Featuring a sardonic reggae-style theme song, a disclaimer that “This game is not endorsed in any way by the Royal British Legion” and a slideshow of the Sensible boys prancing around in WWII uniforms in front of military hardware, it’s arguably one of the most memorable openings to any game. More than 20 years after its release, I still occasionally find myself singing the theme tune. Yet with all the silliness, brutal cartoon violence and a brief run-in with the Royal British Legion and tabloid media, it’s easy to forget Cannon Fodder was not only one of the pioneers of the real-time strategy (RTS) genre but also had a profoundly anti-war sentiment at its heart.
Onward Virgin Soldiers
Cannon Fodder was released in December 1993 by Sensible Software, a small UK studio and one of the most fondly-regarded developers of the Amiga era probably best known for their highly stylised yet ground-breaking football games Sensible Soccer (1992) and Sensible World of Soccer (1994). It was part of a new wave of unit-based mouse-controlled games, such as Dune II (1992) and Syndicate (1993), that combined strategy, action and shooting elements. Today we would call class them as RTS games but back then they defied easy categorisation. It was all very new and exciting and their influence can still be felt today.
It’s a deceptively simple game and on first impressions, you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up. There are no storylines or mission scenarios and the game starts with you running around small jungle maps killing everything in sight. But Sensible introduce the mechanics progressively, with the first few missions serving as a kind of tutorial.
Featuring a top-down perspective, Cannon Fodder places you in control of a squad of up to five soldiers. You use your machine guns to kill infantry and grenades and rockets to destroy buildings and vehicles. For each “phase” you are predominantly tasked with killing all enemy soldiers and/or destroying their buildings, though there is a handful of escort/protect scenarios thrown in for good measure. Later in the game, you come across controllable vehicles and gun emplacements and these are crucial for taking out armoured targets. Loss of an essential vehicle or running out of grenades/rockets can render some phases impossible to complete and you will need to abort and try again.
All in all, there are 72 maps to be completed sequentially —- 24 missions divided into one to six phases. You start off with 15 raw recruits and are provided with an additional 15 for each successful mission (360 in total). If you fail a phase you can always retry, but when you run of grunts it’s game over (man). At the end of each successful mission all soldiers who saw combat receive a promotion for every phase they survived, improving his intelligence, reflexes and speed. This is particularly useful for when you split your men up into smaller units as higher ranking soldiers will better defend themselves when left to their own devices. Raw recruits will also receive a promotion after every three missions.
Great Scott Good Shot
Cannon Fodder may be faster-paced and more action-orientated than its peers, but success depends just as much on coherent planning and strategy as it does on skill and quick reflexes. Each map can be seen as a discreet puzzle; the key to winning is working out a path through the level, what order to engage enemies in and knowing when to use your limited secondaries.
And be under no illusions, this is a very hard game. The AI may seem a bit dumb, with enemy soldiers conveniently blowing themselves up on a regular basis, but as the game progresses the enemies become faster, more aggressive, more numerous and spawn more frequently from buildings. It’s easy to get swamped and it only takes a single bullet to kill one of your boys. From Mission 5 onwards rocket troopers become a regular feature and a single shot from these guys can wipe out an entire squad. On top of this, while dodging bullets, grenades and rockets you have to navigate your boys around terrain hazards such as chasms, quicksand and barely visible booby traps, plus they are extremely vulnerable while swimming and it’s all too easy to get stuck on the scenery. Explosions are highly unpredictable and supply crates can be detonated by a single stray bullet. You have to be very careful where you position your men when destroying buildings or you may find a roof landing on top of them. And on some maps you start off surrounded by the enemy, requiring immediate evasive action to avoid being massacred within the first couple of seconds. Luck is certainly a strong factor in the gameplay.
The difficulty is not helped by the control system. Performing every action through the mouse may have seemed elegant at the time, but having to click on icons at the top left of the screen to switch between secondary weapons and select units feels incredibly clumsy by today’s standards and keyboard shortcuts would be an obvious solution. This is all compounded by only being able to save between missions and not phases.
Despite the stiff difficulty curve Cannon Fodder was released to almost universal acclaim, consistently scoring above 90% and selling over 100,000 copies on the Amiga alone. But not everyone was happy. The tabloid media and the Royal British Legion took umbrage at Sensible’s combination of war and humour as well as their use of the poppy as the game’s logo and box art. MP Menzies Campbell described the game as “monstrous” and the Legion called it “appalling”. While the ever level-headed Daily Star sneered that it was a “shameful” insult to our war dead and a glorification of “war and viciousness”. They even attempted to orchestrate a boycott. In the end, Sensible changed the box art and Stoo Cambridge redesigned the in-game poppy to look less like the Royal British Legion’s logo.
The fact that Cannon Fodder is drenched in irony and cynicism about war seemed to be completely lost on the offended parties, probably because they never actually played the game. You only have to listen to the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of the cheerily-performed theme song to realise that this game does anything but glorify war: “War has never been so much fun. Go to your brother. Kill him with your gun. Leave him lying in his uniform. Dying in the sun”.
And few games bestow such gravity upon death. The cute little soldiers die in excruciating ways, clutching onto their innards, spewing red pixels and screaming incessantly until you perform a coup de grâce. Every single one of your 360 soldiers has a unique name. At the end of each mission, you’re sombrely greeted with an unskippable roll of honour of all those lost in service. While on the between-missions screen every fallen comrade appears as an anonymous grave marker on Boot Hill, in front of which civilians patiently queue up to take their places. This is all accompanied by a beautifully melancholic instrumental. You’re not even told why you’re fighting or which side are the good guys (the kills counter simple reads “home” and “away”); you’re just following orders like a good little soldier.
Chiller Thriller Killer
Cannon Fodder is one of the great Amiga games. Graphically it was solid for its time though nothing special, its cutesy style typical of Sensible and highly reminiscent of the Sensible Soccer games (in fact a promo crossover was given away with the December 93 issue of Amiga Format). There was talk of an AGA version, but it never materialised. That said, the sprite animations are amazingly detailed for their size and a variety of terrain types keep things interesting. Richard Joseph’s music is some of the most memorable on the Amiga and they make great use of the Amiga’s four-channel audio to create a range of atmospheric background noises as well directional sound that helps identify the distance of enemies.
Where Cannon Fodder really shines is in its meticulously designed maps, each posing a unique conundrum to be fathomed out and flawlessly executed. Yes, the difficulty can really frustrate at times and most people I knew gave up by Mission 8 (I’m currently stuck on Mission 12 and amazed that I once managed to finish the game), but completing a mission is highly rewarding and the game remains very playable to this day.
But perhaps most importantly, Cannon Fodder is surprisingly subversive. Sensible’s skilful but irreverent use of humour and irony reminds the player of the harsh realities of war. And they achieve this without being sanctimonious or patronising or detracting from the enjoyment of a brilliant game. Now that’s quite an accomplishment.