010 - Ultra Vortek
Published: 1995 by Atari
Developed: Beyond Games
2D arcade fighting games were incredibly popular in the mid-90s and console gamers wanted that experience at home. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Primal Rage for the Jaguar CD, Atari's 64-bit console lacked conversions of well known arcade titles like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2. Instead, Jaguar 2D fighter fans were treated to questionable ports of 16-bit console titles like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Double Dragon V and two Jaguar exclusives: Kasumi Ninja and Ultra Vortek.
Developed by Beyond Games of Lynx Battlewheels fame and released for the Jaguar by Atari in 1995, Ultra Vortek is a 2D fighter firmly in the mold of the Mortal Kombat series. The game is crammed with 90s fighter tropes, complete with all of the special moves, fatalities and attitude of the era. Ultra Vortek is considered by many Jaguar enthusiasts to be the system's best fighter.
Is Ultra Vortek the killer 2D fighter that the Jagauar sorely needed? Let's plug this totally extreme game in the big cat to find out. It's Annihilation Time!
Gameplay: Ultra Vortek offers two main game modes: Vs. and Tournament. There are four difficulty levels that range from "Training" to "Killer". This write-up will focus on the single-player game.
At its core, the single-player mode of Ultra Vortek is a rather generic tournament fighter with a standard best of 3 set-up. The player selects one of 7 playable characters, each representing one of three factions. Once selected, the player sets out to fight the others in a life or death contest to challenge "the Guardian" and take control of "the Ultra Vortek" - "the wellspring from which mankind draws its eternal energy." If you lose, the life force of your faction will be subsumed by the Ultra Vortek. Heavy stakes, indeed. The tournament itself is called "the Time of Testing" and there is a bit about a Vortek Tablet that is frankly lost on me.
Backstory aside, Ultra Vortek offers control using the standard Jaguar gamepad's three action buttons and d-pad. Special moves and fatalities - here called Annihilations - are pulled off through various combinations of the directional and action buttons. While the special moves are easier to pull than in other Jaguar fighters, I still found it difficult. It's strange that there is not a Pro Controller option for Ultra Vortek, as it was a relatively late release. While the 3 button control scheme is adequate, the game would have clearly benefited from the 6 button design of the Pro Controller.
In-game action is mostly fluid. The button response and hit detection are decent and the characters are fairly well balanced. That said, it is far too easy to beat the game in Normal mode by simply using a leg swipe. The difficulty ramps up tremendously in Hard mode, making for a much more enjoyable single-player game. Importantly, the game lacks a combo system which may put off some fighter fans.
Graphics: Graphically, Ultra Vortek shows off the Jaguar's 2D capabilities quite nicely. The stage levels are rather detailed, featuring a blend of post-apocalyptic and hellscape imagery that suits the theme of the game. From digitized onlookers, to subway trains, to roving eyeballs, to mirrored floor surfaces, it's clear that a lot of thought went into the presentation of each stage. That being said, the stages feel disconnected from the characters themselves. By that, I mean that the stages do not necessarily reflect the attributes or biography of the selected opponent. Instead, you'll find yourself fighting on any of the stages, regardless of the opponent/player character selected. This isn't a deal breaker by any means. It's just a bit odd considering all of the time the developers spent on the game's lore.
Character sprites are decent sized, though not as large or detailed as in Kasumi Ninja. The characters themselves are derived from a mix of digitized photos for the human faction and Buzzsaw, and stop motion and hand animation for the more fantastical characters. Character design is pretty generic cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic fare. They fit the game but are not terribly memorable. My favorite characters to play were the human Lucius and the robot Buzzsaw.
The standard hits, special moves and fatalities are well animated and many are humorous in their over-the-top nature. For example, the shape-shifting Mercury has a fatality where he turns into a meat grinder and subsequently grinds the body of his foe. Other moves send severed heads hurtling toward the screen. There is also a "poopality" which is everything you would imagine it to be. Oh and there are buckets of blood, acid and ... "mercury"...to be had on screen depending on the characters in play. Ah, the 90s - so extreme!
Other notes on graphics: 1) I really like the spiked swipe screen. It looks fantastic and is a nice added touch. 2) The player select screen is really cool with one small quibble: character names do not show onscreen until you're in the level. This is a really strange design choice. 3) I really love the eye in the center of the health meter. It follows the action and is so otherworldly.
Sound/Music: I generally like the near CD quality rock and metal tunes that serve as the soundtrack to the game. It's cheesy but it fits the tone of the game. The hit sounds, digitized voices and other sound effects are all admirably accomplished. I really enjoy some of the character specific sounds, like the short circuiting of defeated robot characters and the squishy noises made by Mercury.
Final Thoughts: Ultra Vortek is a competent 2D fighter that gets more right than it does wrong. The story is interesting, the gameplay works and the music is jamming. While it isn't quite up to the standards of contemporaries like MK3, it is a solid entry in the Jaguar's lackluster fighter line-up. Is it the best fighter on the Jaguar? For me, that honor goes to Primal Rage. That said, if you're a fan of this style of fighter, give it a try. If not, pass.
Thanks for reading and please share your memories and thoughts on Ultra Vortek in the comments below! Do you think it is the best fighter on the Jaguar?
Also, a special thank you to The Professor who recommended this game in the Readers' Choice post! I'll do another readers choice selection for Post 020. The next game comes courtesy of the randomizer. That game is: World Tour Racing!