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Friday, 7 March 2014

North & South (Infogrames, 1989)

Original development team for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST versions:
Brainstorming by Philippe Agripnidis, Stéphane Baudet, Vincent Belliard, Charles Callet, Didier Chanfray, Laurent Charbonnier, Alain Nakache and Stephen Trevallion. Coding by Alain Nakache, Stéphane Baudet and William Hennebois. Graphics by Didier Chanfray, Alain Nakache, Dominique Girou, Frédéric Bascou, Laurent Charbonnier and Sophie Cau. Music by Charles Callet and Stéphane Baudet.

Converted for the IBM-PC compatibles in 1990 by Infogrames. Conversion programmed by Christophe Lacaze and William Hennebois.

Converted for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990 by Kemco. (no further information)

Converted for the Commodore 64 in 1991 by Probe Software:
Coding by Daryl Bowers, Graphics by Lee Ames, Music by Jeroen Tel, Produced by Jo Bonar.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and MSX1/2 in 1991 by New Frontier:
Coding by Isidro Gilabert, Daniel Diaz, David Herrero. Graphics by Juan Jose Frutos, Alberto Jose Gonzalez and Ruben Gomez. Music by Alberto Jose Gonzalez.

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GAME STATUS

I was somewhere around 8 years old when this game was released, and to me and my friends, North & South was just a funny-looking war-action/strategy game. Perhaps it crossed our minds that it looked a bit like some of those funny French/Belgian comics, but even though the title screen stated it clearly, we had no idea back then, that this was actually based on a Belgian comic book, instead of just that plain old American Civil War. The text "Les Tuniques Bleues" just decorated the loading screen with some foreign language we didn't know about. As it still is, North & South was one of our favourite head-to-head games ever since the Amiga populated our neighbourhood in the turn of the 1990's. Naturally, piracy was rampant back then, because no one thought much of it, and so we had very little information on the games, other than our own experiences, circulating rumours and the small amount of magazines that didn't necessarily give all the detailed information I have made my mission to correct in this age of retrogaming as much as I am able to.

The two original versions have a surprisingly different score at their respective websites: the Amiga version has a 8.57 from 318 at LemonAmiga, placing it at #36 in the Top 100 list, while the Atari ST version only has a 7.8 with 22 votes at Atarimania. Abandonia users have rated the DOS version 3.4 out of 5 with 4093 votes, while the editor thinks it's worth a full 4.0. Questicle.net has graded the NES version with a B. Probe's conversion for the Commodore 64 has been rated a rather impressive 7.9 from a total of 65 votes at Lemon64. As for the three conversions by New Frontier, Generation-MSX has given it four stars with as little as 6 votes; World of Spectrum users have given it a 8.20 with 74 votes, and finally, CPC Game Reviews have given it a whopping 9 out of 10. So, based on these reviews, I have a feeling that people still remember this game quite fondly and have an occasional session or two. Whether it's a classic or a cult favourite, is another argument entirely. For me, it's still one of the rare games I can play with my other retrogaming friends, and as such, it definitely earns a good thorough comparison.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW

As suggested, Les Tuniques Bleues is a suitably humoristic comic book series, based on the good old American Civil War, and North & South is the computerized version of it. It is in turns a strategy game, a competitive brawling platformer and a real-time head-to-head triple-action war battler. You pick a side, a skill level and one of the years from the period when the war happened, and you can also choose some additional hazards, such as bombing mexicans, thunderstorms and indians, all of which should be familiar to the fans of the comics. Occasionally, you might get some reinforcements, either from collecting enough finances through train routes, or from overseas, if you happen to own the proper territories. The game can be played in a strategic mode or an arcade mode, in which the strategic mode will be played only by calculated chances based on each army's numbers of troops. Naturally, such a game would be considered remarkably less of importance and fun, if it didn't have a competitive two-player mode. The game is over, when either one of the players has been completely defeated. More details on the gameplay will, as usual, be told of in the playability section.

From all the computer and video games of my youth, there are only a select few that have remained in the list of still worthwhile multiplayer experiences, and North & South is one of them. There is no greater glory than beating your friend in it with just a few soldiers' strength left in the final battle. The arcade bits make the game what it is, and going through it in straight strategy mode makes the whole experience less of a battle. Even now, 25 years since its original release, the game has certainly aged with grace and style, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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LOADING

Since this game was originally a disk-based release with mostly unsequential loading based on your actions instead of how the game naturally evolves, having a cassette release seems already like a rather useless idea. Nevertheless, some tape versions did come to exist, more particularly on our troublesome threesome: Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. The tape versions would be spread on as many as four sides of tapes, featuring one side for each: menu, map/main game, battlefield and fortress arcade sequences, so you would have to be doing a LOT of rewinding and loading in one game. Luckily, all the three computers also had a disk release, so no need to compare them there.

Of course, if this was 1990 or 1991, and your only available loading method was the cassette, I would either try to dissuade you from buying the game on tape, or if you had bought it already, make copies of all the tape sides on other separate cassettes, because it would make your playing sessions so much less uncomfortable and time-consuming. Luckily, we are living in 2014.

So bearing that in mind, if you need your gaming session to be as instantaneous as possible, you might as well pick up either the DOS or the NES version. Both are very playable, and have that non-loading quality to them.

To have some more colour in the upper half of this comparison again, let's take a look at the loading screens, wherever loading might be happening. As usual, none of this has any effect on the final  scores.

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PLAYABILITY

Rarely I knowingly make myself work through a comparison of a game, in which case I know to have more than enough elements of gameplay to go through - even more particularly when there are more than three releases of the said game available. This shall be one of those rare occasions. For decorative purposes, as well as hopefully pointing out information regarding the difficulty settings, I will scatter around the pictures of each representative of difficulty level on both sides. (I'm not exactly sure of every character, since I've never read the comics.)

*LANGUAGE SELECTION*
Corporal Mathias

This is quite possibly the first game on my blog to include multiple languages. As it might be an important factor for some gamers that only understand certain languages, this will be pointed out here, although I dare say, it has no place in the final Playability scores. So, the AMIGA and ST versions versions give you five languages to choose from: French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. The C64 and NES versions seem to have English as their only option, but I suppose that's because there are individual releases for other languages. (The NES having a Japanese alternative and the C64 at least a French and Spanish one from what I've found.) The Amstrad, MSX and Spectrum versions have three in-built language options: English, French and Spanish. The DOS version also has three languages to choose from, but this time, they are French, English and German.

*CONTROLS*

Even before we get past the various loading and title screens, we come across our first gameplay-related point of difference. In all the conversions by New Frontier, the choice for number of players has to be determined after the opening credits, in the screen with the loading picture. This is so, because you are required to also choose your method of controls, which you will be using for the rest of the game. But then, you will still get to the other menu screen as well, where you are able to choose a computer or a human player as your opponent. Since the game is a two-way battle by description, you will always have the computer opponent as your option, but I wonder, why did they have to make the starting up of the game such a difficult and long-winding journey? At least on the C64, all the options at start-up can be determined all in the same place, as they should be. But if you happen to be using a tape version in any of these cases, you would most likely be pondering on the good fortune of having a 16-bit alternative, because by the time you got into the actual game in any of the tape versions, you would have most likely won an easy game already on the PC, Amiga, ST or perhaps even the NES. Okay, enough complaining about the tape versions - it's not what this game was designed for anyway.

Corporal Blutch
Probably the most notable difference between all the versions is actually in the controls themselves. Three versions from the eight are played by using the mouse, which is used in turns during the map screen, and a joystick or keyboard controls everywhere else, depending on your choice. The game manual will tell you the keys, if you have a need for them, and I'm sure you can find them by yourself, although mostly, they are something quite obvious, such as cursor keys, space bar, shift keys, tab, etcetera. These apply for the DOS, Amiga and Atari ST versions. Naturally, the NES version only uses what's available on the pad controllers, and as implied, there are several joystick options as well as redefinable keyboard controls for the Spectrum, Amstrad and MSX versions.
Cancrelat.

The most unestimable controls are on the Commodore 64. If you happen to be playing against a friend, both automatically use joysticks in both ports. If, however, you happen to be playing alone against the computer, you can choose to use either the joystick or the keyboard controls, which are: P for up, L for down, Z for left, X for right and SPACE for fire. Other keys in use on both occasions are: H for toggling pause, E for North army's retreat, up arrow for South army's retreat, RUN/STOP for choosing a Northern unit during battle, F5 for choosing a Southern unit during battle, and the Commodore (C=) key for quitting the game in the map screen.

*GAMEPLAY DESCRIPTION*

Now, I think it would only be fair to go through the difficulty level settings for those of you who don't have a manual at hand, or don't know the characters from the comic book. Corporals BLUTCH (North) and MATHIAS (South) represent the most difficult level; Sergeant CHESTERFIELD (North) and CANCRELAT (South) represent the medium difficulty; and Captains STARK (North) and PHILIP (South) represent the easiest levels. By choosing a starting year from 1861 to 1864, you will choose the number of armies and territories owned by each side - the situation reflects actual historical conditions for each of the four years. The final year of the Civil War, 1985, is not represented here, since the situation was too unfavourable for the South at that point, so it would not make much of a game anymore. You can also choose to include "disasters" that will modify the strategic situations during gameplay; these are the Indians (which also bring along the Mexicans) and the storms. You can also choose to include European reinforcements, who will bring additional armies from overseas to whomever happens to own the state of South Virginia at the time of their arrival.
Captain Stark

For those of you who require a quick lesson or want to refresh your memory regarding the American Civil War, take a look at this Wikipedia page. Therein, you should find the reason for the game map being only restricted to the area covered from the East coast to Texas and northwards, if you needed to remind yourself. Of course, you will find lots of more information which might have escaped you earlier, but not a whole lot of it is actually of much useful concerning this game. Anyway, if you have chosen to include the hazards in the game, Texas is a dangerous place to stay for too long, because you will be attacked by the irritated Mexican, whom you woke up from his siesta. From Oklahoma up to North Dakota, it was basically Indian territory, so if you go there to play with your enemies, you will be attacked by a tomahawk (the Indian war axe, not the missile). The storm cloud roams around all over the map, moving along with every turn you and your enemies end, and when one settles over one of your armies, the unit cannot be moved from the spot during that turn.

Captain Philip
Most of the game is played on the map screen, by moving your army units around, conquering territories in order to build more armies. In order to build an army, you need to get a clear railroad passage from one stop to another, which might require conquering anything from 2 to 6 different territories, and wait for a number of turns required for the train to bring you a full 5 bags of gold. Also, as mentioned earlier, if you happen to own the state of South Virginia, a ship will bring you European reinforcements occasionally. Moving around the map happens in most versions by moving your cursor around with your keyboard, mouse, pad or joystick, clicking on units and moving them on other territories, which might or might not be occupied with another unit. If it is, then what happens next is connected to whether the other unit occupying the space is a friend or an enemy. If it's one of yours, the moving army unit will merge with the previous occupant, making it stronger.

When you get into a contact with an enemy unit, the game will load up one of three battlefield screens (unless you are playing from a cassette, in which case there is only one type of battlefield - the least graphic one). The least strategic one of these is the plain field, which might have a tree or two and a hut. The other two screens have a dividing river or a chasm going through the middle of the screen, a bridge (which can be shot down) at the middle of the chasm or the river, and a second passage, only fit for a tightly organised group. In a basic army unit, you have one cannon, three horse-riding sword-wielding officers, and six foot soldiers with rifles. You can have up to three of these sets combined in one unit, but apart from the cannons, which can be on the field simultaneously, the officers and the footmen will be performing in groups. Whichever unit wins the battle, conquers the territory. You can also retreat, if you think you will be losing, but that's no way to fight a war, is it?
Sergeant Chesterfield

In the territories which have railway stations, there are also fortresses. If these territories are already in one side's possession, you will need to conquer a fortress in a side-scrolling arcadey platforming brawler by running from one end to the other against a running time, and jump over dogs, explosives and holes on roofs, while fighting off enemy soldiers.

There is another similar arcade bit in the game, which can be triggered only once during a playthrough, which is the train robbery scene. In order to launch this sequence, you need to place your army unit in between the enemy's railway stations so that you can climb aboard the train and hopefully stop it. If you can manage to beat the level, you will have your enemy's gold bags from that turn. After one try, the trains will not try that route again, if you happen to be anywhere near it. Unfortunately for cassette owners, this bit is not available on any of those versions.

Once every unit has been lost from one of the sides, the game is over, and an ending screen will be shown.

*GAMEPLAY DIFFERENCES*

Starting again with controls: the reason why I mentioned the controls in the previous subsection is because the C64 version is the only one where your cursor does not move by the pixel - it moves in leaps according to the territories, which can be either irritating, or if you know your way through the map, rather quick and ingenious. For me, it's a bit of both. All the other versions have a similar principal to the cursor movement, although naturally, it's always more fluent with a mouse.

Once we get to the action bits of the game, things start to look very much more worth comparing. First, let's take a look at the platforming stages. Basically, the gameplay mechanics are exactly the same on every version as far as I can tell, but the speed is the important factor here. I'm not really sure if I can put this any more politely - the AMIGA version is utterly, impossibly, stupidly fast. I have rarely gotten any of the platforming stages through on real hardware, because it's so fast. Most of the time will be spent on trying to climb ladders, and the other half of the time will be trying to locate your man in such a way as to not drop him to the ground, where some bombs, dogs or roadblocks await you, and it gets impossible when you're trying your hand at train robbery. Strangely, the ATARI ST version seems almost too slow in comparison to all the other versions around, but at least it's perfectly playable. The COMMODORE 64 and NES versions seem to be well in their  comfort zone for these bits, playing in a perfectly good pacing and having no problems whatsoever with any climbing, jumping or running - it's just smooth as silk... almost annoyingly smooth, if you have gotten used to the original. In these sections, the DOS version plays remarkably well, although you do have the advantage of using the DOSBox now with all its capabilities. But it plays as nicely on a real DOS PC as well - it's just the right spot between what you get from the Amiga and ST versions. The New Frontier bunch all play similarly to each other, which is really well also, although the speed is closer to the ST version. Their controllability is slightly better, though, which is an intriguing combination, and as of yet, I have no idea where to place this threesome. Let's see about that once we get further in the comparison.

The battle scenes are really what makes this game tick to its own rhythm. You constantly need to be in watch over what the other team is doing in order to make any decisions on your own actions. Of course, you need to be able to see what the other team is doing in order to get into the rhythm at all. Again, the AMIGA version is a bit too fast here, although it's not nearly as bad as it is with the platforming stages. And also again, the ST version is a bit too slow for comfort, but it's alright. And still also again, the DOS version seems to fit in just nicely between the other two, making it the most playable of the three. Here, the COMMODORE 64 is sadly at its worst, when it comes to this game - it's not unbearably slow, but it is a bit uncomfortable to play due to the lack of speed and the way the units are animated, which is honestly more than just a bit cheap. Although the MSX, SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions aren't all that much better than the C64, they are a bit more impressive considering their hardware, and even more especially considering each of the machines' history in game conversions that I have seen so far. Surprisingly, here the NES version is quite as playable as the DOS version, so there's at least one small victory for the 8-bits.

So, the big question is, how do these add up? This is how I calculated the results for this section, although I can't be entirely sure whether this has any truth in the end. Since the manouverability in the map screen is pretty similar regardless of the version, I have decided not to give any scores for that. However, the action sequences need to be given the primary consideration, so the results will be given in this order: Platforming sections + Battlefield sections + Overall control methods = TOTAL POINTS = ACTUAL SCORE.

1. DOS: 5+6+4 = 15 = 5
2. NES: 4+5+3 = 12 = 4
3. ATARI ST: 3+3+4 = 10 = 3
4. AMIGA: 1+4+4 = 9 = 2
5. AMSTRAD: 2+2+2 = 6 = 1
5. C64: 4+1+1 = 6 = 1
5. MSX: 2+2+2 = 6 = 1
5. SPECTRUM: 2+2+2 = 6 = 1

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GRAPHICS

As if the amount of gameplay elements weren't enough, the game was given an inordinate amount of graphics as well. Since there are so much graphics to compare, I will have to organize them into sections - if not for any other reason than for keeping myself under control. Of course, it will come as no surprise that the 16-bits will take the high places in this round, because the game was originally made for them, and only they had the graphic capabilities back then to represent the original comic book graphics as truthfully as possible. It might be considered unfair, but remember, this blog is not for pointing out the differences in hardware - it's about the experiences, and fairness has very little to do with it. That said, I'm really more interested in how all the 8-bit versions compare against themselves. But I should probably remind you: if you are having trouble seeing everything to your liking, click on the pictures to see them bigger.

Before I head into the actual graphics comparison, I should probably point out, that the DOS version has FOUR different graphic modes: CGA, EGA, Tandy and Hercules. Here is a couple of comparison sets of the DOS modes, just to show you some idea of the differences, in case you didn't know.


I didn't bother to take any more than a few screenshots from the monochrome Hercules version, because I can't tell whether it looks correct or not in DOSbox. Also, there are only some small differences between the EGA and Tandy versions, but I think the EGA has, at least in this case, the better palette. So, I will be using the CGA and EGA screenshots in the screenshot comparison collages.

*TITLE SEQUENCE*

Usually, the title/menu screens are not that important, graphically, but this time the original versions have such a great comic effect in the welcome, that will put you instantly in a good mood, that it needs to be compared as thoroughly as necessary. First of all, every other version has the Infogrames logo screen out first, except for the DOS and NES versions. There is, however, a surprisingly great amount of variety as to how the Infogrames screen comes on. The 16-bit versions have it slided down from the top, the Amstrad version slides up from the bottom, the MSX and Spectrum versions have it built line by line from bottom to the top, and the C64 version just gets a quick non-animated splash screen. I do like the MSX and Spectrum versions the most, but I'm afraid it doesn't really have much importance by itself for giving points.

Infogrames logos. Top row, left to right: Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, ZX Spectrum.
Bottom row: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, MSX.


Next up is the intro animation, usually with language selection. Other than the Spectrum and MSX versions being a bit lacking in colour, and having really strange-looking British flags, all of the versions do their job quite nicely. The basic idea of the trumpeter animation is intact all around, even if the amount of frames differ slightly. Although the Tandy screenshot isn't included in this set, it had some nice grey colour to bring a more properly foggy looking fog of war effect to the picture, but it messed up the flag colours. But no matter, the 16-bits are still the most pleasing to the eye, followed in order by the Amstrad, DOS (EGA), NES and C64 versions.

Credits sequence. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, MSX, ZX Spectrum.
Bottom row: NES, DOS CGA, DOS EGA, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga.


And then there's the menu screen, which is the big one here. Of course, having already chosen your controls in the MSX and Spectrum versions before this screen got loaded, there is no option for that now. Also worth noting from the missing elements department is the lack of choice for a strictly strategic game on the NES version, but then again, I don't think anyone really misses having that option. The NES version is also the only one not to have the game title displayed in the menu screen. Although all the necessary elements in terms of gameplay are in all the versions, there is a graphical element missing from the MSX and Spectrum versions - the background. Most particularly, the photographer. A clear evidence of French humour is presented in all the other versions - when you click on the photographer's pointed bottom, he reacts to your touch with a sudden movement and laughs hysterically. When you want to start the game, you click on the GO! icon, which is in most versions the photographer's suitcase. On the original 16-bit versions, this will make the screen flash, as if a photo was taken, and the screen will quickly fade into a greyscale version of itself. In all the versions, where the photographer himself is present, the flash has been kept intact in some form or another, except for the DOS release for some reason. But, in a way, it is understandable that the flash has been removed from the MSX and Spectrum versions.

Menu screens. Top row, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX, ZX Spectrum.
Bottom row: NES, DOS CGA, DOS EGA, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga.


It's already clear that the Amiga and ST versions will share the highest place when it comes to graphics, but the Amstrad graphics are surprisingly faithful to the original, at least so far. The EGA/Tandy graphics follow close behind this time, because the credits screen isn't quite as pleasing to watch, and the DOS version is missing the Infogrames logo. It's too early to say anything of the rest, but so far, the least pleasurable to look at have been the two least colourful DOS versions, and perhaps - dare I say it?... the C64 version.

*MAP SCREEN AND EVENT INITIATIONS*

The first thing that greets you once you start the game itself, is the description of the year's setting, which is mostly a pop-up window with some text on it on top of the map screen. Every other version has this presented in a similar fashion, but for some reason, the C64 and NES versions start up with the text bit shown BEFORE the map hits the screen. (NES not pictured here)

Anyway, lined up here are the map screens from all the versions, and this is where you will likely spend most of your time - unless you're playing from cass... nevermind.

Map screens with all hazards. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, DOS CGA, DOS EGA.
Bottom row: MSX, ZX Spectrum, NES, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST.


As you can see, the layout is basically similar all around. There are a few minor differences that need to be pointed out, and also one major difference which can be of some importance to some players. The minor ones are really unimportant in terms of graphics affecting the gameplay - the shape of the map and the states, the time notifier and the pop-up unit strength indicator. Some have less detail, some are ugly, that sort of stuff. The most important difference that I can think of here is the colouring of the map. On the Amiga, ST, DOS (EGA and Tandy) and Amstrad versions, you get a good idea of what sort of terrain you might be fighting on in each state. Northwards from Texas, you get a deserty sort of area; eastwards most states are grassy fields, and a rivery setting is marked with that narrow blue thing that maps always seem to have when marking watery bits. If you happen to be playing on a C64 or an NES, a CGA or an Hercules DOS version, you will be having some problems finding the deserty bits (the NES version even has less river areas), because the map has only one terrain colour. The MSX and Spectrum versions at least have some darker shading for the desery bits, which is a good alternative for actual colours.

Event initiation pictures (mostly animated).


When initiating events, most versions have some sort of little pop-up screens to indicate that something is going to happen. These are the four main events from every version that has any (the MSX is missing them altogether, as are all the other tape versions) - except the C64 and Spectrum versions have only three of them. All the other versions have some sort of animation in the little pop-up screen, except for the Spectrum disk release. I suppose it was just too much to ask for. Apart from that, the ones that are the least fun to look at are the C64, NES, and the two lower-coloured DOS versions.

*BATTLEFIELDS*


MSX version's only battlefield.
As far as I'm aware, there was no real disk version for the MSX released - or at least, it hasn't turned up from anywhere thus far. There is a disk version made out of the tape version, but it doesn't really help all that much. See, the problem with this is, that there is only one battlefield on the tape available - the greenest one. So, I will show it to you separately from everything else, and then move on to compare the rest. Naturally, the same thing goes for all the other tape versions.

Based on your location on the map, you will have the battle on one of three types of terrain: grass fields, across a river or a desert flat with a chasm in the middle. The desert bits are placed  somewhere north of Texas, and the river bits are wherever there's a river in the map piece you aim to be located in. Now, because there is only so much horizontal space for pictures on Blogspot, I decided to divide the pictures into two full compiled sets.

Battlefield sets from ZX Spectrum (left), Commodore Amiga (center) and Atari ST (right).


Above, you can see the original 16-bit versions in the middle and to the right, which work as the
basis for all the other versions. It is undeniable, that the amount of detail and colour is unfairly massive to all the 8-bit versions, not to mention the DOS version for Hercules graphics adapter users. The most massive differences, however, can be found on the Spectrum and MSX versions. MSX has only that one screen as you saw earlier, while the Spectrum version at least has all three, but some sacrifices to detail have been made in order to minimize the attribute clash effect. Therefore, the river is straight, there are no houses around, and all the army units are black. At least the bridges have been coloured differently, along with the road in the river scene.

It is strange then, that the C64 version is the only other one to have black army units, considering all the other colours are closer to the originals than what the Spectrum has. But it's not only that which bugs me with it: the animation is a bit too choppy, the battlefields are a bit lacking in detail, and some of the shadings look amateurish and cheap. Honestly, I would rather have the Spectrum version this time.
Battlefield sets, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, NES, DOS CGA, DOS EGA.


I have to admit, the Amstrad version has really surprised me this time, as it is the best-looking 8-bit home computer version. Even here, you get full coloured soldiers, just about enough detail on the ground, and most of the things on screen look surprisingly lot like the originals. The only thing that truly bothers me here, is the lack of speed in gameplay, but I'm not really sure that is so because of the graphics.

The NES version is something of a mixed bag. Although the colour shading is cheap-looking, and the ground lacks the small details that make it look more like real ground surface, all the other items on the screen look just fine, particularly the army units, and the animation is really smooth and nicely quick. For all its plasticity, I think I do like this one the best from the 8-bits.

And then the DOS screens look pretty much what you would expect them to look like already - slightly less smooth version of the Amiga and ST graphics with the EGA, and the same thing with awfully purple and cyan based palette with the CGA. I think it has become rather clear already that the EGA version is the way to go, but I will keep on showing you the rest of the CGA screens as well, just to be as complete as I can bother to make it.

*PLATFORM SECTIONS*


Apart from the MSX version, the game features two side-scrolling platform sections, one is which can be entered only once during a game. These are the sections for taking over fortresses and robbing an enemy train.

Fortress sections. Top left: Amstrad CPC. Top right: NES.
Bottom left: MSX. Bottom right: ZX Spectrum.


I can't really call myself adept at recognizing colours by much more than 16 names, but by a quick check from a page about colours, I'd say the original fortress wall colour is something like amber (SAE/ECE). From the pictures above, I'd say they're all some shade of pink - three of them darker (magenta?) than the light pink wall on the NES. Strange, then, how similar the CGA DOS version looks to the three darker ones... Well, they are more colourful, and the sprites are bigger on the MSX and Spectrum. The Amstrad version seems again to have unusually closely replicated sprites and their animations, which is mostly a good thing, but still, the NES version wins that fight by miles. The character poses are more natural/dramatic-looking this way, than the ones you see on the Spectrum and MSX. In favour of the three dark pink 8-bit versions, they are the only ones to feature both the Confederate and Union flags in proper graphics. All the others only have a blue or a grey pennant-type flag.

Fortress sections. Top left: Commodore 64. Top center: DOS CGA. Top right: DOS EGA.
Bottom left: Atari ST. Bottom right: Commodore Amiga.


The only version that looks almost completely different to all the others is the C64 version. It's not exactly bad, but the colour is more desertish light-brownish-yellow. In overall quality and detail, the C64 version is a strange mixture of both the MSX/Spectrum version and the Amstrad version, but doesn't really inspire. The scrolling is very smooth, though, which makes the whole experience less of a struggle. Apart from the speed problems already mentioned earlier, all the other versions are what you would expect them to be, so no real need to dwell of them.

Train robbery sections. Top left: Commodore 64. Top center: Amstrad CPC. Top right: NES.
Middle left: ZX Spectrum. Middle right: Commodore Amiga/Atari ST.
Bottom left: DOS CGA. Bottom right: DOS EGA.


Now, the train robbery scene is always a fun concept, but since you can only play it once during a playthrough, it really caused some headache for me - particularly because of the DOS versions, but I won't speak of it now. Anyhow, this once, I got really lazy, and only included the Amiga screenshots, as they look exactly the same as the Atari ST screens.

The Amiga, ST and DOS EGA/Tandy versions look very much alike, and the CGA version looks like you would expect it to. Each of them are very detailed and nicely animated, much like in the other platforming stage. Considering that the C64 version looks basically like the fortress bit, this setting is actually more enjoyable for similar reasons, and the colours are more fitting for this section - even if they don't match the other versions even nearly. The Amstrad and NES versions again get surprisingly close to the originals, just as before, while the Spectrum version looks its own thing - very good, but different, much like the fortress section.

These two platforming sections should really only be judged by their playability, because when it's too fast, you rarely get to see much of them, and when it's too slow or scrolls badly, it gets boring more quickly. But, taking the graphics apart from the gameplay, the results are pretty clear.

*ENDINGS*

For a game that has already so much packed into one 880kb floppy disk, it's not exactly a surprise that when the game ends you get very little compensation for your victory. Still, you do get a funny ending screen for defeat as well, which is nice. Strange, though, that although the Amstrad version has done so well so far, it doesn't have the screen for defeat. Well, here are screenshots of all the endings available, and as is the matter with most of the other screenshots, you would have to see it in action to see the animations...

Ending screens, in order of appearance (top left to bottom right):
Commodore 64 (victory/defeat), Amstrad CPC (victory only), MSX (victory/defeat), NES (defeat/victory)
ZX Spectrum (victory/defeat), DOS CGA (victory/defeat), DOS EGA (victory/defeat), Commodore Amiga (victory/defeat)
Apart from the obvious here, the one effect I'm missing the most from a lot of versions is the final laughter from a fallen soldier of the defeated camp. It wouldn't be such a big deal otherwise, had this detail not been animated to such a funny effect in the originals. Also, which is a big distracting is the scroller-type end messages on the C64, and makes the endings feel almost like a crack intro, which for us non-sceners is mostly a burden. Still, it's not quite as bad as the text taking half of the screen by itself, and reducing the graphic screen's size to the other half of the screen, as it has been done on the NES. Then again, the C64 version has no animation at all, apart from the text scrollers.

Regarding the animated objects on the ending screens, it is clear that the more powerful machines can handle more action on the screen. The originals have walking people and horses in the background of the victory screen, and the defeat screen features birds flying in the background, and that one fallen soldier laying by the side of a horse, who lifts himself a bit and laughs when you press the fire button. Of all the 8-bits, the NES version is the only one to feature most of these animations, albeit in a smaller screen. The MSX, Spectrum and C64 versions only have people walking in two lines in the background of the victory screen, and the defeat screen doesn't have much of anything animated. That said, the Spectrum and MSX screens look very nice indeed, whereas the other 8-bits don't. Not that much, anyway. (Also notable is that the Amstrad's victory message is a bit wrong...)


*OVERALL*

Due to the amount of graphics, I needed to add up the scores by performances in each subsection. This was a very time-consuming process, and I am not going to elaborate on it unless someone asks me to, but the final scores for the graphics are counted thusly: 1. TITLE SEQUENCE, 2. MAP SCREEN AND EVENTS, 3. BATTLEFIELDS, 4. PLATFORM SECTIONS, 5. ENDINGS. Actual points to be counted for the final overall scores will be given by each version's placement on this list, not the scores.

1. AMIGA/ATARI ST: 6 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 7 = 31
2. DOS EGA/TANDY: 4 + 3 + 5 + 6 + 6 = 24
3. NINTENDO: 2 + 2 + 4 + 5 + 4 = 17
3. AMSTRAD CPC: 5 + 3 + 3 + 5 + 1 = 17
4. ZX SPECTRUM: 3 + 2 + 2 + 4 + 5 = 16
5. COMMODORE 64: 3 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 3 = 12
5. MSX: 3 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 5 = 12
6. DOS CGA: 1 + 1 + 2 + 1 + 2 = 7
7. DOS HERCULES: 1 + 1 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 6

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SOUNDS

North & South is one of the rare titles to actually put the AMIGA's sample playback abilities to good use, since most of the instruments and sound effects are samples of various real-life sounds, such as human voices and drums. Of course, a lot of the instruments have been sampled from synthesizers, but the relative plasticity to it all adds a great deal to the game's humoristic feel, and works very well with the cartoony sound effects. Most of the game's music is basically traditional American military music, except for the language selection tunes, which naturally are each country's own national anthems, and the game starting music when you first enter the map screen. All of this, however, is done in the game's own particular exaggerated comic way, so it never gets boring. As for the sound effects, you will get everything imaginable from train chooings to horse gallop, from death yells to old analogue clock ringing - everything interactive in the game, apart from moving your troops from one state to another, has their own sound effect, which makes North & South a very entertaining experience indeed.

I can't say for sure, if the ATARI ST version sounds as bad as the basic settings on my emulator leave me to understand, because the few of my friends and acquaintances, who have owned an Atari ST/STe, say that its sound capabilities were just as good, if not better, than the Amiga's. Judging by this game, if the emulator and the YouTube videos are good grounds to base my judgment on, the ST is not really even close to the Amiga, at least when it comes to playing samples. From what I know, the ST's capabilities are more midi-based, which isn't necessarily all that helpful in this case - but I can't say for sure, as I'm a bit too unacquainted with midi. If anyone can correct me in this regard, be my guest and leave a comment. Anyhow, the ST/STe version has much less quality in the samples, so it all sounds a bit... porridgy, for a lack of a better word. There are also a lot less sound effects in total, than on the Amiga, which makes the game feel like it's missing something.

Still, it's better than the DOS version, which only plays by the PC beeper. Sure, there are single-channeled tunes to play and bleepy sound effects to fill anyone's need for sounds, and fortunately, there is no constant bleeping going on due to the game's original sound design. It's a bit unfortunate that the DOS version was made before it could take advantage of any proper soundcards, but there you go.

The sound environment on the C64 version is surprisingly rich, when you consider all the other aspects of the conversion so far. It is only natural, that the sound library lacks some of the original's effects, and the more detailed aspects of the heavily sample-based soundtrack, but if Probe did something right with this conversion, it is hiring Jeroen Tel to code the music and sound effects for the SID. He has somehow managed to get some comedy out of the SID - not perhaps to the extent of the samples, but there is somehow a very proper feel to the game in the soundtrack, and that, I believe, must have been a very difficult thing to accomplish.

Unsurprisingly, the NES version sounds exactly like all the other NES games, due to the machine's rather unyielding and relatively primitive sound chip. That said, you do get most of the same pieces of music as the original has, and there are plenty enough of sound effects. There's just an unmistakable lack of humour in the soundtrack, which makes the experience less enjoyable.

As could be expected, the MSX and SPECTRUM versions sound almost exactly alike. All the tunes are surprisingly close to what a SID soundtrack would normally sound like, and they are playable enough, but don't quite catch the humour that Jeroen Tel's soundtrack has managed to reach. However, there are a bit more sound effects, than what the C64 has, particularly in the battle scenes. Also, the platforming stages have a proper tune playing throughout the level, which can be considered both unsurprisingly boring and nicely traditional for a change. The thing is, that the original platform stages have the same tune played by your progression - a note for every step you take, which can be either a bit disconcerting, or another funny aspect not to think too much about when playing. All things considered, not bad at all, but I have to put these two on the same spot as the C64, due to the overall feel these sets have.

Finally, the AMSTRAD version's soundtrack is a strange mixture of the previously mentioned twosome, and the DOS version. Most of the tunes sound very much like the ones on the MSX and Spectrum, while others are single-channeled beepy tunes and effects, making it feel a bit half-way done. Still, not quite as bad as the NES version, but there is very little of the original feel in this soundtrack.

1. AMIGA
2. ATARI ST
3. C64/SPE/MSX
4. AMSTRAD
5. NINTENDO
6. DOS

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OVERALL

When you take on a game that was first and foremost created with the 16-bit computers in mind - Amiga, ST and PC, it would require some sort of miracle for them to lose to an 8-bit conversion. I admit to having made a cogniscant choice with North & South, because this blog was really low on the number of Amiga/ST-originated games, and because this is one of my all-time favourites on the Amiga. Most of the 16-bit conversions from 8-bit games, most particularly ones that originated on the C64, seemed not to get the spotlight they were supposedly bound to have, because most of them got the gameplay wrong and instead concentrated on the graphics and sounds. Although this time I knew the graphics and sounds would give the 16-bits a clear upper hand, it was interesting to notice the problems with gameplay on both the Amiga and ST versions. For this reason alone, I will have to refrain from recommending them wholeheartedly, and instead suggest everyone to test out the DOS, NES and Amstrad versions - at the very least.

Having said all that, it is finally time to calculate the scores. Although there are no separate scores for cassette versions, the DOS versions differ so vastly in graphics, that I felt the need to list the scores for different graphic modes in the following order: Hercules, CGA, Tandy/EGA. So, here we go:

1. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 2, Graphics 8, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 16
1. ATARI ST: Playability 3, Graphics 8, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 16
2. DOS VERSIONS: Playability 5, Graphics 1/2/7, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 7/8/13
3. NINTENDO: Playability 4, Graphics 5, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 11
4. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 5, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
4. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
5. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 8
5. MSX: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 8

Now, as a curiosity, I might as well mention this rather horrible unofficial fan-made conversion for the C64, which was released a year BEFORE the official conversion in 1991. The group responsible for it was apparently called Octagon, and they ceased to exist shortly thereafter, when they joined forces with other crackers, but that's unimportant concerning the game. Here are some screenshots to show you what it looks like, but the gameplay could only be described as "oversimplified". Seeing as it is unofficial, when an official version exists, it didn't feel important enough to consider putting it properly against the other eight versions.

Screenshots of North & South! by Octagon (Commodore 64)

Also, two official remakes of North & South were released in 2012. Microïds released "The Bluecoats: North vs South" for iOS compatible devices and for Windows, and bitComposer released "North & South: The Game" for the iOS. This might have something to do with the fact that the original comics have finally begun to have a translated set of releases running in the States. So far, I have not had the pleasure of playing either of these games, but they look very fine indeed, and I look forward to the day I let myself take some time to play some games unconnected to this blog.


The Bluecoats: North vs South (Microïds, 2012)


I have rarely been so glad a comparison project is at an end. Next time, I will go with something less troublesome, and hopefully more balanced for all participants.

Thank you very much for reading again, hope you enjoyed it! Suggestions, corrections and comments are welcome as ever!

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