What do you get when you mix together a top-down shooter with limited characters, plenty of baddies and thirty challenging levels? You get Gain Ground, an action-strategy game released for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, released in 1988. It’s a console port of the arcade version of the same name, where players must manoeuvre through enemy territory and reach the exit on each stage.
The people of Earth are getting hungry for war, so the government created a virtual reality simulation for them to fight in as a means of relieving tension, which soon became an overnight sensation to the people of the planet. However, things go awry when the supercomputer controlling it all decides to kidnap the civilians trying it out, scattering them across various, enemy-infested battlefields. You’ll need to get in there, recruit these survivors, and defeat the AI from within the simulation itself.
Gain Ground‘s graphics were pretty decenty for the time, with some nice-looking terrain and a smooth framerate to along with it. Though, it’s nowhere near as appealing as other titles that came out on the system. Its soundtrack is rather average in comparison, looping over and over every nine levels or so, yet it is not one of those cases where it becomes infuriatingly irritating. Still, it has a nice jingle to listen in to when the level is completed.
The objective for each stage is to reach the marked exit point, or, alternatively, eliminate all enemies on the stage. If there are bosses to fight, they must be defeated to advance. What doesn’t help is that you can die with one hit, and if you crank up the difficulty or simply advance far enough, you’ll eventually reach the point where it’s an absolute spam-fest, with arrows and projectiles flying towards you like mad. The boss encounters become a pain in the arse for this very reason. There are five rounds set in different time zones, offering ten levels each — more than the arcade original), and it’s easy to feel pretty worn out by the sameiness after the first few chapters onward.
A large collection of characters are available in this one, each with differing attacks. Some can fire projectiles that travel longer distances, or can hit foes above them. Others can use special attacks, like grenades and lasers, facing in either any direction, or just north. Usually, there are two characters that share similar attacks but can use their special either in any direction or simply upward, but the ability to strafe while automatically firing upward is more valuable than you may think, since all missions start from the bottom of the screen and require you to head upward, anyway. Each of these have a very brief cooldown, which works in your favour as well.
Thankfully, a second player can help reduce the enemy population, yet not even a friend or relative helping out can save anyone from the bombardment of arrows and bolts. Once you’re hit, your character turns grey and is stuck on the spot, so you’ll be constsntly recruiting new team members while potentially sacrificing your own. If, say, one character dies and another goes down while trying to rescue them, the first will disappear completely, robbing you of a chance to recruit them again. They may appear in a later mission, but it’s a royal pain. At least both players won’t have to share between a single set of protagonists between them, which is a relief.
On the whole, Gain Ground holds up as a demanding strategy game, and a decent one at that. The sounds and graphics will not impress many, yet each difficult mission may offer some entertainment as you’re picking off hordes of foes in each tense mission. If you have the patience for tricky titles of old, try it out in reasonably-sized bursts with a friend for the best experience. Otherwise, there’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from this one.