the next evolution of games.
It seemed the time of games like Ultracore – previously known as Hardcore – was coming to an end as the PlayStation 1 started to soar in popularity.
It was a sour point for then Digital Illusions who apparently had a 99% completed build of ‘Hardcore’ and positive previews from press, but they were forced to shelf the game and move on to something else.
Until now, that is. Thanks to the never say die attitude of two of DICE’s founders and the resources of Strictly Limited Games, Hardcore has been reborn as Ultracore and is now available on Switch, PS4, and Vita over 25 years later!
And honestly, having dived into the game over the weekend, I’ve felt nothing but nostalgia for classic 2D shooters of old that I adored, such as Turrican and Shadow of the Beast – no, not the remake.
From the very moment that synth-style music started playing, I got goosebumps. And you can immediately tell this came from the crop of Psygnosis classics such as The Legend of Galahad and Puggsy with that all too familiar aesthetic, same care, and attention to detail.
It immediately set my mind racing about other games that never got to see the light of day from that era. Potential classics that were never allowed the chance to thrive. Could this game be a gateway to a whole new treasure trove of ‘what ifs’ ?
This isn’t just a straight-laced interpretation of the original build either, as the game has two separate soundtracks – one, a typical 16-bit rendition, while the other is a more modern take with a suitably retro aesthetic.
Both are fantastic, with the CD soundtrack slightly edging it out for me. It’s just a shame there’s no easy way to switch between them while in-game. You, unfortunately, have to quit out and restart each playthrough with the soundtrack you like. One of a couple things about this game that is just a little too dated.
I guess we find ourselves in an unusual gaming era where, on one hand, we’re talking about Ray Tracing, 60 Frames a Second, and Terraflops, and on the other hand, celebrating our retro heritage with Shovel Knight, re-released classics and games like Ultracore. I guess back in 1994 there wasn’t room to do both, but now the market has opened up so broadly, games like this can be judged on their merits, rather than any technical limitations.
And no matter which era it came from, Ultracore is a great twin-stick shooter with some tough platforming sections but also some fun weapons to blaze through. Yet it feels wholly unique for both the times it came from and the times it now finds itself in.
Most of the enemies you come up against are either ceiling turrets, large tankbots, or flying ships which constantly divebomb and are attracted to you like magnets. As such, levels do often follow a familiar sense of structure, but that doesn’t make the challenge any less taxing.
Fortunately, there’s lots of cool hidden areas to explore and hidden goodies to find, as well as new weapons, and even story-based sequences which help mix up the action, but also give you something to keep an eye out away from the beaten path.
The boss battles are also really neat in Ultracore. I had to take down this giant, cybernetic monstrosity which had frightening agility and could only be attacked from the front. Then there was another occasion where I had to fight three different divebombing bird craft at the same time and they were mercilessly out for my blood.
Each boss requires differing strategies and all of them suit that 90s 16 bit action game vibe.
There’s even a timer on the bottom right, which nearly caught me out a few times as I have a tendency to leave a game running when I review to make notes. One point, I hadn’t given myself enough time to finish a level. Whoops!
But while we celebrate the roots and heritage of Ultracore and the game it was meant to be, it’s also worth pointing out that not everything fits and settles. The game actually uses a passcode system in order to save your progress, meaning there’s no auto or manual save system in place.
That just doesn’t age well in 2020. And I guess that’s the tricky balancing act that developers have when trying to give off that retro feel nowadays, trying to stay authentic while ensuring the right mechanics are in place to ensure players stick till the end.
For the most part, I enjoyed Ultracore very much and think it holds up with many other platformers I’ve seen in recent years, but there are some mechanics and ways to play best left in the past.
The story of this game is truly inspirational and hopefully it inspires other developers to revisit their cancelled projects in the years to come. This team showed an incredible commitment to Ultracore – even finishing the remainder of the game on a Genesis test kit – and while aspects of it are definitely rough and dated, I am so glad this game has had the opportunity to see the light of day.
The quality, fantastic score, and pulse-pounding action are the perfect throwback to one of gaming’s greatest eras. Platformers were in their prime in the 90s and Ultracore is a great example of the creativity that studios were dishing out back then.
If you’ve been desperate for a slice of 16 bit quality shooters, Ultracore will absolutely scratch that itch.
Ultracore is out now on Switch, PS4, and Vita
Tested on Switch
Code provided by PR Hound