In 1994, Hardcore, originally developed by Digital Illusions (now better known as DICE), was set to be released for Mega Drive, Mega CD and Amiga. Instead, because of a fast approaching new generation of consoles, the publisher, Psygnosis, scrapped the project after it was nearly finished. In 2019, under the new title Ultracore, the game was released exclusively for Analogue’s Mega Sg; a console capable of playing classic Mega Drive, Amiga, Mega CD, and Sega cartridges. Now it’s been released for current generation consoles and it’s quite a treat.
Ultracore is a 16-bit side scrolling shooter similar to games like Contra. Players will navigate maze-like levels while traversing platforms and fighting various enemies and collecting power-ups. In a slight twist to the usual formula, you won’t be moving left across the screen the entire time. While some levels are completely linear, others are complex labyrinths of locked doors and platforming challenges. This focus on exploration adds an extra element of player engagement that isn’t present in more strict, linear shooters. While some levels are more open ended than others, each level is distinct and unconnected to the others, meaning you can’t return to earlier areas like you can in Metroidvanias, like Hollow Knight.
As is true for many games of the era, Utracore doesn’t include a save feature. After losing all your lives, you’re greeted with a classic arcade “Continue?” screen which allows you to replay the level. Quitting means you’ll have to start again from the very beginning. Thankfully, each level includes a password that can be entered in order to revisit that level immediately. Another relic of the limitations developers of the past had to deal with, this inability to save at any point gives Ultracore that signature difficulty that so many classic 16-bit games are known for, but I would have appreciated the inclusion of a legitimate save system.
The challenge doesn’t stop there. Fighting dozens of enemies coming from all directions, dodging waves of bullets, and managing your meager supply of ammunition are all difficulties that must be faced in order to progress through the five complex and maze-like levels. Tight corridors make navigating levels claustrophobic and hidden chambers as well as dead ends means that exploration is risky, but often rewarded with bonuses such as coins that can be used to purchase bombs and more powerful guns. Overall, Ultracore isn’t quite as demanding as platformers like Super Meatboy, and the combat isn’t as complex as it is in Hollow Knight, but there is enough of a difficulty curve to make the game inaccessible to more casual players while providing a suitable challenge to veterans of the genre.
Visually, any fans of classic amiga-esque sprites and environments will feel right at home. The soundtrack is also great with options to listen to the original soundtrack from 1994 or a new, original synth-style soundtrack from a variety of artists, which I would absolutely recommend.
With the option to use the joysticks to move and shoot, which was not available on the Amiga or Genesis, you have a lot more control and precision than when only using the directional pad. Despite this, wave after wave of enemies means that things still get pretty difficult. Unfortunately, the enemies aren’t very varied or challenging aside from the bosses. You’ll quickly get used to being swarmed by tiny flying robots while dodging missiles from nearby walkers. Boss battles are usually tight, requiring good timing and quick reflexes. Dying, however, isn’t much more than a slap on the wrist, as being killed or falling into a pit results in you respawning right where you were.
I’ve personally never played a game that was supposed to be released in 1994 before being picked up again over 20 years later, but Ultracore doesn’t disappoint. I appreciate the inclusion of various modern improvements, like the twin-stick shooting and the brand new soundtrack, but I would have liked to see a save feature included as well. Still, Ultracore is an appropriately challenging, visually pleasing, and highly nostalgic addition to anyone’s PlayStation library.