Back in the mists of time when 2D side scrolling shooters were getting creative, a software developer studio named Digital Illusions were creating an interesting little game for the Amiga. It never saw the light of day…until now.
You may know that studio better as DICE, the team that gave us the Battlefield games, as well as Need for Speed Hot Pursuit and Mirror’s Edge. Well, now they can finally add Ultracore to their catalogue, the game that almost never was and, thankfully for us gamers, has now been released.
Ultracore is an unashamedly retro return to the platforming sci-fi shooters of old. Games like Turrican, or the old run and gun Gunstar Heroes use a similar formula. It’s also very much a product of its time, feeling like it would easily belong on the Amiga or Megadrive. The 16-bit style graphics haven’t been touched up for this release and the sound is a classic FM-style chiptune, though there’s a really welcome option for a modern version, which feels a little like cheating in an otherwise authentic 90s game but is well worth a listen.
The basic gameplay consists of running around and shooting anything that moves (and some things that don’t) while avoiding hails of fire and trying to figure out where the next keycard is to open the locked door you’ve just come across. Add ladders, lifts and large drops into cavernous spaces and you get the idea. It’s a classic formula that has been made all the more authentic by an archaic save system that uses codes. Yes, that’s right, no system save files or fancy cloud saves here, you’ll need to write down codes if you want to jump back to where you left off.
While the save system is certainly authentic, the addition of a proper modern system would have greatly benefited this game, especially on Switch where you’re more likely to play in small doses should you be on the go. The fact that a whole new suite of music has been added shows that the game can benefit from a choice of modern or retro, so why not the save file? One reason may be because this game only has 5 ‘levels’ but then each of these is a sprawling map of dead ends, closed doors and backtracking.
Ultracore is still a great experience if you love your authentic retro gaming, it’s a fast paced run and gun game that only suffers from the level design elements that many games of its time started to get into where entrances were deliberately blocked off to make you backtrack across the map. Unlike the more thoughtful Metroidvana games that use a similar trope, fast paced shooters suffer pacing issues when you introduce too many elements like this and feels as if the game is being artificially stretched beyond its run time.
Fans of old school shooters may well find this worth picking up regardless, if you don’t mind the lack of modern save systems or the backtracking then it’s still a good way to delve back into the 90s. Others may find it all a bit too much, though.