Ultracore

A game by Digital Illusions and Strictly Limited Games for Genesis, PS4, Vita, and Switch, originally released for Genesis in 2019, with the updated version released in 2020.
Ultracore is a eurostyle shooter with a storied history. The game was originally developed by Digital Illusions (today known as DICE) for release on the Amiga, Sega Genesis, and Sega CD systems under the title of Hardcore, but its release was cancelled in 1994 by the game’s publisher, Psygnosis. Development was about 99% complete at the time of the cancellation, but with Sony’s Playstation just around the corner, the studio decided to focus on games for the new platform, cancelling dozens of unfinished Sega Genesis projects in a single day. (NB: Psygnosis was purchased by Sony in 1993.)


Around that time, polygons became the new big thing and 2D took a back seat... until eventually, 2D gaming made a resurgence, allowing for the resurrection of this unreleased title. There was a brief tease during a 2010 showcase where two of Digital Illusions’ founders - Olof Gustafsson and Andreas Axelsson - explained the events surrounding the game’s cancellation and the fact that Sony still owned the rights to it, preventing them from publishing it elsewhere.


With the help of Strictly Limited Games – which includes former DICE staff members, including DICE co-founder and Ultracore project director, Fredrik Liljegren – the game finally received a physical release on the Sega Genesis, and the studio used a Genesis dev kit to port the game over to modern platforms. The Genesis ROM made its debut on the Analogue Mega SG as a built-in game for the console. (Analogue also packed in another eurostyle shooter, the previously unreleased Super Turrican Director’s Cut, on its Super NT system.)


So why all the hubbub, bub? Well, the game received some attention during its development, with write-ups appearing in magazines, and screenshots showing the detailed environments, rooms packed with enemies, huge bosses, and top-down vehicle combat segments featuring a jeep with a mounted cannon. The graphics were actually re-drawn and improved over their initial impressive magazine showings, but ultimately the two planned vehicle segments were not able to be included in the game's modern release.


Otherwise, the game is fully intact, suffering only a name change due to licensing conflicts with the original choice of Hardcore, and so Ultracore was born. The game takes place in 2099 where mankind has advanced to the point where they exploring other planets. But one day, Captain Vance seizes control of all of the combat robots and turns them against their creators. You take on the role of a 35-year-old combat specialist named Private H.C. (yeah, that H.C. stands for Hard Core) who must defeat hordes of menacing machinations across five large areas.


You have a 2.5x variable jump, and the ability to duck. You begin the game with an infinite ammo assault rifle that has 270 degrees of aiming, allowing for shots to the left, right, downward angles, upward angles, straight up, and everything in between, but you can only shoot to the left or right while ducking. There are two control schemes, which have a significant impact on how the game is played. The original Genesis control scheme allows the player to lock his aim by holding the SHOOT button, allowing him to move freely with his aim fixed in one direction. The other versions of the game also allow for dual analogue control, with one stick moving the player and the other aiming his weapon. This provides for much more precise control, faster aiming speed, and the ability to change aiming directions in midair, thus allowing the player to deal with enemies and bosses more quickly and effectively, while also tempering the game’s otherwise high difficulty.


Still, the old console gaming rules are in place here, with five lives and three continues in which to complete the entire game, although you can take multiple hits before being killed. Losing a life allows you to respawn on the spot, or at the closest nearby safe area, whereas using a continue sends you back to the most recent screen transition, which is pretty forgiving, as most games of the era would have sent you back to the start of the stage. There are multiple 1UPs to be found in each level, usually placed off the beaten path and behind locked doors or destructible walls, but you’ll also earn 1UPs for every 100 coins collected and at certain score thresholds. Also, coins can be spent at computer terminals to purchase ammo, smart bombs, or a bit of health restoration… but be careful, because if you buy health while your meter is full, it will reset back down to the minimum (which is a stone cold bummer).


Unfortunately, rather than offering a typical save feature, the game employs a password system that records your number of lives, unlocked weapons, and other stats. While this is certainly authentic to the era in which the game was intended to be released, the result in modern times is the frustration of writing down and re-entering a 16-character code whenever you want to resume your progress. Fortunately, they’ve done away with some unused letters, and it’s not possible to confuse “O” with “0”, as was common in the days of passwords.


Per the traditions of eurostyle shooters, you don’t just scroll from left to right blasting everything you see. Instead, there are numerous branching paths, hidden areas, tucked away alcoves, and locked rooms that contain a variety of pickups, including new weapons (more on these in a bit), weapon powerups, health restoratives, ammo, coins, smart bombs that destroy all onscreen enemies, shields that offer temporary invincibility, and 1UPs. Players will want to explore thoroughly to find everything that the game has to offer, although they must be mindful that levels are timed, so they can’t take too long. That said, there’s generally enough time to get through each level if you keep moving, and even if you do run the timer down, you just explode and respawn on the spot.


There are lots of levers to be found that open up doorways or activate platforms or elevators, allowing you to go back and pick up bonus items. That said, some doorways only allow for 1-way travel, so you may lock off the ability to return to a previous part of the stage. For players looking to find everything within the level – and get a perfect stat screen at the end – a bit of replay and memorization are required. Otherwise, missing a few optional pickups is unlikely to make or break a successful run.


There are loads of weapons to discover, including a machine gun, laser rifle, 3-way shot, wave shot, and rocket launcher, and you don’t have to pick just one… Every time you find a new weapon, it is added to your stock, and you can cycle through them with a button press. Each of these weapons draws from a single pool of ammo, which is filled by finding ammo pickups around the environment. That said, one of the best ways to find secrets is to blast away at everything you see, so it’s advisable to stick with your infinite ammo assault rifle outside of miniboss and boss encounters.


All of the weapons can be upgraded twice by finding upgrade icons. This increases the size and power of projectiles for whichever weapon you’re carrying at the time you grab them. Or, if you’ve already powered up your equipped weapon to the max, another of your weapons will be upgraded instead, so the powerup won’t be wasted if you grab it without realizing what it is… which is distinctly possible given the amount of general pandemonium and the small size of the powerup icon.


There are loads of enemy types, and many can be onscreen at once, requiring that you quickly take stock and prioritize your targets. For instance, turrets are weak but can hit you from a distance. Some enemies are small but fast, so you’ll want to aim carefully before they close ground. Other enemies charge up powerful attacks, so you’ll want to destroy them quickly or get out of the way of their projectiles. With the freedom to aim in just about any direction, it’s also possible to find safer ground and target enemies from places where they cannot reach. Destroyed enemies often sputter smoke, explode, or otherwise spray tiny particles, often filling the screen with chaos… which suits the high energy atmosphere and heavy shooting action.


Bosses are generally large but uncomplicated. Most of them have simple movement patterns and fire slow-moving projectiles, and they each have HP meters to let you know how close you are to killing them. Most of these encounters boil down to dodging bullets and melee attacks while keeping your bullet stick aimed in their general direction.


While much of the game focuses on the shooty action, and exploration is often optional, some progress is controlled by way of keycards. By finding the proper keycards, players can open doors to continue forward, and sometimes the player must use keycards at terminals to open doors or activate elevators. These terminals also allow the player to see a map of the immediate area, but this isn’t terribly useful. Finding keycards and the associated doors sometimes requires a bit of backtracking, but killed enemies remain dead, although you'll still have to contend with environmental hazards.


Outdoor areas feature insta-death bottomless pits, and indoor areas also add the danger of insta-death electrified floors. Sometimes the player must run across moving platforms, disappearing platforms, or retracting platforms in order to cross these traps, with mistimed jumps leading to a quick loss of life. There are also a few areas where it’s difficult not to take damage, such as using elevators, since you can't control their movement once they’ve started, sometimes resulting in you scrolling into projectiles or a patrolling enemy. Oh, and the final level is packed to the hilt with bottomless pits, crushers, traps, and other insta-death surprises, so prepare to burn through some lives while you work on memorizing the level layout.


There are also a few blind jumps, which often drops you into danger, and it’s also possible to take damage by falling too far, which is unusual for a shooter. Also unusual is the fact that you can jump on enemies’ heads and bounce off of them without taking damage, which is handy when you accidentally fall down onto an enemy. However, this maneuver also allows you to bop upward to reach higher platforms and secret areas, although it's a pain in the ass when you're required to bop on enemies to cross bottomless pits. Jumping on some platforms causes them to bounce downward a bit when you land on them, and then bounce back up, and you must sometimes time your jumps with their upward movement in order to jump higher and reach the next platform, which is a bit laborious and imprecise.


There are several cutscenes throughout the game (although there is no introductory cutscene), which explain that Captain Vance needs to be stopped before he can initiate an attack on your home planet. In addition to blasting his bots, you are told to get to a garage and find an assault vehicle (the vehicle segments were cut from the final release), and then reach an outpost that is outside of the fighting zone in order to get to Vance's secret base.


Aesthetically, the game offers a gritty atmosphere, filled with chunky machines and loads of particles, with lots of browns and greys but plenty of other colors in the mix to create lively environments. The limited tile set does make for a bit of repetition in the look of some areas, but the level designs generally keep things moving forward. The game is accompanied by a thumping FM synth soundtrack, which fits the atmosphere well, and it was composed by Olof Gustafsson using Jesper Kyd‘s Zyrinx engine. In addition, there is a CD soundtrack option, which was created specifically for this release, and it sounds very much like something that would have appeared on a Sega CD version of the game. These 20 new tracks were created by multiple artists, including Scandroid, Waveshaper, Mega Drive, Fury Weekend, 3Force, Isidor, and Fixions.



2D CRED
Hardcore was originally developed by Digital Illusions, a studio based in Stockholm, Sweden and founded in 1992 by Olof Gustafsson, Markus Nyström, Fredrik Liljegren, and Andreas Axelsson, who met while studying at Växjö University and working in the Amiga demoscene. The studio got its start with a pair of Amiga pinball games before moving onto Hardcore. The studio was purchased by Electronic Arts in 2006 and is now called DICE (EA Digital Illusions CE AB), which is mostly known for its work on the Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront series.


Hardcore was renamed Ultracore and was released as a collaboration between the original developers and Strictly Limited Games (which includes former DICE members) in order to release the game in physical and digital formats for modern platforms, and also a cartridge version for the Sega Genesis. Strictly Limited Games is primarily known for publishing physical editions and of modern digital games (in limited quantities), complete with physical game media, boxes, cover art, and instruction manuals.


The game was published by ININ Games, a publishing label of United Games GmbH that focuses on retro, indie, and arcade games. The studio previously published The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors, a modern remake of the classic SNES game The Ninja Warriors, as well as CrossCode, which also received a physical release from Strictly Limited Games.


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