All's fair in pixels and war...
There was quite a lot of American Civil War history in my house growing up. We weren’t an American family (Australian, in fact), but my father was rather fond of the PBS mini-series The Civil War, which relived the anguish – through letters and written accounts – by those that witnessed the four year-long battle of Union against the Confederacy. Being about ten years old at the time, the tea-stained black and white images and slow narration of The Civil War were no match for my NES in the basement, so I decided to relive the war in the best way I could. By taking control of the bluecoats and rebels myself.
North & South was released in 1989 on the Amiga and Atari ST, followed by the NES in 1990 and a few other ports in 1991. It was loosely based on the Belgian comic series Les Tuniques Bleues (The Blue Coats) which heavily influenced its art style. Rather than following the mishaps of two Union cavalrymen of Les Tuniques Bleues, North & South let you control dumbed down versions of the armies of the South’s Robert E. Lee and the North’s Ulysses S. Grant. You could select which year of the war to begin the game from 1861 to 1865, with each year starting with different occupations of the various states.
The first seconds of the battle were always frantic…
When playing from 1861, both sides would begin with two armies, each consisting of one howitzer, three cavalrymen and a squad of six infantry. The armies were represented by blue and grey “pawns” on a rough map of 1860’s America and these could be combined with up to three pawns in total to make a rather strong army. You could move across the map to occupy states, board game style, but when an opposing pawn was there to greet you, a battle would ensue.
The first seconds of the battle were always frantic, usually a back and forth firing your howitzer and quickly trying to get your troops and cavalry out of range of enemy artillery barrages. The cavalry were quick and could change formation, but could only swing their sabers at close range. The infantry were slow moving, but could easily guard choke points. You could only control one type of troop at a time, so battles became high-paced chess matches where mistakes were punished severely. Depending on which state you were fighting in, battlefields varied from plains to rivers and gorges where bridges could be destroyed.
Then there were the forts and train robberies. Invading an enemy fort situated on the railway line did not result in a siege, but rather a clever side scrolling action segment of one soldier taking over the fort single handedly. You had a set of knives you could throw and the defender could spawn a limited number of soldiers to delay you, but you couldn’t die. Your ranger would only fail if he ran out of time.
North & South was probably the most fun I had with NES multiplayer. You could only play against your friend or the computer, and long drawn out war theatres could sometimes last hours. Controlling the railway forts was key to success, with money coming in depending on the number of forts you controlled and allowing you to purchase additional troops. The game frequently switched between turn based strategy, real time strategy and action, breaking up the monotony that plagued so many games of that generation. For my brother and I, North & South represented the epitome of sibling rivalry. The powerful North bearing down on the outnumbered South, only for history to take a turn in the favour of Dixie.
The game made light of a very serious war that killed 625,000 young Americans, but at the very least it paved the way for future strategy games without getting bogged down in resources and diplomacy. A hidden gem from the NES era.