Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 12th
Renovation is one of those publishers that is beloved by hardcore gamers because they specialized in finding niche Japanese titles that nobody else wanted to release in the US, and brought them over here. Of course, there was often a reason no other publisher would touch these games, so their track record has been, to put it generously, kind of hit and miss. But not hit and miss in the sense that “They had some games that were pretty good and some that weren’t.” It’s more the way being attacked by a shark could be described as hit and miss – some of the bites hit you and some miss, but each one is being made with bad intentions, and the whole experience is both terrifying and scarring. Renovation is the publisher responsible for bringing Ernest Evans to the U.S. from Japan, and that damn game actually forced economists to start counting “human misery” as one of our country’s imports for a while. What I’m saying is that if hardcore gamers say they love Renovation’s games, it’s only because they harbor a burning disdain and hatred of humanity (all hardcore gamers are secretly witches), and try to trick the rest of us into playing games that will make us cry. This is also the same reason they occasionally try to convince people the Virtua Fighter series is remotely playable.
So coming from Renovation isn’t a particularly promising heritage for Gain Ground, and if that wasn’t enough to overcome, this game came out in 1991. For those of you too young to remember, take it from someone who lived through it – 1991 was not a good year. There was a recession, a Bush in the White House, and people wore Zubaz pants. The Top Five highest grossing films that year included both Hook and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.The Buffalo Bills were in the Super Bowl again, and the Detroit Lions were a game away from being their opponent. Yes, Bills vs. Lions. In the Super Bowl. That nearly happened. Also, Vanilla Ice starred in a movie.
So, no, 1991 was not a great year, except, oddly enough, for games. This was the year the Super Nintendo was released and Street Fighter 2 hit the arcades. On the Genesis, we had Sonic the Hedgehog, the original NHL Hockey, and Rings of Power. In fact, this Top 50 Genesis list features as many or more games from 1991 as any other year, with an impressive 11. Gaming was the one good thing going in an otherwise terrible year. Well, that and the emergence of grunge music and the alternative scene. But keep in mind that the whole alternative thing was basically built around the idea of “Hey, from now on let’s try to make things as unlike 1991 as possible.”
Still, to look at Gain Ground, you’d probably never guess that it was one of the titles that made ‘91 such a banner year for gamers. Well ok, technically, if you were to look at it, you’d probably just guess that your TV was broken, because for all its good qualities, Gain Ground looks like ass. I mean, really, we had about a dozen different screen shots in this review, but we had to get rid of most of them because almost all of them just looked like a giant green and brown muddle.
“Man, they really assed-out the graphics in this one.”
So what is it then? What does this game do so well that we felt it worthy of being the 12th best game ever released for the Genesis? It must be the story, right? Well… no. Gain Ground’s story is so bad, they make absolutely no mention of it within the game itself, figuring it’s better for players to just wonder what the hell’s going on and why than to actually tell you what the “writers” came up with. And it’s hard to blame them. Gain Ground takes its name from some kind of combat simulator that was built during an era of peace to make sure people still had the ability to make war should the need arise. Because that seems like a likely scenario, right? That after centuries of peace, people would say “Well, this is nice, but let’s go back to that thing where we all waste resources, kill each other, and suffer. You know, that thing nobody even remembers how to do it anymore.” Anyway, one day the simulator goes nuts (of course), and kidnaps a bunch of people. Now it’s up to the greatest warriors to rescue them. Good thing they had that giant war simulator to train them how to defeat a… giant war simulator.
The best problems are always the ones you unnecessarily create for yourself.
By the way, these “greatest warriors” include a robocop look-a-like with a laser cannon, a couple of dudes with rockets launchers, and a, uh, medieval wizard who casts spells at his enemies. Oh, and also a guy in a loincloth who throws spears at people. Yep, that’s your dream team. Don’t send in the SWAT team or the future version of Navy SEALs or anything. We’ll just fill out this lineup with Merlin and a caveman and everything will be fine.
Actually, though, that makes perfect sense, because the Gain Ground simulator was designed to recreate combat from all eras. You know, because when this futuristic society that no longer has war decides that it’s going to start it up again, it’s only logical to assume that they’ll be doing it using badly outdated technology. Or maybe they were afraid of being attacked by some intergalactic Vikings and wanted to fight them with the invader’s own weaponry instead of just blasting them with lasers. Yeah, I think we’re all beginning to understand why this story didn’t get mentioned anywhere in the game.
So if it’s not the graphics, and it’s not the story, and I’ll just save us the paragraph and come right out and tell you it’s not the music, then it must be the gameplay. I mean, it’s either that or the box art, right?
It’s definitely not the box art.
Gain Ground blends action and strategy in a way that few games even try, let alone pull off successfully. Your goal in each stage is to lead your troops, one at a time, across a battlefield littered with enemy soldiers. To finish a level, you either need to kill every enemy on the map, or get every one of your characters to the exit. Additionally, there are bonus characters scattered on some maps that you can rescue and carry to an exit, and any character of yours that gets hit by an enemy can also be rescued in a similar fashion. However, anyone left on the map when the last enemy is killed on time runs out is lost. So the objective is to come up with and execute a plan that minimizes casualties, rescues all of the bonus characters, and then either kills all the enemies or evacuates all your troops before time runs out.
That might not sound like much, but the key to this setup is the careful way the game balances the action and planning portions of the game. When a stage begins, you can spend as much of the time limit as you wish formulating a plan – your characters are safely off-screen until chosen and sent into battle. This means you also have an opportunity to reevaluate your plans after a character exits the battlefield. But the timer never stops counting down, either, meaning that every second spent figuring out how you’re going to clear a stage is one less second you can spend actually doing so. It’s a delicate balance.
And the “rescue” aspect of the game opens up further strategic possibilities. Will you open with an expendable character (by which I mean the loincloth wearing guy with a spear) and let him find the nasty surprises the stage may have in store for you? Or will you try to save time by starting with a powerful character? If he gets ambushed and killed, will you try to rescue him? How will you retrieve a bonus character way off in the corner while still leaving at least one enemy alive (so as not to end the stage before the rescue is completed)?
Your best bet? Don’t use the samurai. He can’t do anything.
The action portion of the game plays like an overhead shooter, and the many different characters all have unique qualities, which adds yet another level of strategy to the mix. Some warriors are faster than others, some can shoot over walls, and some have longer range, or the ability to strafe. The game is challenging enough that no matter how good your planning is, you’re still going to have to be good with a controller to survive, and some of the stage layouts are absolutely devious.
As an interesting side note, this was one of the only games on our Top 50 that was also released for the Sega Master System, though this was only in Europe. So if you happen to be a European SMS enthusiast, you could try to track down a copy. However, given the unlikelihood of finding Master System games at any time other than late 80s, that option might only available to British time travelers.
I suppose you could ask for a copy if you ever meet Dr. Who.
Availability: Gain Ground came out too early in the Genesis’ life to be a big hit, and as a result, copies of it are kind of rare. Maybe not “travel to an ancient Inca temple and recover it from a chamber full of traps” rare, but definitely “pay $8 on eBay for a cartridge-only copy with a torn label” rare. Fortunately, Gain Ground was included as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, which is available on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Wii owners can also snag a copy for the virtual console. If you have the option, we’d recommend the Ultimate Genesis Collection, since it has a ton of other Top 50-worthy games and is an absolute bargain at the price. Also, it gives you the ability to save whenever you want, which is a worthwhile feature we only wish the original game came with. Believe me, you’ll be glad for the ability to save after every stage the first time you lose your archer and can’t rescue him.