Ultracore Review – Canceled No More

    Title: Ultracore
    Developer: Dice
    Release Date: June 23, 2020
    Reviewed On: PS4
    Publisher: ININ Games
    Genre: Action, Run and Gun

There are countless examples of nearly-finished games that never see the light of day for several different reasons. Many of these titles are just relegated to tales of what could have been. However, ININ Games has focused their efforts on Ultracore, a 26-year-old run-and-gun game by Dice initially intended for release on the Sega genesis. The experience truly feels like a time capsule of mid-90s gaming with all the charm and challenges that come with it.

You play as an unnamed soldier who’s military outpost was devastated by killer robots. After passing by several victims, you find your commander who tells you that the machines are run by their leader Vance. His main goal is to launch an all-out assault on your home planet.

It’s up to you to find and defeat Vance before he begins his cybernetic attack. You are given the plot in little tidbits and brief cutscenes, but for the most part, you immediately start the game shooting enemies left and right.

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Shooting mechanics are a little peculiar. If you’re not pressing in any direction and shoot, you will remain stationary and can shoot in eight different directions if you shoot while moving or in any direction other than straight your character will move forward as you shoot. While moving forward, you can also run backward while shooting forward. But to fire in the opposite direction, you will have to stop and reorient yourself. If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

It’s a system that works well in combat and feels exceptionally satisfying in those moments but a bit frustrating in platform sections. There were countless times I tried to fire at an enemy overhead while I was on a ledge, and my character just ran off, falling to his death. With those moments aside, shooting at enemies is incredibly enjoyable.

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You begin with a semi-automatic gun with unlimited ammo, but as you journey through the first level, you will quickly come across other weapons, you can add to your arsenal. Each one has their strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to find out which to use at the appropriate time. The catch is you can run out of ammo with these selected weapons, so you also have to keep that in mind.

While I particularly enjoyed the spread gun, I found myself mostly sticking to my default weapon. Bombs that cause massive damage to all enemies on the screen can be picked up but are pretty rare. As you progress, you can also pick up upgrades for each weapon, making them stronger for the tough robots to come.

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If you want to get through sections relatively unscathed, it is key to memorize the different attacks and patterns of each robot. Knowing this and mercilessly mowing them down makes for some of the most rewarding experiences in the game.

Mid and end-level bosses are also a blast and a nice breakup from smaller enemies you encounter. Some can take a lot of damage or will swarm together, making for some pretty tough scenarios. But while enemies aren’t a pushover, none are brutally difficult with a bit of patience and practice.

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What makes Ultracore difficult is the platforming sections. While most sections are entertaining, some are crushingly challenging. These moments require split-second timing and aren’t always clear with what it wants you to do. Some of these sections are set up for cheap deaths your first time around, almost as a reminder of the era it was developed. Most of these pitfalls are insta-kills, and you can quickly go through lives, but with a lot of trial and error, most of these obstacles can be overcome.

To add a bit of pressure, there is also a time meter that, once depleted, will cause you to lose a life. If you lose a life to anything other than time, your time meter will pick up right where it left off instead of restarting. You can pick up additional time as you explore levels to keep yourself relatively safe, but it can still be difficult to not lose a life due to time on your playthrough. Although it wasn’t one of my top contributors to my loss of life, it did feel a bit ominous to have and affected how I played.

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Although there is a set amount of lives and continues, there is also a password system. After the end of each level, you are given a password to continue your progress, and just like some other games of the time, they can be a bit long and tedious to input. Still, it definitely feels more authentic to leave the password system as it is instead of attempting to make more current save points. Passwords maintain lives and continues, so I ended up replaying previous stages to get in a better place for the final level.

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. I always loved the over-the-top 90s style as silly as it can be, and Ultracore is an epitome of this. The robotic designs are genuinely interesting and look pretty cool, especially with their animations.

Your main character’s animation is very smooth, which is surprising considering the hardware it was developed for. The soundtrack is excellent and utilizes the bass and synth sounds that are unique to the genesis sound chip to significant effect. Every aspect feels like it pushed the console to its limit and is still impressive today.

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With a wave of retro-inspired games released, it seems only fitting that an actual retro game finally gets some needed attention after all these years. Ultracore is like a time capsule of what made this genre so fun and addicting, however, the platforming mechanics didn’t age as well as the shooting action. Still, it’s clear from the first moments that this release was a labor of love and I am glad to have finally had the opportunity to play it.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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