There’s really not much out there like Gain Ground, even though it debuted in all the way back in 1988 and gaming has collectively had plenty of chances to produce their own take on this oddball mash of almost-genres since. The arcade original’s vertically-orientated screen and every version’s masses of projectiles bring classic shmups to mind, although the ground-based nature and relatively glacial pace of Gain Ground’s playable cast do not. Perhaps drawing a comparison with Robotron or Smash TV would be more apt instead? Well… no. The single-screen stages here are less arenas of death and more action-puzzles to be navigated with care, cleared by either by repeatedly reaching the exit with all surviving character or killing every single enemy in the level.
Which of these two game-progressing possibilities is the best option to go for depends partially on your own skill and current circumstances, and partially on whether any hostages have been tucked away in a dangerous part of the stage—hostages who will instantly become new playable characters if successfully taken to the exit… for as long as you can keep them alive, anyway.
The full potential of this brilliant rescuer/rescued dynamic is realised by Gain Ground’s life system, the last defeated player character not strictly a life lost but turned into an impromptu hostage themselves—for one rescue attempt only. Dare to change your level-clearing plans on the spot and successfully drag this past playable self to the exit and you’ve regained a character… but should you fail in the attempt you permanently lose two—the one you were controlling as well as the one you were trying to save. The risks and rewards are immediate and obvious, and the choice to pursue them is always yours.
Gain Ground’s just packed with interesting ideas. Shots can sail straight over someone’s head or ineffectually crash into a wall. A pillar can provide life-saving cover from an otherwise fatal barrage of bullets. Specific characters may have an arcing attack that makes them the perfect choice to sling grenades over a wall or the speed to take out a tricky group before they get too close.
Unfortunately in this all-3D PlayStation 2 remake these lofty ideas don’t always hit their mark.
Shot collision is often teeth-grindingly fussy—not wrong but overly accurate. Meaningfully judging the graceful arc of a thrown spear in relation to a nearby rock or slanted cliff edge against a tight time limit and while being fired upon is nigh impossible, and if a shot fires ever so slightly off to the side of an enemy it’ll miss: all incidents that are in theory nothing other than right and correct and fair, but in a game you need a little leniency, a little player-biased “fuzz”, because dying to Grunt B for the third time due to your little orange ball being one pixel off in a game with rigid eight-way directional shooting isn’t a lot of fun.
The cast’s attributes feel a little “off” too, the differences between their individual movement and shot speeds seemingly exaggerated when compared to the readily available Mega Drive port. This causes no end of issues, as some playable characters end up just not having the abilities required to successfully navigate the current stage unless someone else has mostly cleared it out first, and there’s no real way of finding that out any way other than the hardest way. To make matters worse that this issue frequently applies to the default three characters—Athra, Johnny, and Betty—the only three you have to choose from if playing from a fresh continue, which means they’re also the three you’re most likely to be stuck with if you’re not doing very well—and you won’t be doing very well because… ah, you get the picture.
An exclusive graphical feature of this PlayStation 2 remake is the ability to flip at will between three fixed camera angles: a directly overhead view that mostly resembles the original, a slight tilt, and a stronger slanted angle. The final of these three options is the default, and unfortunately it’s painfully obvious Gain Ground wasn’t designed around it. Many stage structures end up inadvertently hiding enemies—who have always been perfectly visible in other versions of the game—behind closed doors or other tall obstacles. Of course there’s no reason why you couldn’t just switch the camera angle to the directly overhead mode if you wanted to… but there’s no reason to assumed you’d need to do so, seeing as hiding enemies behind solid objects sucks and surely nobody would be doing that in such modern, enlightened times. This also exacerbates those “gotcha” moments when enemies suddenly appear out of what should be visible caverns and crevices, of which Gain Ground has so very many, turning minor “Ah, OK—I should’ve anticipated that” incidents into “I swear I’m never playing this again, and I’ll probably strap the disc to a firework for good measure” frustrations, especially as these opponents often appear, at least in this overly-tuned port, with a speed and force that can’t be compensated for with arcade-like reflexes.
In happier news the main options menu allows you to fix a bug found in the arcade version’s stage 4-8, one that wouldn’t let players clear the stage by killing every enemy, or simply leave it as it was for authenticity’s sake. There’s also an “Extra” mode waiting for those able to clear the game too. This apparently features new graphics and adjusted character abilities, although to be honest there’s about as much chance of me unlocking that as there is of me swimming on the moon so we’ll just have to take the internet’s word for it on that one.
In spite of this port’s numerous array of fresh and unforced errors there’s never any doubt in my mind that Gain Ground is a very clever game that does a heck of a lot with comparatively very little. The slower pace and the stage design’s constant interest in verticality, range, and physical obstructions instantly set it far apart from other shot-based games found in any era, and for better or worse it constantly demands more from its players than many other, flatter, action titles.
Coming immediately after Virtua Racing: -FlatOut-‘s more extensive updates this Gain Ground remake can’t help but feel more workmanlike and vanilla, with no real attempt made to expand or improve upon—heck, just accurately reproduce—Gain Ground’s solid ’80s foundations. It’s far from the worst entry in the Sega Ages 2500 Series (hi, Golden Axe), but the conclusion is sadly the same: this remake fails to capture the magic of the original, rendering it inferior to any other version of the game you can get your hands on. And seeing as Gain Ground’s been featured in various Mega Drive collections for years now…