Back in 1987 Home Computer gaming was bustling. As Nintendo was slowly capturing, and rebuilding the console market in the states, computers continued to hold their own. Especially in Europe. Every genre continued to grow on home computers. Arcade shmups, and action platformers were also very popular. Many of the best arcade games saw ports not only on systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Master system, but the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit family, and the ZX Spectrum too. This gave birth to a wealth of independent developers, and major publishers on computer platforms. Vying to make original games in these genres. One of these developers was Dinamic. Based in Spain, the company put out a number of titles across several platforms. One of their noteworthy games in the European market was a game called Phantis. A game that melded Gradius style space shooting with flip-screen adventure gaming popularized by the Nodes Of Yesod. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable game, but it was better than one of Dinamic’s earlier games, Game Over, which was a flip-screen adventure game. It was better enough that outside of Spain, the game was officially published as Game Over II. The game put you in a role of woman named Major Locke who has to rescue her boyfriend Arkon from the planet Phantis. The re-branded sequel, swapped the characters, and renamed Major Locke to Commander Serena who appears to have been influenced by the Taarna character in Heavy Metal. Over the years both Game Over, and Game Over II would become cult classics.
What does this have to do with today’s game? A lot actually.
PROS: Music. 16-bit style visuals. Plays homage really well.
CONS: May play homage a little too well for some.
A_RIVAL: Sends things off with a wonderful single.
Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge is one part homage to Phantis, and one part parody. The game opens up with a cut scene depicting Serena S (a play on the Game Over II character name) in her ship after having saved the universe again. She goes up on Spacebook using ZX Spectrum to discuss it when the Space Prince replies with an insult. Serena then jets off on a mission to put the prince in his place.
The game begins almost exactly the way Phantis does. You’ll pilot a ship through the reaches of space in an R-Type styled shmup. Taking down waves, and waves of enemy ships, and asteroids. Asteroids are actually worth more points, and it’s also worth mentioning the scoring system. Getting a high score is definitely something to shoot for because there are hidden shops later in the game that offer you power ups for points. Doing well in the initial stage can help you be able to buy at least one of the upgrades for your character.
Eventually you’ll find your way to the second stage, which again, is awfully similar to Phantis. You’ll have to explore areas to find not only the hidden stores, but even general weapons, like super jump, and a laser pistol. There are actually four weapon slots, and four armor upgrades, along with a super secret upgrade. You’ll add other abilities to the laser pistol, as well as the armor by buying these. But don’t think it will be a simple matter to grind points, and enter the shops. The shops aren’t always easy to get to, and they require a secret coin to enter. The coins are hidden in the platform stages along with the storefronts themselves. Most of the game is made up of these stages. Overall, there are seven stages called zones, each one progressively upping up the ante. Ultionus isn’t a very long game, and it isn’t a cut, and paste clone of Phantis either. There are entirely new segments, boss fights are here, and the art in the game is spectacular.
Ultionus’ sprite, and background art is a love letter to 8-bit, and 16-bit computers of the late 1980’s. The game itself runs in a centered window the way many Commodore 64 games did, with the bottom of the screen used as a HUD. There are also some Commodore 64 BASIC characters seen in the scoreboard when the second level begins. There is also the fact that Spacebook is blatantly running on a ZX Spectrum in the intro, and all of the wonderful art looks like it could have been done on a Commodore Amiga. The bosses especially echo this look. Each of them taking up an entire chamber, or a quarter of the real estate of the screen. All of the game’s bosses take a very old school approach. They require you to memorize their patterns of movement, while trying to avoid any projectiles they throw at you. It really makes for some memorable experiences, and joyfully stressful moments.
The game’s soundtrack is also really cool. Jake Kaufman, who is probably best known for his work with Way Forward games, shows up here with some chip tunes that encompass the action, and look. Every track, from the opening through the stages has a sound that takes you back to early Amiga, and early 90’s MS-DOS games like the ones Apogee put out. It’s a great soundtrack, that will sadly be overshadowed by his work on better known titles. Joining him is A_Rival who wrote the end credits theme called Wandering. This is also in the game’s trailer. This track has everything an electronic dance pop track needs, great use of different tones, a good beat, bass, and even some terrific vocals with catchy hooks. Again, it also fits the game’s world, and characters very well.
That isn’t to say everything about Ultionus is going to wow you, or that it is going to be in a pantheon of heralded games. There are some things that will simply drive many people nuts. One thing some people will have a problem with is the short length. Over the years, even indie platformers have delivered gobs, of content, and so we’ve become accustomed to longer games. While Ultionus knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be too much more than that, some may feel it isn’t enough. An average player can clear the game in a couple of hours, while the speed runners of the world can do so in 20 minutes. Ultionus didn’t need to be several hours long, but a couple of extra stages might have helped. Still, there’s something to be said for too much padding in a game, and it isn’t so short that you should be flipping tables either. Keep in mind that this is a love letter to a game that is almost 30 years old. A game, I might add that is substantially shorter than this one.
But while some may get over the short length others might not get over the controls. The game’s platforming stages feature the same walking speed, and low gravity jumps Phantis had. The game is built around these controls too. As such, you’ll be given a lot of jumping sections. Many of which require pixel perfect timing. Falling during these sections can land you in the midst of a horde of enemies. Or you can fall into a trap. Worst of all, you might miss one of many secrets, or an item when you really need it. The game also has a lot of areas where enemies warp in. True this is also carried over from Phantis, but it can be as annoying in that game, as well as this one. Although I do give credit to developer DarkFalzX for authenticity (They actually got the blessing of Phantis creator Carlos Abril during the game’s creation) updating the movement to be a little bit faster could have alleviated some of the ire.
None of this makes Ultionus a bad game. It’s just that it does mean for some it will be an acquired taste. Those raised on games like Phantis, Arc Of Yesod, or even console games like Power Blade or Conquest Of The Crystal Palace will probably get used to the slower movement, and jumps pretty quickly. Those who need all of their platforming to have the tight feel of a Super Mario Bros, or Mega Man game will need to have a bit more patience getting accustomed to it. To be clear; the controls are perfectly functional, everything works the way it’s supposed to. But it is also a different style that you have to be willing to practice a number of times before you’ll become proficient in it. But then many, many, games have done just that over the years. Hit detection is pretty good most of the time too. So even with the challenging jumps, you won’t feel cheated if you miss one. Enemy windows, are also pretty tight, it’s very rare to have a situation where you’ll take damage, and feel like the enemy didn’t actually hit you. Really, there isn’t too much to complain about in terms of functionality.
Fortunately, if you are the sort that feels uncertain about playing a game where timing, pattern memorization, and coordination may prove too difficult, the game has a multitude of settings. Playing the game on easy will give you infinite lives. You can play at your own pace, until you get each stage right. Setting the game on normal will give you the traditional action platformer experience. You’ll get a handful of lives, before having to use continues. There is also a hardcore mode, that increases the challenge a great deal. So those who complete Normal difficulty have an incentive to beat the game again. Speaking of incentives to replay the game, it has two endings, and in order to get the better one you’ll have to find a certain number of secrets. You can also go in, and play the individual levels once they’ve been cleared. Each stage also has checkpoints so if you lose a life you might not necessarily have to start a stage over from the beginning. The game also saves your progress at the beginning of every level. So you don’t have to play through all of the game in one sitting. There are also the achievements for those who love to hunt those down.
Ultionus also has a handful of options you can tinker with. There isn’t much in the way of video options, though you can choose the size of the window if you don’t want to play in full screen. There are some volume options as well. You can also play with the Xbox 360 controller or an alternative USB controller which is going to be the preferable way to play the game. However there are a number of keyboard control schemes you can use including a WASD set up. The lack of options is a little disappointing. Having the ability to bind keys would have been a better option for keyboard users, than trying to decide what pre-set configuration is best to use. If you have a controller, I highly recommend you use one, and if you don’t, you might want to buy one for this, and any other games that are better suited for one.
Overall, I would say Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge is really good. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but it makes a few funny jokes, and does do a pretty good job of bringing Phantis to a new generation in a roundabout way. It also improves on the Phantis design, and frankly manages to be a lot of fun in the process. It might not be a flawless game, it might not reinvent the proverbial wheel either. But Ultionus is fun to play, and when you’re talking about an action game it had better be. The nods to the old school computer games, and the computers that played them are also a nice touch. Everything comes together to make an experience that most will enjoy.
Final Score: 7 out of 10