Gain Ground ★★★★
Logarithmic action. That cryptic label was how Sega defined Gain Ground, their 1988 action-strategy hybrid. And the more I play it, the more accurate that description becomes in my mind. Gain Ground combines the cold logic of strategic planning with the fiery tradition of arcade action. It’s a wholly unique game, rewarding and often misunderstood.
At first glance, Gain Ground works like any other shooter. You move your character with the joystick and shoot in the direction he’s facing by pressing a button. However, if you play Gain Ground this way the resulting experience is horrible. Your character moves too slowly and you inevitably get caught in the crossfire.
Rather, the focus is not on shooting but on approaching. The map, seen from above, gives us a perfect view of the battlefield. Enemies move in predictable patterns, ready to be picked one by one. If we can find the right approach, we can clear the level without being touched once. Gain Ground might operate like a shooter, but it’s a strategy game at its core.
Have you ever played a game and, when faced against defeat, planned your next attempt? Perhaps it was finding the weak spot in Gradius or dodging at the right time in Dark Souls. Gain Ground is fully composed of these moments. Finding a way to launch an assault on a defensive position or taking a vital character to the finish line are key to win.
The game features a very large cast of characters. Each one acts an extra life and has its own role in the game. Some are able to shoot enemies on high ground while others move slowly but deal massive amounts of damage. Certain enemies are easier to defeat by a boomerang-wielder while others require raw firepower.
Using an appropriate character to defeat each enemy is a vital aspect of the game. We start with three and, as we delve deeper into the simulation, we can rescue more by escorting them to the exit. Lost characters can be rescued in the same manner, giving us some wiggle room before losing them forever.
Gain Ground offers two ways to proceed to the next level. The first is to defeat all enemies on the screen. The other is to take all characters to the exit. Succeed through enough levels and you’ll move from the Neolithic to the Future, facing stronger enemies each time. Beat forty stages, disable the unstable computer system and victory is yours.
The game starts slow at first. The first era is mostly a tutorial, with not much strategy necessary. Since this is what we see at first, our impression might not be too positive. But then we face a fort full of enemies. This the first trial: How can you attack such a fortified position?
Soon, we start seeing armoured enemies, grenadiers and bosses. Even the wizards from The Tower of Druaga make an appearance, complete with their pattern of teleporting in, shooting a fireball and leaving. Gain Ground hits its stride and becomes a great experience. It’s a game that feels great to learn.
The game is an interlocking puzzle where each enemy is a different piece. Some charge at us the moment we enter the screen, while others remain stationary until provoked. We might make sacrifices and be forced to run from snipers in exchange of more easily defeating an ambush. Finding the right path forward is rewarding and fun.
I think this the reason why Gain Ground has always been underestimated. Most arcade games can gather some respect from the mainstream by appealing to their kinetic edge. But Gain Ground does not excel in that area. Rather, it focuses on the underlying themes of arcade gaming which are learning, skillful play and improvement.
But by putting strategy in a real-time context, Gain Ground does manage to keep those arcade moments of drama. It’s not enough to form a strategy, we must also execute it. The slower pace won’t prevent us from making mistakes and some enemies, especially bosses, will require quick joystick action to defeat.
Still, Gain Ground can be rough. While the feel of the game is intentional, I admit it comes across as awkward. The overall pace is slower than I would wish for. I’ve also found the stringent time limit a bit grating, being inefficient in your approach can easily knock out your whole army.
While Gain Ground’s simulation-gone-wrong plot may not seem like much, the truth is that I like it. The diverse cast of characters give it a feeling of human cooperation. Sadly, it’s not a very attractive game visually, though its animation make it look lively. The music is good, though the lack of variety becomes irritating in the long run.
I can’t shake the feeling that Gain Ground would have become an all-time classic through a sequel that never materialized. The design advancements of the 1990s would have given us a more polished, explosive game than the one we have. Gain Ground is a good game, but it could have been better.
The old Mega Drive port remains eminently playable. The vertical screen has been squashed to fit into a horizontal orientation and movement is slower, but the quality of the tactics remains untouched. Still, I recommend either emulating the original or using the version sold for the Switch. It allows us to play vertically, though I don’t recommend using the playback feature.
Given the possibility, I recommend playing Gain Ground with a friend. While great as a single player title, it’s one of the few arcades where the levels have been truly designed for two players. It can be a lot of fun to strategize together and try to overcome the game’s challenges. It’s an unique experience, and the best way to enjoy this great game.
|GAIN GROUND (1988)
|SOUND & MUSIC