Review – Ultracore

Time for another brief history lesson with yours truly. Do you know DICE? You know, the ones behind Battlefield, Battlefront, and Mirror’s Edge? Before being bought by EA and before becoming the publisher’s flagship developer, they were an up and coming developer called Digital Illusions. A small group of Swedish developers making games for the Amiga, the SNES, and the Mega Drive back in the early 90’s. One of their first projects was a promising action platformer called Ultracore. A game that was cancelled at the last minute by its publisher, Psygnosis.

Psygnosis had little faith in an action platformer developed with the Mega Drive’s hardware in mind, as it was 1994. The PS1 was right around the corner, Sega was confusing consumers with their add-ons, as well as their plans for the future, so DICE’s project eventually got canned. That’s not the end of the story, however. Many years later, indie publisher, Strictly Limited Games, managed to find the almost-finished build and announced it would find a way to actually complete it and release it. They contacted former DICE employees, including the company’s founder, gave them an actual Mega Drive devkit, and managed to finish the product.

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Think of it as a Mega Drive game. A very pretty Mega Drive game.

It got released as a Mega Drive ROM and repro cartridge, but it was also ported for modern systems, such as the PS4 and the Switch. Ultracore is now available for the Vita as well, and I simply couldn’t resist testing it out on Sony’s criminally underrated handheld. That was the best decision I could have made.

Reviewing Ultracore as a modern game is a complicated task, because at its core, this is a Mega Drive game through and through. Sure, it’s on a modern system, has a slightly higher level of polish than games from thirty years ago, and it has trophies. However, it was developed with Sega’s classic console’s graphical limitations and its soundchip in mind.

It looks like a Mega Drive game and a really impressive one at that. Complete with excellent animations, even if its backgrounds look very repetitive after a while. It also sounds exactly like what a Mega Drive game would sound back in the day, with all the hindrances provided by the console’s below-average soundchip. If you grew up with a Mega Drive, you know exactly what to expect from it. It’s not that bad, but it’s far from memorable either. It’s not a Yuzo Koshiro work, that’s for sure.

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“We also make Battlefields for your future.”

What’s actually impressive about Ultracore is how fun it is to play. This is your typical action shooter from the time, featuring gigantic levels with equal amounts of fast-paced action and exploration. You have to shoot everything in sight, as nearly everything will want to shoot at you. However, there are also tons of secrets to unveil, such as breakable walls, in a very Metroid-esque fashion. Each level has a handful of bosses to defeat, which aren’t too hard as they just follow behavioral patterns you should memorize, just like any other game from the era. The weapons at your disposal all pack one hell of a punch, making the act of destroying everything in sight feel really rewarding. All in all, the gameplay is great, but there is a catch.

I know I said that this is basically a Mega Drive game, but the developers did add one little modern feature: twin-stick shooting. You can use the Vita’s right analog stick to aim and shoot at enemies with ease, making you feel even more overpowered than you already are. Is it a bit game-breaking? Yes, but you can still play it by aiming and shooting with the square button instead. It makes Ultracore exponentially more challenging, and even a bit unfair at times, since the game forces you to have lightning-fast reflexes, but think of it as two different difficulty settings available at once.

I will admit that I decided to review Ultraforce on the Vita out of novelty. Being able to review a game for the system in 2020 is like finding a droplet of water in the middle of the Sahara. That ended up being advantageous, because Ultraforce does look like a perfect fit for the system, as the Vita’s screen size is pretty small. Sure, the Switch is also a portable, but its screen size is still pretty big. Don’t even get me started on trying to play this on a huge TV. The Vita’s smaller screen made me feel like I was actually playing a proper Mega Drive game from back in the day, complete with a 4:3 screen ratio.

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Can’t say I cared about the game’s plot. I didn’t even remember it existed until I checked my screenshots. I just want to explode things!

Had Ultraforce been released back on its original scheduled date, it would have easily become one of the best gems available for the Mega Drive. Regardless, this is still a great game even for 2020 standards, being fast-paced and challenging, all while balancing equal amounts of action and exploration. If this ends up being the Vita’s swan song, then I definitely won’t mind. Ultraforce ended up being a fantastic fit for the system and I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much as I did on the Switch or the PS4.

 

Graphics: 7.5

The backgrounds look extremely repetitive, but as far as Mega Drive visuals go, it’s very impressive. Playing it on a very small Vita screen makes it look even more like a legit retro title from 1994.

Gameplay: 8.5

If you decide to play it as it was meant to, it’s responsive, but very challenging. The addition of twin-stick shooting isn’t historically accurate, but it makes Ultracore a lot more forgiving and a LOT more entertaining.

Sound: 6.0

The same exact soundtrack that would have been featured on the original Mega Drive version, meaning that it was composed with that console’s somewhat underwhelming soundchip in mind. It’s not bad, but it’s not exactly memorable either.

Fun Factor: 8.0

Had this been released on the Mega Drive, it could have easily become one of the greatest games in the system’s library. As a Vita title, surprisingly enough, it’s still a fantastic run and gun shooter that features equal amounts of shooting and exploration. It might be a bit unfair at times, but hey, that was life back in 1994.

Final Verdict: 8.0

Ultracore is available now on PS4, PS Vita and Switch.

Reviewed on PS Vita.

A copy of Ultracore was provided by the publisher.