This originally appeared as Sega's Meisaku Album Vol. 8 at www.sega.co.jp .  Translated by Gaijin Punch. 

This edition of Meisaku (Famous) Album Staff Interview will be with one of the programmers of Gain Ground, Yoshiki Ohka. We'll reveal all about Gain Ground, including the truth about it's "dramatic" 4-8 bug. three 3-player mystery, and more.   We shall tell all!

Profile:

Entered Sega in 1985. Involved with programming many of Sega's hit titles, including Quartet, Heavy Weight Champ, Gain Ground, and Shadow Dancer. After that, directed games on the Mega Drive including Yuu Yuu Hakusho Gaiden and Doraemon. And finally, offered third party technical support on the 32X, Saturn, and Dreamcast. Left Sega in 2003, and now belongs to Now Productions.
*This interview was taken while he was still at Sega.

Even now, some game centers still have Gain Ground, don't they?

Yes. When I drop by Shinjuku Nishiguchi Sportsland (Nishispo), I'll see people playing it, on the 2nd floor, near the vending machines. I thought  it'd be phased out in the last 5 years or so. I'd really like to know how much cash that game is bringing in! (laughs)

15 years since it's release. That's quite a long run, isn't it?

Gain Ground isn't a game where you just read the instruction card on the side of the cabinet and figure out how to play.   So even when it first came out, it's sales (record) wasn't anything special.   I once said, "I made a game that won't bring in new players!" (laughs). The game doesn't get interesting until midway through round 2  (10 stages per round). Once you get to round 3, you really start to see how interesting the game is. (laughs)

A while after it's debut in the game centers, Kouji Mishiro (forementioned magazines lead writer who had a popular column on game reviews and strategies. Now with Noise) put it in his column in Maikon Basic Magazine. I'd say that was the point that it was finally accepted as "a good game". If he han't stated in his column how deep of a game Gain Ground was, it would not be valued as it is today.

 

Programming Works:

[Arcade]
Shooting Master
Quartet
World Bingo
Heavy Weight Champ
Gain Ground
Shadow Dancer

[MegaDrive]
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Directed Works:

[MegaDrive / MegaCD]
Ishi Hisaichi no Daiseikai
Yuu Yuu Hakusho Gaiden
Doraemon: The 7 Gozansu
- Among others

Gain Ground Production Begins

How did you start planning for Gain Ground?

Economically, we aimed it at the American market, where people could player together, like Gauntlet. If you died, you could throw in another coin and keep going. (laughs). There was that, and basically when we were doing testing, we imagined Gauntlet as best as we could. We generally had Gauntlet right next to us and used it's elements wherever we could (laughs).  But, as we started constructing the game, we started changing those elements.

When it first started, did it look a lot like Gauntlet?

Not really. From the beginning, you could choose one of three players regardless of which part of the machine you were on, unlike Gauntlet where the character is chosen for you based on your physical location. Gameplay as well, was totally different.  Gauntlet was body-turning action, and Gain Ground was shooting.  Incidentally, in the early planning, there was a "kill your enemey, get money, and buy stuff at the Merecenary Shop" system. (laughs). Then the  game started to mature.

And eventually didn't adopt said system?

Correct. We put in the Fantasy Zone shop system (where you gather money, buy weapons, and modify your ship) but we figured if you saw it in Gain Ground, we would've been busted.  We eventually went against it due to game-balancing reasons. When we gave up on the shop idea, we decided to add the final (get more fighters as you go along) system.

Did you change the system as you went along?

Oh, yes. The idea of when your player died and became a prisoner (and you could get him back)  was not in the original plans.  But we had problems coming up with a way to keep the game balanced if you lost one of your necessary characters.

At the time (1988) it was rare to find a game that had a mere one screen per page. Was this also a part of the original plans?

We originally planned it to scroll.  However, a scrolling multi-player game gets pretty difficult to enjoy. For example, someone at the top of the screen might go ahead and leave someone behind at the bottom.  There are multi-player games styled like that, however all players can't move around freely. This is more of a game where you have to figure out strategies together such as timing, who to kill to proceed, and such.

During the programming, I had tiffs with countless programmers, and eventually we went into the one screen per stage layout and everyone settled down. We did, however, plan to have the player look-down from the beginning.

The character actions are quite detailed as well.  Throwing a spear that makes a parabola, left-handed and right-handed characters... Were these elements in the planning stages as well?

I think since we had so many "detailed" people on the staff they had a big impact on the game.  We hadn't origianlly planned such things in the beginning, but coincidentally, the designers said they didn't want the animation to look off when a character attacked.

The parabola that the throwing objects make was programmed from the beginning.  Sega's System24 board was capable of displaying large objects (object scaling) so we just exaggerated that.

 

 

 

 
 
 

As a rule in the original Gainground instruction manual:

Powerup = 1 up.  Much more difficult than the final version, resulting in relatively quick deaths.  However, there were quite a few 1 ups in the game, which would be used before the game was over, of course.

 


System24's max resolution is 496x384, offering a challenge for designers that were used to the standard 320x224. So, Gainground's screen isn't necessarily a work of the programmer's, but something the programmers helped envision.

 


Left/Right-handed players were originally implemented for looks. rather than gameplay.

 

The God of Games Appears

What part of programming were you in charge of?

I did the test mode and programming of all the enemies. Rather transparent to the end-user, but I made out nicely on the graph based on data from our beta testers. (laughs). Someone above me put togther the player, boss character, and main system programming. The frame was quite well done, so I was able to devote myself to the enemy AI.  But even so, it was a trial and error process from the start.

Any particular favorites amongst the characters?

 "Graphically" I don't remember much. Personally I only recall the enemies "thought routines" and the essence of the programing.
Of course we received the character data from the designers, and one by one separated them and started putting together the animations, but felt it'd be easier to convey to the end user nice character movement rather than attractive animation. So, we made changes bit by bit, changing flags, deciding what should move and when... like making a cogwheel toy or something. I like playing with movements I don't quite understand. (laughs).   This kind of off-beat programming and parameter layout was quite fun. Something like that, I remember quite well.

Did it take a lot of time to program the enemies?

Yes. We did a lot of trial and error, thinking of ways we could make individual changes to the AI. For example, if there was an obstacle, the enemy should go around it, and then head for the player. We had to figure out ways not to make two enemies heading for the same player do the exact same thing. To get that
right, took about a year and three months.  At the time, it was my first programming assignment, so they were quite generous in terms of time. (laughs).

So it took a comparatively long time to make?

After the first 9 months, we had only completed up to round 2.  I myself was thinking about it too much and couldn't make any progress.  On the side, Altered Beast had been completed, then suspicions were arising from the Alien Storm teeam leader.   So I had to leave some stuff out because I didn't have any time. (laughs).  There was really "Ancient", "Early Modern", "Medieval", "Future", as well as a "Modern" epoch.  The MegaDrive version has the Modern Epoch, but you'd be right in saying that it's a completely original scenario. In the beginning, we had 50 to 60 screens, but my part of the work was always coming in late so we pulled the Modern Epoch. (laughs). The Modern Epoch designers as well only churned out about 3 stages, and they didn't have the enemy data, so we were basically ordered to cut the game short at 40 stages. (laughs).  Once we were ordered to make the deadline, I think we did all of Epoch 4 in 3 days and 3 nights (non-stop).  There's not a lot of enemies in there with complicated animations.

Could it be because of the harsh conditions that there's that bug in level 4-8? (laughs)

We actually fixed that problem once, but when we updated the master source file, we forgot to link it.  (laughs). We were all under such stress, we just overlooked it. But, at times like that is when the "God of Games" comes down and your body, even when  sleeping, is doing work. So, perhaps we hallucinated the part about fixing the bug.  Off-subject, but you start seeing things after the 2nd straight night.  A hairy caterpillar... like electroplasma... you see
things you just can't describe.

Stepping away from the electroplasma caterpillars, (smirks) is there a version that fixes the bug in 4-8?

The 3-Player version did not have the bug.  We didn't see any damage to sales so only 2-player versions after that got the fix.

It's said that there was a dramatic "development" about the 4-8 bug amongst the Gain Ground development team...

Honestly, just a coincidence. We didn't expect anyone would beat the last boss with Zaemon.  (laughs).  We figured everyone would be having a hard time with the game, then heard that end-users could whack him out with one whirlwind shot. Finally tried it out and we all thought, "Whoah! Wow!" I was truly thinking, "If you design the game with freedoms, rules will be born within the game."
[Whatever that means -- sorry for the weird translation.]

Is that what becomes part of Gain Ground's attractiveness?

There's various ways to defeat the enemies, and if you change your timing, or move just a little, the enemies move differently. Maybe it's the unpredictability of Gain Ground that's it's most attractive part. In those terms, I think I was able to make what I had envisioned.


"We realized that we had to make the characters more human, and make their movements soft."

 


"There were quite a few arguments with the planners on what exactly the AI could and couldn't do."

 


"Modern Epoch" which made it to the MegaDrive version.  According to the arcade versions pans:
Round 4:
Epoch Setting  = Modern
Enemy Types   = Soldiers
                                Tanks
Main Weapons = Guns
                                Cannons
                                Grenades

So a caterpillar is responsible for the 4-8 bug?!|


 

By changing the dipswitch on the 3P version, you can play the 2P version.  The only difference is the bug in 4-8.

 

Zaemon can wipe out the last boss easily with his whirlwind attack.

GAIN GROUND 3-PLAYER ACTION?

We touched on this a minute ago, but I'd like to come back to it if I could. The 1-2 player table was popular, but there's also the rumor of a 3-player version...

There is... rather we started development of it for the overseas market. We used the same cabinet that was used in Quartet, which was meant to be re-used. In terms of sales, we thought of Japanese
game centers and concluded that the 2P version was best.  The 3P version was never released [in Japan], but we did sell an upgrade kit for those that had the Quartet cabinet, so I think you could say that there are people [in Japan] who have played the 3P version.

What's the difference between the two versions?

Basically it's just the number of players.  We made the game with three, but the in the 2P version, you can obviously only go up to two. 

The System24 screen was quite precise, but it didn't have much character RAM, so you couldn't have a lot of large characters on screen simultaenously. Being limited to small characters was difficult.

So would you say on the 3P version, that playing with 3 players is easier?

When a stage starts, checking the number of enemies, enemies that pop up later, and enemies that can't be killed by one hit - these things don't change, so I wouldn't say that it necessarily gets any easier.  If you're gonna do it, you just have to do it.

Can you not just change the dip switch on the 2P version  and make it the 3P version?

The disk itself is different, so no, you can't.

But isn't playing with 1 player compared to with 3 players a totally different expereience.

This isn't meant to be a single player game.  It's meant for 2 or more. There's things that'll make you think your partner screwed up, and caused more enemies appear, or you there are times where you can steal the other players characters. If other people play, your situation will change as well.  As before, Gain Ground is a multi-player game.

Are you happy to see it still going after all this time?

An arcade game's fate is, unlike consoles games that stay with the users that play them, that once they're gone from the game centers, there's a good chance the players will never see them again. Even with Yu Suzuki's games, they've been relived on home
consoles. But, for example Hang On, when you tilted into a curb, or kicked it into 5th gear, if you've not experienced those things, you've just not experienced it. I think Gain Ground is rated quite differently between people who played it in the game centers, the
people that only know the name, and the people whom have only played the home conversions.  How much I'm able to relay that point... is the point.

2003.4.14 Sega Meeting Room


Quartet (1986) cabinet.
Not only is there a difference in maximum amount of players, but also in the number of coin slots between the 2P and 3P versions.

 


Even the original Gain Ground flyer shows 3 players.

 

I am  truly lucky as a creator to see the game having been enjoyed for so long.