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Ultraverse Prime

Genre: Beat-‘Em-Up Developer: Malibu Int. Publisher: Sony Imagesoft Players: 1 Released: 1994

The Sega CD’s caught a lot of crap over the years, but those who own one (or have at least done a little research) know it’s home to a number of shmups, RPGs and action games that are held in high regard. Buried among those titles is a game that some might still think wasn’t actually published back in the day. Only released in a double pack with Microcosm, Sony Imagesoft’s Prime is a beat-’em-up based on the Malibu Comics property of the same name. When it came out in 1994, it sought to put some quality Streets of Rage and Final Fight-like action on the often-dissed Genesis add-on. But is it a feather in the Sega CD’s cap, or more like a bird’s dropping on the system’s shoe? Read on.

Kevin Green came into this world thanks in part to the U.S. Government. His parents wanted to increase their chances of having a child, and so worked with an organization to increase their fertility. Now, fifteen years later, their son Kevin is a typical teenage boy who happens to fancy a thirteen-year-old girl named Kelly Cantrell… until his world is thrown upside down when the experiments that led to his birth finally surface. His body goes through a metamorphosis, transforming fifteen-year-old Kevin into Prime, a muscular, older looking superhero. But inside this new powerful body is still the same fifteen-year-old boy with both good intentions and a fondness for Kelly. And when Kelly is taken hostage by a menagerie of freaks and villains lead by Doc Gross, Kevin decides he’s the only who can save her.

When it comes to graphics, Prime is above average. The characters resemble their comic counterparts, with levels of shading and detail that range from good to average. Though some enemies feel pretty generic in design (and get palette swapped quickly), others like the bat-wielding guy with the bouncing afro, or the lab techs that burst into tentacled… things, have more personality put into them. The animation for the characters is pretty good, though there are a few rather awkward (when Prime walks) or choppy (when the squid-headed things die) looking bits at times.

The backgrounds these characters battle on vary in terms of location, with jungles, bases, shipyards and such as you go from section to section. And like the characters, they also vary in quality, from lacking (stage 1-3, etc.), to pretty well done with nice levels of detail in the objects and buildings (1-1, etc.). And while you’ll see some extra touches like rain, animated water, color shifting lava and water, and so forth, you’ll also see that the backgrounds are pretty flat, with virtually no parallax except for the train chase on stage 4-2. Even on stages where it looks like it could have easily been implemented, it wasn’t, which hurts the sense of depth some backgrounds try to create. So overall, while the graphics could have been punched up in areas, it’s not a hideous, or great, looking game.

When it comes to the soundtrack, the music is redbook, meaning its read right off of the CD. The instruments used are good quality and sound nice, with compositions that touch on rock, jazz, funk, and even borderline elevator music… all with some ethnic influences. Despite this range, the styles share similar traits, giving the music a cohesive feel, while sounding a bit like Yanni and Jethro Tull got together to help write a number of the tracks. It’s not a bad soundtrack, as it has some genuinely good songs in it. But there’s a little problem with the music, which I’ll get to in a bit.

With the gameplay, Prime is a beat-’em-up, pure and simple. And as such, it plays like what you’d expect. You’ve got a punch that has a three-hit combo, a kick that has the same, and a jump button. You have several different grapple moves/throws available to you, which is nice, even if most of them have been seen in other games before this one (a ground slam, throw them over your shoulder, whip them into the far wall, whirl them around over your head before throwing them, grab two enemies and slam them together, or just hold and punch them in the face repeatedly). There are also a few objects scattered on some levels that you can pick up and throw at enemies, but these rarely show up and so don’t play into the game much.

Though most of the game’s fifteen stages are straightforward “walk right and pummel people,” there are two stages that help to break up the sameness a little. On these stages, you’ll be flying a la Superman while chasing down a truck or a train with floating mines, various airborne enemies and missiles attacking you as you close in on your target. And of course, at the end of every third stage, you’ll face a boss from the comic that you have to beat if you want to continue on your quest to save Kelly.

Along the way to those bosses, you can store up what basically amounts to bombs by collecting stars that occasionally pop up from a damaged portion of background or an enemy. These allow for a special attack that makes Prime go into the air and release an enemy-damaging explosion of power. You’ll also collect letters for “EXTRA” (an extra life and points) and “BONUS” (health replenish, points and a total health increase), and get small and large hearts that replenish your health accordingly. While this isn’t the deepest game in the genre to be sure, it does have the basics down.

So… any bad points to be made? In a word, yes. One of the most grating traits is how utterly generic this game feels much of the time. As I said, it has the basics down, but it does nothing to go beyond that. It simply borrows a bunch of ideas while rarely doing anything original… like the makers built this game using a checklist of what’s already been done. Its gameplay is more akin to the first Streets of Rage or Final Fight in terms of simplicity, but slower, with some sections where there are no enemies whatsoever for oddly long stretches, and other areas where they respawn over and over. There’s basically little creativity here outside of some character designs and using enemies to damage the far wall and reveal power ups. And the one area that shows a bit more depth and variety (the grapples/throws) is hindered by the game’s apparent lack of being finished.

Yes, Prime feels incomplete at times. As an example, the amazon women you fight in the later levels can be grabbed, whipped against the wall, punched while held, and you can grab two of them and smash them together. But, you can’t throw them over your shoulder, drive them into the ground or spin them in a circle over your head. If you try to, Prime just stands there holding them. Unfortunately, there are other enemies that suffer from similar issues (like the lab tech monsters and the little bomb men). It’s as if the animators never got finished with the frames for all the throwable characters, so the programmers just coded around it. There’s a chance it was an intentional design choice, but frankly, it just feels unfinished and sloppy.

On the somewhat more minor side of things, remember that problem with the music I mentioned earlier? Well, despite this being an action game, much of the music seems more fitting for a platformer, a grocery store radio station, or someone’s new-wave album… not a game where you beat on bad guys from start to finish. One song even sounds like it would go perfectly on the Dark Wizard soundtrack with its orchestral nature. So, while some of the songs are good, they just don’t mesh all that well with what’s happening on the screen. And the opening theme song is… well, goofy. It’s silly lyrics, generic rock with three unwarranted solos, and hokey singer make for an “it’s so bad it’s almost enjoyable in a corny way” seven-plus minutes. Thankfully, it’s not used outside the opening title screen and options menu.

To start a set of minor issues, the hit detection isn’t the best. For the most part, punches and kicks hit their targets. But from time to time, you’ll just walk right through a crowd of throwable enemies without picking any of them up while you hold down the punch button (that’s how you grab people). It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen, and lends itself to making this game not only feel wholly average and not quite done, but a little buggy as well. To that, we add how the flying stages have a case of the “bounce me” hits, where you get hit, then hit again and again in rapid succession as you try to get out of the way. Another thing to note is that the game’ s not very hard, with the only real difficulty coming in how some of the basic enemies later on can just keep hitting you even as you’re hitting them, making for a rather cheap way to toughen the game. And finally, there’s an inconsistency with the art in this game. Some characters and the backgrounds are done more realistically, while other characters are very cartoony… like the artists couldn’t make up their mind what visual style to go with.

So how does all this add up? If the technical problems were fixed, it would still only be an average, uninspired game whose few bright spots are overshadowed by its shortcomings. But with things as they are, it’s a subpar entry in the genre that’ll bore you rather quickly with its gameplay that’s been done before and done better in older games. Prime just doesn’t do much to elevate itself among the average beat-’em-ups from the 16-bit era, as if those making it failed to notice how much further beat-’em-ups had come in terms of gameplay depth, variety and pacing by 1994. There are some pretty good traits in the game with the animation, music quality, and even some aspects of the graphics, but those things simply can’t and don’t make this a fun game. So between those things, the feeling of it being not quite done, the ill-fitting music, some poorly done extras on the CD (15 horribly digitized comics and some grainy interview video), and all the other issues, it’s hard to recommend this game to anyone but the beat-’em-up starved.

SCORE: 4 out of 10

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1 Comment

  1. Doug Jackson says:

    This game ends up being really boring and tedious to play, the enemies take too long to kill and the characters are too small as well. This is all around a very rough and sloppy programming job.

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