For some unfathomable reason, Gain Ground has something of a cult following with Sega fans. Originally released in arcades in 1988, it gained notoriety largely down to the fact that it was quite unlike anything that had appeared before; while it looked like Atari’s Gauntlet, the gameplay was actually totally different, requiring the player to marshal warriors from different periods of time through increasingly challenging single-screen environments.
Running on Sega’s System 24 coin-op hardware and boasting a portrait screen orientation, Gain Ground felt a little underwhelming when compared to other arcade titles available at the time, and is perhaps best known for its subsequent conversion on the Genesis / Mega Drive – which was met with an equally lukewarm reception from the gaming press at the period. Simply put, Gain Ground wasn’t up to the high standard of Sega’s arcade output in the late ’80s.
It’s puzzling then that it has effectively jumped to the front of the queue in Sega’s ‘Ages’ range of titles, all of which are ported by the emulation experts at M2. We can only assume it holds a special place in the heart of someone at either Sega or M2, because there are many other games in the company’s vast and enviable library that are much more deserving of a resurrection than this. Still, in its favour, this is the original arcade version of the game and as such offers a fairly unique experience, even for those retro gaming veterans who remember playing the home port all those years ago.
Set in a future where mankind has finally settled all of its differences and everyone lives in peace, the game is focused on a computer simulation – the titular ‘Gain Ground’ – which has been created by the world’s greatest minds to allow people to maintain their aggressive, war-like instincts in a safe and controlled environment. The trouble is that the computer suddenly goes haywire and starts killing those who enter the simulation, as well as taking several innocents hostage. You must enter Gain Ground with your team of warriors to rescue the hostages and shut down the computer.
It’s a pretty silly plot, but you have to applaud Sega for at least trying to do something creative in order to justify the fact that Gain Ground is set across several time periods in human history; the idea is that the simulation could replicate these eras and give humanity the varied skills it needs to maintain that tactical edge. The end result is a game that not only spans hundreds of years in terms of environments but also offers up a cast of playable warriors that range from primitive cavemen to laser-spewing soldiers from the future. It’s an odd mix, and it only gets odder the more you play.
While the game boasts some high-resolution visuals for a title from the late ’80s, the actual graphics are pretty poor. The sprites are tiny and look very goofy indeed, with stilted animation that certainly isn’t anything to get excited about. The single-screen levels are also disappointingly sparse and lacking in detail; even when playing in TATE mode (you can use it with the Flip Grip, naturally), Gain Ground doesn’t dazzle. It’s a very basic affair in terms of presentation, and that extends to the music, which is surprisingly weak for a Sega game from this period in time.
The real killer is the gameplay, which many fans will tell you has been badly misunderstood over the years. Gain Ground may look like a Commando-style shooter, but if you go in all guns blazing you’re likely to see the ‘Game Over’ screen pretty swiftly. Sega has previously referred to it as a ‘strategy action’ title, which sounds overblown but is actually quite an accurate description of what’s involved here; it’s all about knowing how to attack each enemy and picking the right character for the job.
There are a lot of variables in Gain Ground, despite the rather lacklustre nature of the levels. Some enemies swam you on sight, while others will only attack or approach when you move within a certain distance. Some have weapons which are short-ranged but can be thrown over obstacles, while others rely solely on their speed to get close and hit your with their melee attacks. There are large ‘boss’-like enemies to face, and as you progress through each time zone, the weaponry available to your adversaries becomes more advanced. Other enemies are situated on high platforms, which means you need the right kind of weapon to successfully dispatch them. This is where your team of warriors comes into play.
Each warrior has a basic attack and a secondary attack. The latter is key to getting past some of the game’s harder stages, as these are often weapons that can be fired upwards onto high pieces of scenery to take out archers and the like. As a result, many of the levels you’ll face can only be overcome by employing good, old-fashioned trial-and-error; you need to painstakingly figure out which route to take, which warrior to use and how best to deal with the more aggressive enemies present. You also have to take into consideration certain enemies that only appear once you reach a particular point of the level.
The objective is to either kill all of the enemies or reach the part of the level marked ‘Exit’ before the surprisingly strict time limit expires. To add another level of complexity, there are hostages to liberate on some of the levels, and if you can successfully get them to the exit, they will be added to your available roster of warriors on the next stage, giving you more options moving forward.
It all sounds like a pretty interesting setup, but in practice, it’s anything but. For starters, Gain Ground is awkward to play due to the fact that even aiming your weapon at an oncoming foe is a challenge in itself. For some reason, Sega decided to make each character left or right-handed, and this impacts where your projectiles appear when you press fire. Because of this, it’s possible to be lined up almost perfectly with an enemy and still miss them because your good arm is a pixel or so to the left or right. You could argue this gives the game even more depth, but when you’re in the middle of a tense firefight, the last thing on your mind is “Did I pick a warrior who was left or right-handed?” It’s just an unnecessary annoyance that adds little to the game, other than making it frustrating.
Each character has different speed attributes, but on the whole, none of them is particularly fast and this can lead to some annoying deaths, too – especially when you consider that some of the enemies you face are as rapid as Usain Bolt trying to catch a bus. The collision detection is also painfully unforgiving, with your character’s hitbox being just that little bit too large, so projectiles that look like they’ve grazed you kill your warrior instantly.
Death comes quick and often in Gain Ground, largely because it doesn’t actually mean the end of your game. When one of your warriors dies, they become a ‘hostage’ on the level and you simply call in another of your characters. If they can reach their fallen comrade without dying, they can escort them to the exit so they’re ready to fight another day. However, should they die before rescuing them – or if the level is completed without picking them up first – then they’re gone forever, which presents another of Gain Ground’s more egregious issues.
As we’ve already touched upon, certain warriors are needed to defeat certain enemies; if you’ve got a foe who is happily raining down projectiles from higher ground and you don’t have a character who can reply in kind, then you’re basically screwed. This situation happens more often than you’d imagine, and leads to an incredible amount of frustration. Given how easy is it to lose a vital character due to the ropey controls, slow movement and the fact you have to remember which bloody hand their weapon is in, getting anywhere in Gain Ground is a real test of patience. Oh, and did we mention that some of the stages literally flood you with enemies from the get-go, giving you little chance to figure out what the best strategy is, let alone which character you’re best off using?
To mitigate this, M2 has thoughtfully included a ‘Rewind’ feature which allows you to skip back five seconds when things end up going wrong. This makes things a lot easier to stomach, as does the ‘Full Member Mode’, which removes the need to rescue other warriors along the way and gives you all 20 characters from the outset. It’s also worth noting that when playing the ‘International’ version of the game in this Switch port, you can use three Joy-Con and play as a trio, something that was possible in the original arcade edition (the Japanese version only supports two players). Even so, none of these elements change the fact that Gain Ground, for all of its clever ideas and deep strategy, is actually much fun to play.