That title is a joke. Kind of. A half-joke. Honestly I have been anticipating this game since it was first announced many moons ago! Gain Ground on the Megadrive/Genesis is one of my favourite games. I have alluded to this game several times over the years, and I’m here to reiterate that it rocks, especially in co-op. It’s a slow, deliberate and strategic action game. An old and obscure Sega arcade release originally, it finally makes a long-awaited return… I can hardly wait and I want you to be just as excited. (Ha, fat chance.) But I’ll try my best here anyway – bring the hype!
The secret sauce of Gain Ground is co-op. The game is OK singleplayer, it’s certainly addictive and challenging, but the strategy and fun greatly expand with a second player. The original arcade game supports three players in fact, which I can’t wait to try, however as I mentioned I’ve only played the Megadrive version which is limited to two. A while back I had a look at another version of the game incidentally, as there was a Turbo-CD port of Gain Ground(!) – weird for a Sega game to come out on a competitor system but those were the wild west days. Anyway that version looks and sounds better than the Megadrive but two-player co-op is a glaring, unforgivable omission.
Let’s get back to why this game stirs my heart so. Gain Ground’s levels work like this: they’re single screen levels that you play through Ikari Warriors style. Kill all the enemies OR – there are always two ways to win – lead all your team to the EXIT marker. There is strategy at play here people. On these single screen levels there are many times enemies at different heights, or surrounded by some sort of cover. There are murderous folk of many varieties – archers, gunmen, knights, wizards and robots – scattered about, and sometimes you might not be able to cope with them all.
You start with a team of three warriors, but along the way you will find other tiny soldiers who, if you lead them to the EXIT, you get to keep and use in the next level. Every character has a unique set of moves, with their own strengths and weaknesses. One of the mainstays of your party, especially early on, is the male soldier. He’s your standard Ikari Warriors action hero, Rambo-lite. His bullets have the best range and he moves at a decent clip. His weakness is he can’t shoot behind cover, unlike the spear-wielder for instance, whose shots arc.
If you’re hit in battle, the character you’re using falls and will need to be rescued by another or they’ll be permanently lost. Any character they happen to be in the process of rescuing is gone, so you can lose a potential new party member too. Growing your party is great as it increases your options for tackling stages, but there is one drawback – in a situation where you for whatever reason can’t or don’t want to kill all the enemies, a large party size can make it difficult if not impossible for everyone to reach the EXIT in time. And anyone not at the EXIT when the time limit dings… they’re gone. It becomes in your best interest then to finish each level through death and destruction, meaning your options are slightly more constrained even with the greater freedom afforded by a varied cast.
Co-op makes things even more interesting, since you’re then talking about two separate parties of allies. That’s right, you don’t share a common pool of talent in co-op – nope, everyone has to make do on their own. How to play things right, so that you get the best characters for yourself and yet your partner still has the raw numbers and talent that they can be of use? Or is there a plan for one person to grab all the characters and hoard them, while the other person hurls their characters around recklessly? Both viable strategies, and believe me you’ll need those. In Gain Ground the early levels are easy, so make good use of them to build up your team(s) for the upcoming punishment in the latter stages. The more characters you can bring forward the better your chances in the final battles. There are some characters whose usefulness is limited early on, but whose unique abilities can wreak devastation (the good kind, my kind) later on.
Gain Ground is a deeply satisfying, uniquely designed game. Perfectly encapsulates that arcade philosophy of easy to pick up, hard to master.
Besting Gain Ground is like scaling a mountain. The climb only gets tougher as you continue so gather your resources and learn all you can early on. I have a feeling the Sega Ages version coming for Switch, which is based on the arcade version, is going to be a challenging, steep journey. The Megadrive game is tough to beat even on Easy, and I’m not sure if we ever made it to the end on Normal. Co-op should ease that a bit, especially now with the potential to have three capable players. (Or perhaps even one capable player – me – and two unwilling scapegoats – my drafted partners.) We shall see.
All I know is I am hella excited for early Feb when this finally releases internationally. If you have a Japanese eShop account on the Switch, congratulations, and more importantly what are you waiting for?! This is already available! And in English! No idea what the hold up is with these Sega Ages games leaving Japan; one more way Sega are remaining faithful to the retro experience!