Gain Ground (ゲイングランド) / Gain Ground SX - Arcade, Genesis, Master System, PC Engine Super CD, PlayStation 2, PSP, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows, Wii Virtual Console (1988)
People love to lament about how unoriginal the gaming landscape is, and how everything is a clone of a clone. Even though these same people love to dream about how much better games were in the old days, the fact is, there was lots of crappy, derivative junk, created mostly to wow arcade-goers with some impressive graphics, all while sucking quarters out of them.
Sega's Gain Ground stood out in opposition to this. There's some ridiculous plot about humanity finally reaching a state of world peace, but they begin to worry that they may lose their fighting instinct. To quell this instinctive urge, they create a super computer that simulates warfare from throughout Earth's history. Naturally, the computer goes crazy and starts killing things for real, so it's up to you to put a stop to this digital insurgence. You play as army commandos, vikings, valkyries, samurais, indians, knights and robots as you travel through different time periods, ranging from prehistory to the medieval times to the distant future, and kill anything that tries to kill you. Tossing all of the anachronisms into a huge pot and stirring is an intriguing idea - sort of a takeoff on Alpha Denshi's crappy Time Soldiers game - but it's completely different from anything on the market, then or now, even though it's hard to see at first.
Gain Ground may look like a standard overhead action game, but it's not a shooter - the pacing is completely different from a standard overhead Mercs-style game. Some people call it a strategy game, which isn't entirely accurate either, because it's absolutely nothing like your standard Fire Emblem or Command & Conquer-style game. Sega themselves calls Gain Ground an "algorithm action" game, and while that's easy to write off as crazy Engrish, it almost kind of fits.
In Gain Ground, you are given a single screen, filled with enemies and obstacles. The arcade game runs on Sega's System-24 board, which results in some incredibly high resolution graphics and a huge playing field. The characters are tiny, sure, but it gives a lot of room to move around. In the beginning, there are three selectable characters, each with different abilities. In order to beat the stage, you either have to kill all of the enemies, or guide your heroes to the huge block that says EXIT. Doesn't sound too difficult, right?
When you first play Gain Ground, you may feel that something is horribly amiss. None of the characters move at a quick pace - instead, they just kind of waddle around, strolling through a battlefield as carnage unfolds around them. Their weapons are slow, awkward, and often hard to use properly. There no screen clearing bombs. If you play this like any other run and gun shooter, you'll get demolished pretty quickly.
But therein lies the puzzle aspect of Gain Ground - it becomes imperative to study enemy patterns and figure out the best way to beat them. Some enemies will only charge at you when you come close to them - in which case, lure them out, run back, and repeat. Most enemies shoot directly at you, so as long as you're fast enough, you can keep running without getting hit. Most other enemies have different behaviors that are less scripted, but can be analyzed and exploited. (I guess this is where the "algorithm" part fits in.)
But more importantly, you need to look at your characters and figure out the best way to utilize their roles the best that you can. Each of the twenty characters has a variety of strengths and weaknesses - some are slow but powerful, while others are needed to hit enemies on different heights.
A spear wielding jungle native. His weapon can travel over small barriers and hit enemies on ledges. One of the original trio.
Your standard gun-wielding American commando, Johnny has a long range gun that's fast and powerful, but not exactly versatile. He can also shoot upwards while moving in any direction. One of the original trio.
The tough commando chick, Betty wields a relatively weak gun, and walks rather slowly. She has powerful bombs that can hit enemies at different heights, but can only be thrown upwards. One of the original trio.
A badass knight who can protect himself with rotating orbs.
A viking who wields a bow and arrow. Sort of like Athra but better.
He's slow and ever-so-fat, but has an incredible laser blast weapon.
Her boomerang can hit enemies around corners.
The Professor (what an awesome name) can shoot left and right at the same time.
Sort of like Johnny, except he wields a mean machine gun instead of a rifle.
This can guy create whirlpools, which will temporarily disable foes.
See above, except this guy shoots out a small flame which will burn in place for several seconds.
Has a boomerang, much like the Valkyrie.
Has an awesome five-way bazooka.
A hulking robot that can lob missiles at targets across the screen.
A combination of Kou and Professor, Kid also wields a machine gun and can shoot left and right simultaneously.
A variation on Betty, Honey can throw her grenades in any direction.
This M. Bison look-a-like wields a mean flamethrower.
Some samurai dude with a crazy, unpredictable whirlwind attack.
Much like Athra, except Gascon can only throw his spears upwards.
Another guy with a bow, except he can only shoot upwards.
You begin the game with three characters, and pick up more as you go along. On the battlefield, you'll often come across little icons of disabled soldiers. If you pick them up and reach the exit, they'll become playable in the next round. On a similar note, there are no real "lives" in Gain Ground. If your character dies, they show up as disabled on the battlefield. If the next character can be picked up and escorted the next stage, they'll be resurrected, good as new. However, if your next character dies, or you finish the level without them, then they'll be lost for good. In other words, building up your ranks and keeping them alive is one of the biggest challenges in Gain Ground.
This is primarily because the game is brutally difficult and unforgiving. It's all too common that you'll start off a level with a new character, get them killed before you can figure out what their strengths, and never see them again. Additionally, there are way too many situations where you can screw yourself over if you don't have the right character. What if there are enemies on the rooftops and you don't have any characters that can hit them? Well, ha ha, tough luck. It's not always impossible, and it forces you to improvise if you're ill-equipped, but more often than not, it just leads to some incredibly cheap deaths.
Sometimes the game just simply gets too overwhelming for it's own good. The most obnoxious group of enemies are wizards that transport to various places around the screen, toss out some fireballs directly at your character, and then disappear to some other location. None of your characters are fast enough, nor are any of your weapons versatile enough, to deal with them properly, especially when they toss a couple of them in a level with no maneuvering room. There are at least a few levels throughout Gain Ground that seem completely counter intuitive to the game's slow-and-steady game mechanics. Oh, and you've got a time limit to beat each level, so you'd better hurry up.
Gain Ground also has another quirk, in that most of your characters are either left or right handed. This means that they'll shoot off center each time they fire. This may add realism, and occasionally lends to the strategy, but when you're getting chased in circles by some bad guy, the last thing you want to worry about is adjusting your aim so you can hit the damn thing.
The developers have stated that their original inspiration was Gauntlet. Visually, it's easy to see the comparison. Plus, both games are about sending multiple players to fight against hordes to bad guys, finding order amongst chaos, and using their character's skills to the best of their abilities. Beyond those aspects, however, Gain Ground is a completely different animal, adding a bit of brain to a genre mostly known for pure brawn. Sure, there are more than few irritating aspects in Gain Ground, and it's almost shameful that there was never a true sequel to fix any of them up. But it certainly gets points for traveling on the path less taken, and most dedicated gamers are forgiving enough to put up with some issues to experience something so unique.
There were several ports of Gain Ground, naturally. The Genesis version was published in America by Renovation. Since there was no way to accurately scale the playing fields from the arcade version, this port simply shrinks the battlefield considerably. Even though it feels cramped compared to the arcade version, it actually helps the pace of the game quite a bit, especially when you need to move multiple characters to the exit. There are also ten completely new levels added to the Genesis version - the Modern Epoch takes place in the streets of the city, with one stage being inside of an arcade. There is also a Hard mode which starts you off with all twenty characters. Sega also released a port to the Sega Master System, which obviously has some vastly scaled back graphics and some choppy animations. However, many of the levels are completely unique, and some of the character abilities have been changed around, so it's worth checking out just to see something new. This Genesis version is also included on the Sega Genesis Collection for the PS2 and PSP, Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and Sega Genesis Classic Collection Gold Edition for PC.
NEC Avenue also ported Gain Ground to the PC Engine Super CD under the title Gain Ground SX. Other than the excellent redbook audio soundtrack, there's really nothing that takes advantage of the CD format. In spite of this, it's probably one of the best ports of Gain Ground out there. In order to faithfully recreate the levels, the action has been zoomed in, and the screen now scrolls up and down. Additionally, all of the characters seem to move and fire a bit faster, plus many of the enemies are a bit easier. While one can argue that it takes a lot of the challenge out of the game, it's also much more playable - and fun - than any other version. It also has some nice sound effects, which normally isn't very important, but they're very noticeably considering all of the other versions sound pretty lame.
Gain Ground was also resurrected in 2004 as part of the Sega Ages series for the Japanese PlayStation 2. Like the rest of the games in this budget line, the gameplay is the same, but it uses all new polygonal graphics. While some of the screenshots look pretty ugly, the game looks decent in motion, even if the levels have once again been shrunk to fit on the screen. The only real advantage to the 3D graphics is that you can choose between three viewpoints - overhead, slightly skewed overhead, and a low angle viewpoint, which looks cool but is effectively useless. The character portraits have been redrawn, and for the first time, their names actually appear in the game (they were relegated to instruction manuals before.) All of the music has been remixed, and most of it sounds excellent. There is also apparently an "extra" mode, which apparently features some new stages and plenty of new songs, most of which are also outstanding. The problem is, in order to access this mode, you need to beat the game first, which is astoundingly hard task. Gain Ground gives you unlimited continues all the way up to the final boss, and then gives you a Game Over screen if you run out of characters. It really is ridiculously cruel. Unfortunately, most of the home ports (except for the PS2 version) are missing the goofy "end of level" messages, like "NOW YOU LOOK OUT", "YOU ARE BRAVE ONE" and "NEXT STAGE IS NOT EASY."