Ultracore review: a playable time capsule for the masochistic

If nothing else, Ultracore is an interesting study in game preservation. I feel like it almost needs a disclaimer for those who are about to approach it without the context of where it came from, because by today’s standards it would be seen as unapproachable and at times unfair. I struggled to work my way through it personally because I’m not the greatest at 2D side-scrolling shooters, plus it is utterly lacking in any quality-of-life features like, for example, being able to save your game (likely an intentional move to keep the game as close to its original intention as possible). But I also appreciated it for forcing me to learn the game fully and not rely on rewinds or save scumming to brute force my way through. That being said, looking at it with a critical eye today means I have to take that harshness into consideration when it comes to making a recommendation.

The story of Ultracore’s existence is part and parcel of the game as a whole. Originally named Hardcore, it’s an action game that was being developed for the Sega Genesis, Amiga and Sega CD by Digital Illusions (which would later become DICE, the studio behind the Battlefield games). After nearly making it to release, the game got pulled due to the emergence of the PlayStation and Saturn, with the publisher insisting that it wasn’t a viable title anymore. Cue film footage of the ROM being placed in a secure container and shelved in a giant Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse of vaporware to be forgotten.

Until now.

Ultracore, as its name implies, is a run and gun action game without any compunction about taking it easy on you at any point. The game has you barreling through various bases with different routes, destroying every probe, robot and turret within eyesight. There isn’t really any rhyme or reason to their attack patterns, just that they come at you in large waves for you to manage. Luckily your soldier has the ability to angle his shots as well as back up while doing so, although sometimes I found that I’d accidentally aim in the opposite direction rather than reverse. The lack of a downward shot beyond ducking was also noticeable. What’s compelling about it all is how everything explodes into bits and smoke, with the occasional screen shake to remind you of how badass you are.

As you’re casually strolling along, blowing everything to kingdom come, the game adds a bit of variety by making the levels slightly explorable – you’ll need to take different paths to find key cards, new weapons and ammo vending machines. It feels labyrinthine at first, and perhaps a bit daunting because Ultracore also runs on a timer. Further adding to the tension are various instant death traps that often feel cheap, such as blind jumps over bottomless pits and crushing platforms you have to maneuver over pretty much flawlessly lest you get crunched. Survive all that and you face obligatory bosses that take a lot of memorization and careful planning to down. It can feel cruel at times, but if you come at Ultracore knowing its lineage, it becomes an acceptable game mechanic that is actually the main thrust of the game.

As in Dark Souls, the main gameplay loop of Ultracore involves learning patterns and honing your skills until you reach the level of mastery required to progress. It took me a few days to even complete the first stage, inching further with each run. I’d lay out a path like a speedrunner and learn routines and spawn points to the point where I could progress far enough to get to the next life-saving password at the end of the level. Thank goodness for those passwords. I was very concerned I was going to have to finish Ultracore in one fell swoop, and while a password system isn’t quite as ideal as a proper save game, there was a satisfaction in knowing I could start stage 2 without having to redo all my hard work.

Ultracore is very satisfying if you let yourself get caught up in the moment instead of dwelling on its difficulty. I’m not always keen on those types of experiences, but this was one of those instances where it just clicked. A big part of it has to do with being able to play something that was presumed lost to time and understanding that its design ethos was from a period when you were challenged rather than coddled. I would have loved save states, but I don’t mind playing ‘the old fashioned way’, as it were. Well, except for those super-long passwords. Those were a bugger to enter. Regardless, it’s cool that Ultracore exists and that somebody cared enough to make it happen.

Ultracore was developed by DICE (or Digital Illusions as they were known back in the 1990s) and published by ININ Games. It’s available on PS4, Switch and the Mega Sg retro console, and will soon be coming to PS Vita (it lives!). We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Ultracore was provided by PR Hound. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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