PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
PUBLISHER: Sega (JP, EU); Renovation (US)
Genesis: 01/02/91 – (US), 01/03/91 – (JP), 1991 – (EU)
Master System: 01/91 – (EU)
CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Sega Genesis Classics (PS4, Xbox One, Switch)
Gain Ground is a true oddity within Sega’s 1980s arcade lineup. While the game is, at its core, a top-down action title, the subtle strategic elements make for more thoughtful design than I’m used to seeing from Sega.
The game’s premise is simple: choose a character and rid each level of every enemy or make it to the clearly marked exit without getting hit. Gain Ground‘s challenge lies in its execution. Each of the fifty levels is a one-screen affair. While both your sprite and enemy sprites are relatively small, between the large number of enemies and the level layouts, your character’s space to maneuver is limited. Each level is often tightly packed with enemies, most of whom are not afraid to bum rush you and/or throw spears/spew fireballs in your direction. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the majority of your characters move slowly and you have a time limit. After Burner, this is not.
The game starts you with three characters: spear-throwing Ashra, Molotov cocktail-wielding Betty, and gun-toting Jonny. While these characters pack a lot of punch, one hit from an enemy and they stop where they are on the map. After you choose another character, you can collect the character that was hit, take them to an exit, and they’ll be in your roster in the next stage. So while each character is technically a life, their death only occurs if you fail to rescue them. A welcome change from the conventional “three lives and it’s game over” formula.
Additional characters are found in most levels and, as with characters that are hit, can be collected by walking over them and taking them to the exit. When the next level begins, you’ll have a brand new character to choose from. There are 20 characters in total, and while some of them are just slightly better variants of the three default characters, some – like the Fire Knight with his Fire Bomb that attacks in 8 directions – are absolute powerhouses. Beware: if you collect an additional character then kill all the enemies, the character will not appear in your roster in the next level. You must take them to an exit, then use another character to kill the remaining enemies.
Gain Ground kicks off in ancient times, with most of the enemies being spear chuckers, and (for some reason in the tenth round) Satan and his minions. The environments are mostly flat and barren, save for the occasional hill where men throw spears down upon your person. After ten rounds of violent caveman/ancient demon shenanigans, you progress to medieval times where sea creatures and magicians warp on and off-screen to terrorize your party. With every ten round cluster you complete, you progress through the ages of civilization with each new epoch presenting harder enemies and more complex level layouts. Finally, you arrive in the future where robots are our masters, floating orbs reign death from above, and nothing is as it seems.
If you make it to the future. Gul durn, Gain Ground is hard. If you can maneuver around the increasingly meticulous and complex level layouts, you still have to deal with the legions of enemies that rain projectiles upon your slow bulky warrior.
Lest this sound like I’m complaining, Gain Ground‘s challenge is perfect for me. The more you play and experiment with your character roster, the more you learn which of your 20 characters is best suited for the harder, more intricate levels. Trial-and-error is essential, and while some players may grow frustrated, I never felt like the game was cheap. And if you ever feel overwhelmed, another player can join in and help you – wait for it – gain some additional ground.
The game’s graphics deserve a mention, if only because they’re so… ugly. To say the least. I understand each level contains a lot of action, and thus, detail needs to be at a minimum for the game to run smooth. Still, everything has this muddy, washed-out look that just looks terrible, even for the Genesis. Thankfully, Gain Ground has an absolutely bangin’ soundtrack. Composers You Takada and Katsuhiro Hayashi crafted beautiful, melancholy earworms that will linger with you long after your last continue.
Compared to Sega’s more action-packed arcade games like OutRun, Space Harrier, or Hang On, Gain Ground is almost meditative. Even as the difficulty grows, the game’s steady pace and rhythm never wavers. No one stage feels too long or short, which, along with the desire to find and use all the characters, kept me playing just one more level. For a company that prides itself on in-your-face, aggressive gameplay, Gain Ground is a surprisingly restrained and imaginative experience.
Gain Ground‘s Master System port strays far from arcade perfection into something that works better for the aging 8-bit console. The level layouts are simplified, the enemies don’t attack as quickly, and your characters move much faster than on the Genesis. This is Baby’s First Gain Ground: perfect for those who want to get used to the game without feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty. Of course you could also just play Genesis Gain Ground on Easy difficulty, but then you would miss the Master System port’s absolutely atrocious color scheme.
It’s a shame that 8-bit Gain Ground stayed in Europe. While I doubt many in the US would have bought it, the Master System certainly could have used an awesome co-op experience like this. Not perfection by any means, but an absolute triumph compared to other arcade ports on the Master System.