On paper, Ultracore sounds like a really interesting title. Originally developed for Amiga, Sega Genesis, and Sega CD platforms, the game was shuttered by its publisher when it was close to completion. Fast-forward to today, and this run-and-gun has a new life as a downloadable Nintendo Switch eShop title. Sadly, the game is a product of the ’90s in all the worst ways.
Don’t need much of a reason for jumping and shooting
Story-wise, there isn’t much going on in Ultracore, but what is there is impressive for the 16-bit era. From what I can gather, someone named Vance is using an army of machines to try and bring the world to ruin. Your character must put an end to his plans by destroying approximately 52 million robots. Throughout the game, there are cutscenes with static illustrations that bring the world to life. A commander spouting exposition, an inner monologue about what to do with a remote explosive, etc. It’s very ambitious for the ’90s.
The game is broken up into levels. You’ll fight your way through cybernetic beings while checking for fake walls and crumbling bits of scenery; there are always goodies behind them. As you progress, you’ll find boxes that contain extra guns (which become permanent additions to your weaponry), coins that buy power-ups, extra lives, ammunition for sub-weapons, bombs that clear the whole screen, and boosters for your firearms (which can be upgraded two times each).
Areas contain key cards that unlock doors; computers that raise gates, deactivate mines, and make platforms appear; and codes that you’ll have to screenshot if you want to remember them. A result screen will come up after every few levels to show you what you missed and give you a password. Ultracore is a complex game for its type, for sure.
The cyborg designs are great and varied. You’ll encounter ever more challenging foes, including these vanishing ghost robots that freaked me out initially. Best of all, the enemies don’t reappear as they do in classic run-and-guns like Contra. Bosses show up frequently and are fairly inventive. Strategy and pattern memorization is a must since they will cut you down fairly quickly.
The music is wonderful and the sound effects are of the endearing Genesis variety. Granted, it’s mushy and low-quality, but it reminds me of my youth, so it counts for something.
Gameplay that leads to massive headaches
While Ultracore is impressive on a technical level, its gameplay is anything but. For instance, you can aim your gun in an arc, but it won’t automatically return to its default position unless you do it manually. This leads to many missed shots and unavoidable damage. Also, the hitboxes on enemies aren’t clear. Sometimes you’ll utilize a robot to reach a higher ledge since you can jump on them for a boost, but you’ll often go through them and take a hit to your energy bar.
Speaking of platforming, going airborne is very precise. There is a slight delay, so when you are running along a vanishing floor, you’d better be prepared to hit the jump button a second early if you want to make it to safety. There are so many instant death traps throughout your journey, as well. Worst of all, if you fall from too high up, you’ll get hurt! Fall damage! In a run-and-gun.
The issues don’t stop there. With the power-up station that refills your life in exchange for coins, if you are near full energy and use coins to make it go up, you’ll actually reset your bar and be close to death. You get punished if you are too greedy instead of the game just capping you at max.
Hoping for a save system? Ultracore doesn’t have one. You will receive a password every couple of stages, but you better write it down or screen-cap it. It was not fun going back and forth from my screenshots to the password screen. And you have to be very cognizant of your continues. You only have three, and the title will keep track of how many you have used. Pray you don’t get a code for a later stage with all your continues used up because you will need to start all over if you run out of lives.
What could have been
Personally, I wish Ultracore were a better game. I was so excited to give it a whirl due to its being such a marvel for its time. I wanted to like it badly. However, it’s such a slog to play and so cheap with its deaths. It is one of those titles where you never feel like a demise is your fault. I mean, there were moments when a robot would fall on my head from up above, leaving me no time to react!
Granted, you could memorize levels through a lot of trial and error and become an Ultracore master. But for me at least, it’s not worth the time and effort.
A review code was provided by the publisher.