Reviewed by Nicholas “SmugeeBear” McDonald.
“From Hardcore to Ultracore…”
Ultracore originally started development under the name Hardcore back in the mid 90’s by Digital Illusions. A company that would be later known for its titles with Electronic Arts. The game was slated for release on the Commodore Amiga, Sega Mega Drive and Mega CD but was ultimately cancelled by publisher Psygnosis as new consoles were about to be released at the time.
It would be a long time until Ultracore would resurface, first as a little bonus game on the Analogue Mega SG clone console, and then Strictly Limited games finishing development, with the help of original developers, before finally being released as Ultracore on a variety of platforms. Columbus Circle handled the physical Mega Drive release in Japan.
“A Japanese take on Euro gaming…”
The Columbus Circle release of Ultracore comes in a plastic case with an anime style cover art which looks cool with the main character firing his weapon and screenshots on the back of the case. It includes a full colour manual which is in Japanese with some English text to deal with menus and options. The interesting thing is there are a couple of pages with QR codes that if you scan actually takes you to several YouTube videos of the game where the story elements play. These include Japanese subtitles to translate the English text which is an interesting way of translating a game without investing heavily in translators and then reprogramming the game.
The cartridge is a Japanese style Mega Drive cartridge but is different from the usual ones from Sega where the back feels textured and it actually has branding from Columbus Circle on the back. The label includes the artwork from the front cover and the cartridge itself is a transparent, smokey grey colour. There has been some talk about their cartridges potentially damaging consoles, but nobody really has come up with a general consensus on whether its a voltage thing or the edge connector being unbevelled, so I thought I’d include this as due diligence.
“Euro-style in the modern age”
The graphics are pretty good and you can see it’s origins as an Amiga title as it has that look about it that several Amiga games that were ported to the Mega Drive had. The backgrounds and colours are interesting with outside areas, under ground bases etc. The colours are understated in places with hues of browns, greens and blues but then in other sections where there is a skyline of contrasting bright colours that just pop.
The animations of the characters and enemies are interesting, along with some designs where the main character has this funny little rocking motion he does randomly and it’s silly but it always puts a smile on my face. At the bottom of the screen is the HUD which is standard fare like lives, health bar, coins and ammunition and also a time limit. You have to collect keys if you want to access further parts of the labyrinthine levels that also have secrets hidden within them. But you cant get lost in these levels as when you go through certain doors it closes and locks behind you. This can lock you out of some parts of the level if you take a wrong turn through a door.
The game reminds me of the Turrican games like the altered version of Turrican 2 that had the Universal Soldier movie licence slapped on for the Mega Drive or even Mega Turrican. But in outside levels there is some subdued parallax scrolling for the skyline which shows off some graphical wizardry at play.
“Run and Gun Action!!”
Ultracore takes place in the future where humans have colonised planets and made their domain the stars. But Vance, a military commander, has used an army of robots to try and take over in a coup. Your character and fellow space marines have been sent in to deal with Vance’s menace. The story is told through short cut-scenes with dialogue breaking up the action. Overall, gameplay is good and the controls are tight with good movement and jumping but some parts of the levels does get finicky. There is a variety of control schemes from fix shots, where your weapon is locked in a direction, and the 8 way shot which gives it more of a Contra flavour.
The boss fights and designs are interesting as you have large boss enemies at one point or you can be swarmed by several smaller bosses which means you have to think on your feet and adjust how you tackle things. But also you can jump on enemies to damage them or to gain height. Is the game difficult like games back in the day? Yeah, but with others I would’ve felt frustrated. But I actually like coming back to this although I think some of the jumping mechanics can easily lead to some cheap deaths though.
“Euro beats that are Euro treats..”
The soundtrack by Olof Gustafsson is a real treat to listen to as the music has this nice synth feel to it. However, in some other tracks you can feel the punch and energy and in others they feel more melodic. You can feel the mood change during the tracks which gives it a different feeling. Like the boss theme just has this feeling of menace during the track, but you can definitely sense the vestiges of the Amiga here.
The sound effects are also good as the guns feel punchy and elevators have this nice mechanical sound to them. It really suits the whole mechanical nature of the game, and I often find myself firing the game up to listen to the sounds it makes.
“After Action Debrief…”
Sure there’s some stuff that makes it feel cheap in the gameplay department but overall its a really solid and enjoyable game with some bangers in the music department. If you want the Mega Drive release then the Japanese version seems to be easier to find compared to the Strictly Limited release. Ultracore is a game that I feel if it was released back in 1995, it would’ve been a hit right up with the likes of Contra and Gunstar Heroes. But I really do recommend it if you like classic run and gun shooters with some exploration and puzzle elements. Give Ultracore a try, it doesn’t even have to be on the Mega Drive as it was released on a variety of modern systems.