Friday 17 July 2020

Switch Review - Ultracore

Another lost game, brought back into existence for modern players. But have players out grown brutally hard run-and-gun games?

Developed by DICE 
Published by Strictly Limited Games / Inin Games 
Released in 2020  

Alongside looking at what was, there seems to be a taste amongst retro enthusiasts for what could have been. A drive to discover what exists in some parallel universe where time or money constraints didn't apply. Online communities have, for many years now, taken unreleased prototypes, finished them and released them for others to play. Perhaps the most famous is 'Star Fox 2' a game that was long considered a lost gem, until Nintendo finally released it officially on the SNES mini. It’s not a lone example of course, especially as games can now be released exclusively digitally with minimal financial risk. Finished games; a developers pride and joy, can now have their time to shine. Plucked from a long abandoned hard drive in a dusty attic and finally offered to enthusiastic players. Months or even years of work no longer only existing on a pile of 3 1/4 inch floppies, at last assembled into an experience that can be enjoyed by many.

Today DICE are best known for the ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Battlefront’ series, however decades ago the developer was  starting to get pigeon holed as “the pinball developer”. After finding success with ‘Pinball Dreams’, ‘Fantasies’ and ‘Illusions’, Digital Illusions (as they were then known)  wanted to break away from banging tiny metal balls around and believed an action game called ‘Hardcore’ might help them stretch their wings. “Someone knew Joakim [Wejdemar] and he contacted us and said ‘Hey, me and this programmer Bo [Staffan Langrin] are working on a title that’s similar to a ‘Turrican’ game” explains DICE Founder Fredrick Liljegren. “They had a core idea, core functionality, but very little of the game was done”.

Psygnosis were a publisher with an enviable reputation, earned by the critical praise heaped on the ‘Shadow of the Beast’ games and reinforced by the commercial success of ‘Lemmings’. To the delight of Digital Illusions they were keen to publish ‘Hardcore’, believing it fit their brand.  According to the developers, the game was  “about 99% finished” to the point that previews were beginning to show up in gaming magazines of the time. “The expectations were high and all the signs were pointing to another hit,” Digital Illusions said. But the game was taking longer to finish than Psygnosis wanted, and they pulled out at the last minute. “’Hardcore’ was just too late for Psygnosis to consider releasing. They cancelled I think 12 titles that were in development on the mega drive at the time” recalls Liljegren. “The market had moved on”. Its claimed the publisher saw the Mega Drive as the runner-up in the 16bit console war and wanted to shift attention to the new PlayStation. Psygnosis would go on to be purchased by Sony, and are perhaps now best known for creating the ‘WipeOut’ and ‘Destruction Derby’ games.

Forgotten for more than a quarter-century, Strictly Limited Games have helped bring ‘Hardcore’ back to life, giving it the far less risqué name ‘Ultracore’. “With the help of the original developers […] everything is being handled with care, to guarantee gamers get the best possible version of this masterpiece.” While this 26 year old run-and-gun game was originally intended for release on the Sega Mega Drive a port to the Amiga was expected to follow.  This is all immediately evident seconds after turning on the game. Whereas other lost games have been modernised for contempory audiences, the experience here truly feels like something that’s been discovered in a time capsule buried by 'Blue Peter' in the mid-90s. “I know the care, love, sweat and hard work that went into creating ‘Hardcore’ in the first place by all involved parties” says Fredrik Liljegren. “I think it is fantastic that this product finally gets to see the light of day and for people to be able to play it.”

This is a two decade old game made according to the constraints of the consoles of that time, proven by the fact that the game was even released on a physical mega drive cartridge for a limited period. It offers gaming with all the charm and challenges that come with this much loved era. However, with this comes all the frustrations of a time when gamers were devoted to a handful of games rather than casually dipping into hundreds, like they do today.  ‘Ultracore’s Graphics look Bitmap Brothers-esque, its music wouldn't feel out of place in ‘Gunstar Heroes' and its game play while paying homage to 'Contra'  it remains closer to the Amiga ‘Turrican’ series that inspired it.

In true nineties action movie style you play as Private H.C., a soldier whose military outpost has been devastated by killer robots. After stumbling over the bodies of his fallen brothers-in-arms you find the commander. With his dying breath he forewarns that an all-out assault on your home planet is imminent and it's up to you to find and defeat the cybernetic leader Vance before he begins his attack. It’s not quite 'Mass Effect' levels of narrative intrigue but it is reflective of games from the nineties. Occasionally you were given the plot in brief cut scenes, but for the most part action games had stories told through static screens and onscreen text. You immediately start 'Ultracore' shooting enemies but the firing controls are a little peculiar and clearly designed for an Amiga’s one button zip stick. If you're not pressing a direction button and shoot, you will remain stationary and can then shoot in eight different directions. If you wish you can then start moving and continue to shoot at the same angle meaning you can target enemies in one direction while heading in another. While this sounds versatile, in practice it makes moving somewhat fragmented. To change the direction you're firing in you'll have to stop walking, re-aim and then move again. Thankfully for those accustomed to twin-stick shooter mechanics, the direction of fire can also be defined by using the right analogue stick. This gives the ability to freely fire in eight directions while moving and makes combat feel far more fluid. “Of course, the controls have to be adapted and optimized for modern controllers”  says Benedict Braitsch from Strictly Limited Games. ”But that won't change the feeling of nostalgia itself.”

Levels are densely populated with robotic adversaries, from bipedal gun machines to smaller airborne nuisances that seem to blend into the dark foreboding backgrounds. There are also an excessive number of wall mounted gun turrets that have the unfair advantage of being able to shoot you from off screen. Then as the levels progress, you’ll also start facing off against larger Terminator style robots who seem to stalk you through the stage and can only be damaged when shot from behind.

At least there's an impressive arsenal at your disposal. You begin with a semi-automatic gun with unlimited ammo; fine for grunt work but not powerful enough for larger foes. As you progress you will quickly come across other weapons you can equip and each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Long range weapons take time to reload, powerful weapons trade strength for firing distance. Inspiration has certainly been taken from horizontal shooters, so expect to find swirling blue lasers, smart bombs and even spread shots before you reach the game's finale. Of course for more powerful weaponry ammo is limited, so the onus is on utilising the best weapon for the given  situation. Upgrades are also available for each weapon, making them stronger for the tougher robots. However beating these won't just require bigger guns. Like a 'Mega Man' game, it’s crucial you memorize the different attacks and patterns of each boss robot. Typically they come in groups and an onscreen counter shows just how many times you need to hit them before they fall.

When not blowing countless machines to pieces you'll spend the rest of your time leaping between platforms and moving lifts. In the main, you'll progress through a level by looking for key cards or computer terminals. The latter operate in a manner similar to that seen in 'Alien 3' on the Super Nintendo. From a terminal you’ll be able to remotely alter a later part of a level, lowering a platform or creating a new pathway. You’ll also be able to see a map of the stage, a useful aide considering there's no other way to see the stage layout. While the levels aren't huge, they are complicated and intricate with branching pathways. A lot of doubling back and forth is required as you find key cards which can unlock doors allowing access to switches that seem incredibly similar to those found in 'Gods'. 'Ultracore' is not really a Metroidvania game, it' is more simple and arcadey than something like 'Flashback'. So if you find an impassable section all you really need do is double back till you find a switch or a key card you've yet to use.

The majority of this is all fine and entertaining, but there are too many excessively challenging sections. Like the elaborate bosses, vanishing block jumps also feel stolen from 'Mega Man' games and they really should have been left there. These moments require split-second timing and often it’s not clear what it is you should be doing or the direction you should be leaping. Failing a jump often leads to landing on instant death spikes, and blind leaps of faith are in abundance. You can quickly burn through your limited life allocation by failing the same jump multiple times; not knowing if the implementation or the intention is wrong. Like 'Super Metroid', 'Ultracore' has destructible wall sections that look identical to normal sections of the level. Consequently, the only way you'll discover some hidden areas is by continually bombarding every surface with bullets hoping it'll cause a block to crumble. There’s a lot of trial-and-error which is made more frustrating by the level completion timer. Admittedly you can pick up items that extend your time limit but once that’s depleted you will lose a life. These are in short supply and once all lives are exhausted continues are available. The problem is these will place you at the start of a level without the guns upgraded. If you struggled on a stage before, being less equipped after using a continue is hardly going to help your cause. 

Alphanumeric passwords are a relic of a bygone era but upon completing two 'Ultracore' levels you will be given one. Just like some other games at the time it can be a bit long and tedious to input, but once done you’ll be able to freely retry later stages at a later date with the equipment you had. While it definitely feels more authentic to leave the password system in place, the inability to also save your progress feels like an oversight. While it’s nice to acknowledge what would have been, it seems silly to ignore modern day convenience. The ability to save was usually not offered in cartridge based games as the inclusion of a battery backup, unsurprisingly required a battery on the cartridge. Any additional on cart components added to the expense for a publisher, yet using passwords required no additional hardware. However today we have no cost constraints, so you have to wonder why it was added. It would have been more authentic to the era than the updated twin-stick shooting, yet that was included while save states remained absent. How much this is an issue will likely depend on why you want to play 'Ultracore'. If you want a genuine mega drive style game you'll no doubt use the default controls and passwords. But if you don't intend to sit down and finish the game in one sitting (and have no intention of writing down an elaborate password) you’ll surely miss the ability to save.
'Ultracore' has five levels in total and while scenery does change, some levels end up looking a bit similar. Luckily the overall art design is fantastic, especially for those who can remember sprites, parallax scrolling and gradient skies. I always love the over-the-top 90s style as silly as it can be and ‘Ultracore’ is the epitome of this. The robotic designs are genuinely interesting and look well animated. The Amiga was presumably a big influence. 'Fire Force', 'Ruff n Tumble', 'Walker', 'Switchblade II', 'The Chaos Engine' and of course the aforementioned 'Turrican' games have certainly informed the visuals here.

Your main character’s movement is very smooth, with far more frames devoted to a running animation than you typically see. It’s also very obvious from his stance which direction he’s aiming, somewhat crucial in a game of this nature. It is worth noting that there are no image filters here, like you see in most emulators. The game is also presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, true to the era but this does mean big black borders on each side of the screen. I’m not sure if it was by accident or design, but ‘Ultracore’ has the hilarious inclusion of dancing. When our hero is placed on the edge of a block, I presume the animation that kicks in is meant to look like he's wobbling on a precipice, thereby visually warning the player to take care. However it instead looks like this muscular space marine is busting some moves in the midst of battle.

There’s no surprise he’s dancing; the music is excellent and utilizes the bass and synth sounds that are so associated with the Mega Drive Yamaha sound chip. The original soundtrack of ‘Ultracore’ contains 21 tracks, each one feels unique and thematically appropriate even though the melodies will often get drowned out by the continuous sound of gunfire. However this wasn’t enough for publisher Strictly Limited Games. “While this background score already perfectly fits the game’s tone and 90s style, we wanted to take it to a whole new level and make it even more awesome by adding a completely new soundtrack”. In the menu of the game you can choose between the original soundtrack or  a whole new selection of chip tunes. “Of course this is completely optional – you can play through the game while listening to its 90s soundtrack, staying true to the original feel of this modern classic”.

When it comes to these gaming lost treasures, you do have to wonder if the reason they weren't released is simply because they weren't good enough to be released. While this was perhaps the case with 'Star Fox 2' it doesn't feel like the situation here. The problem is 'Ultracore' hasn't stood up to the test of time and without rose tinted glasses nostalgia doesn't gloss over the cracks. This is a game that comes from a time before 'Metal Slug' revitalised the run-and-gun genre. 'Ultracore' is somewhat monotonous, and the difficulty may put off many. “We really wanted a nice difficulty curve” recalls Fredrick Liliegren. “But the problem was that we were really, really good at playing games so when we created a difficulty curve we did so for ourselves”. Incidentally the original name came from tester feedback. “People were saying ‘you guys are nuts with this difficulty level’, so we were like “maybe it’s for hardcore players’”. But it’s certainly a polished and impressive game considering what it’s achieved on Mega Drive hardware, but how much you enjoy the game will largely depend on what you expect when you play it. 'Ultracore' is probably the best run-and-gun game on the Mega Drive but crucially it isn't the best game of this type you can play on the Switch. I preferred 'Blazing Chrome' which gives a nod to the 16bit aesthetic but with a modern twist; it’s also not as punishing as 'Ultracore'. Similarly 'Valfaris', 'ICEY' and 'Velocity 2X' have 16bit style gameplay but modernised, making the games more enjoyable for modern players as a result. These three games may not have been possible on the consoles that they're inspired by, but considering you're unlikely to be playing 'Ultracore' on legacy hardware does that really matter?

“There are many more games that are considered lost or never released” says Braitsch.  “It is very important to us to continue pursuing this concept and to recover even more treasures from the past.” Clearly, there’s an unconscious joy in finally being able to play something that was previously unavailable to us, even if we never knew it existed before. It makes us feel like privileged pioneers. Were this game released 26 years ago, I have no doubt it would be on many people’s best Mega Drive games lists, but today sadly it feels like an aging relic.

A copy of this game was provide by the publisher. 
They have not seen or had any influence on the content of this article prior to publication.

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