Intended For Release In 1994, 'Ultracore' Has Just Come Out In 2020
As someone who played a lot of video games in the early 1990s, primarily across the SEGA Mega Drive, Super Nintendo and Commodore Amiga, I'll always have a soft spot for new titles that echo the aesthetics of 16-bit gaming at its inarguable peak. Titles that feature delicious pixel art, instant-click mechanics with intuitive controls, and music that bleeps and bloops in all the right ways. It's absolutely why Huntdown and Streets of Rage 4 (review) are two of my games of the year, so far.
So when I first saw Digital Illusions' run-and-gunner Ultracore, I knew: this is one for me. But what I didn't realise, the first time I caught sight of its distinctly Amiga-like graphics, is that it's not a tribute to action games of the 16-bit era. Rather, it is an action game from the 16-bit era. It just got a bit delayed, is all. Yeah. Just a bit.
Ultracore began life as Hardcore, a game developed by Digital Illusions - the Swedish studio know known as DICE, responsible for EA's Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront franchises - and published by Liverpool's Psygnosis, the name behind Shadow of the Beast, Lemmings and WipEout (it was bought by Sony in 2000, and closed a decade later). It was being prepared for release in 1994, for the Amiga, SEGA Mega Drive and its CD-ROM peripheral, the Mega CD. But then Psygnosis got cold feet.
With the Sony PlayStation and SEGA Saturn on the horizon, the publisher felt that a 2D, side-scrolling action game simply wouldn't appeal to players. It cancelled Hardcore, and Digital Illusions moved onto its next releases, the Amiga's Pinball Illusions and, marking the developer's debut on PlayStation, True Pinball. Psygnosis, meanwhile, embraced the dawn of 3D gaming with mixed results, putting out Destruction Derby, WipEout and 3D Lemmings in 1995.
But Hardcore refused to die. DICE's co-founders showcased some of the game at an event in 2010, and in 2018 it came back for keeps, with Strictly Limited Games announcing they were to finish the game off using vintage Mega Drive dev kits, and release it on a Mega Drive cartridge, albeit under the new title of Ultracore. Its first release came in 2019 as the bundled game with Analogue's excellent after-market, HD-enabled, Mega Drive library-compatible console, the Mega Sg; and after that came the super-limited cartridge version, which sold out immediately.
But now - as in, right now, you can go and download it, if you like - Ultracore is available digitally for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. More surprisingly, there's a PlayStation Vita version promised, too, which is kind of amazing. And I have to say: this game isn't bad, y'know. Dated, sure - but then, why wouldn't it be? It's from 1994.
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Looking back, it's a shame that Psygnosis saw fit to cast Ultracore aside, because experienced today it doesn't feel super dissimilar to another side-scrolling action game of 1994, Super Metroid. You move through levels, flipping switches and collecting key cards and powers necessary to open up exits and new areas, as well as defeat some impressively proportioned bosses, while constantly under attack from robotic enemies that come in a wealth of shapes and sizes. Not gonna lie, the story of the game isn't much to write home about: man with gun shoots aliens or else the aliens win. But did you ever play these things for the stories, really?
Perhaps more than Super Metroid, the game that Ultracore is most evocative of, to me, is 1991's Amiga title Turrican II: The Final Fight - a game some readers might know as Universal Soldier, as it was given a movie license makeover for its Mega Drive and SNES release in 1992. It was a run-and-gunner with crisp visuals, maze-like levels and, if I'm honest, some unnecessarily tricky platforming that resulted in some cheap deaths.
Ultracore delivers all of those things - and sticking with the firmly '90s vibe, it offers only (long!) passwords as save points between stages and a strict limit on continues to get the game finished. There's something about its overall palette that reminds me of Bitmap Brothers games like Magic Pockets and Gods, too.
I'm not sure that anyone who didn't play games like Turrican II and Super Metroid - as well as the similarly designed likes of the Mega Drive's Alien 3 adaptation, and Contra: Hard Corps/Probotector - will get a lot out of Ultracore in 2020. If that era of gaming was well before your time, then this release's lack of concessions to contemporary game design - like save points and controls remapping, for example - could frustrate more than delight. But as someone who was there when Ultracore should have come out, and who would have likely played it at the time given Psygnosis' stellar reputation, I'm incredibly happy that it exists in the here and now.
Ultracore is out now for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. A Switch code was provided by the publisher for this coverage.
Featured Image Credit: Strictly Limited Games, DICE