Cannon Fodder
by Polly

Let's Do The Time Warp
In order to adequately cover Cannon Fodder, I feel a little trip through time is in order. A time warp back to simpler times. A trip back to what most of us who grew up on the western side of the spinny ball space rock thing may actaully see as an aberration in gaming's timeline. This trip will also see us sitting our ship down in the middle of Tea 'n Crumpets land as this seems to be the most relevant location in which this strange anomaly took place.

The Amiga personal computer was quite an interesting phenomenon in Britain Land. I've talked to many British friends online who fondly speak of the little guy and the way that they speak of it reminds me of how much I'm able to prattle on extensively about how much the NES means to me. The NES, SNES, and Genesis (Mega Drive) seems to mean almost nothing to these people and from what I can gather it has a lot to do with ridiculously inflated prices on home gaming consoles. The Amiga seemed to be the sensible alternative. It's a point in time that I'd very much love to have someone (HEY KJILLY WE STILL LOVE YOU HERE!) write an in-depth piece on, because the Amiga and its place in gaming history is so endlessly fascinating to me and it's almost foreign to most people I talk to on my side of the world. A first-person account of that period of time could only make for great reading.

In my "gaming heyday" I can only vaguely remember passing mentions of the Amiga in gaming rags here and my first real interaction with anything Amiga-based happened through emulation in 2004, shortly after I met Kjilly. Needless to say, I doubt I've ever or will ever have the full "Amiga Experience." What will always stand out for me, however, is Kjilly's insistence that I check it out. At the top of Kjilly's recommended "Amiga Games For Polly List" sat Cannon Fodder.

Cannon Fodder is a game that also has quite an interesting story behind it. Prior to its release, PR for the game raised quite a stink when it was revealed that the Rememberance Day Poppy was to be used on the game's box and in the game's logo. From what I understand, the Royal British Legion threw a mother of a fit publically denouncing the game as "shameful." The game was also misinterpreted as being a glorification of war and violence, even though the developers took many measures to ensure their message was merely pointing out the absurdities of war via in-game bits and the game's instruction manual which ended with this excerpt:
"...don't try playing this at home, kids, because war is not a game. War, as Cannon Fodder demonstrates in its own quirky little way, is a senseless waste of human resources and lives. We hope that you never have to find out the hard way."
A little bribe to the whiners in monetary form and a disclaimer at the beginning of the game proclaiming "This game is not in any way endorsed by the Royal British Legion" and Cannon Fodder was sent on its way into the battlefield.

Despite its controversy, Cannon Fodder went on to become quite the little gaming darling, being one of the most fondly remembered and best-selling games of its era in Amiga Britain Land. The game would also see ports to the SNES, Genesis, and GameBoy Color in later years, widening the audience a bit more.

War! Has never had this much character!
Played from a top-down bird's eye view perspective, Cannon Fodder probably resembles many real-time strategy games you're used to seeing these days. If you're an Amiga fan, the same graphics style was used for Sensible Software's other major titles including the also quite popular Sensible Soccer. For a game from 1993, it looks fairly par for the course with all the various playfields having just enough detail to get by. The real charm comes, of course, from your troopers and enemy equivalents. They may be tiny, but there's a lot of detail animation packed in there. You can see them from 8 possible angles, and they'll perform various maneuvers including dives and strafing sideways while firing. Cannon Fodder doods get shot up real good. When one of your troopers or an enemy is shot or blown up, they fly up into the air spinning and bleeing all the while and can be consistently juggled until you stop firing. It's....sadistically adorable.

An interesting side note: These little doods and perhaps the game entirely, were very interesting tools in helping me learn 2,042 Jouyou Kanji. It's a weird ass story perhaps best told some other time. or not. Probably not.

Though the game lacks in the tunes department, it'd be stupid of me to not make mention of the game's opening theme song. Yep, the damn game has its own theme song, as does its sequel and other games from Sensible such as Sensible World of Soccer. Though simple and repetitive it has a character all its own and you'll find many online and around the world who are familiar with its simple refrain.

Catchy theme music aside, the rest of the game is all sound effects, and they work just fine. You'll hear no music while out on missions other than winning or losing fanfare, just the sounds of gunfire, explosions, engines firing up and of course, sweet beautiful death howls. Some might call that a sparse audio package, but I found it to be quite immersive. Wandering around the jungle with your doods thinking all is calm only to suddenly hear a gunshot or a grenade lobbed your way will perk you right the fuck up real quick.

War! Has never been so much fun and simple!
Remember back in the day when you could pick up almost any game and be competent with it in under just a few minutes of fiddling around? Those were the days, and Cannon Fodder's delightfully easy to pick up control system is a shining bastion of those times.

War has never been this easy to command. Pretty much everything can be done using only a mouse. About the only time you'll ever need a keyboard is to press the Space Bar to switch between Grenades and Rockets. You simply point and left-click where you want your doods to go while pointing and right-clicking to choose which direction your doods attack. Using Grenades and Rockets involves simply holding down right-click while pressing left-click. Seriously, nothing could be simpler. Movement can be a little fussy at times as your doods will sometimes get stuck on terrain, but it's not enough of a problem to really fault the game for. Vehicles take the most time getting used to and you'll probably wreck your first few Skidooz maaaaaany times before finally figuring out how it works. Reorganizing your troopers into separate troops can feel a little clumsy too and is in no way easy to manage in a tight situation, but this can be countered with better planning before tight choke spots that require splits.

You progress through Cannon Fodder by completing missions, which are divided up into anywhere from one to six individual phases. Each phase of a mission serves as an individual puzzle for your little troop of doods to overcome and come with varying conditions for victory including killing all enemies, destroying enemy buildings, and protecting civillians. When I say that each phase is an individual puzzle, that is in no way just a fancy way of saying it's just another stage with some random obstacles to get yourself over. Every phase has a unique challenge to overcome which is a combination of its various objectives, enemy numbers, and the terrain. Many phases will require more than a few replays (and likely the loss of a few poor little troopers) to finally crack open a strategy for. Often there are times when you'll have to surrender on a certain phase and try again because you botched part of an objective (usually blowing up pre-placed explosives or a vehicle you'll need to finish a phase), but thankfully any doods you had alive when you surrendered will still be in your troop when you restart the phase so the loss is a little less painful.

Fortunately, the only real bitch I have with Cannon Fodder is its entirely uneven difficulty progression. I really wouldn't even call it progression. The game starts out easy enough, as it should, and somewhere around mission six or so the game starts wrecking your shit something fierce. On your first playthrough, you'll be losing doods faster than you can count on Missions 6 to about 14 or so, then the game sorta balances out again with only a couple of dastardly spikes toward the end of the game. Other than that, the game is actually fairly good at easing you into new gameplay mechanics, usually with an entire mission devoted to the use of new vehicles, hazards, and weapons.

The way the game handles your doods is probably its biggest selling point aside from the ease of play. It's the part of the game that provides a striking commentary on the senselessness of war, again, in its own quirky little way.

Each dood is represented on screen as a simple teeeeensy tiny sprite. They all look the same and lack any kind of individuality until you look closer at the left panel of the screen and note that each one has a unique name. Every dood in the game now has an identity. Once a dood is dead, he's dead for good and all it takes is one bullet, explosion, or wrong step off a cliff or into quicksand to end his career. Another dood will be immediately rolled in from a fresh stock of shiny-faced recruits to take his place at the start of the next phase or if you fail a phase entirely. As the game progresses, you're given more and more doods (fifteen new bonus recruits per mission) to throw at missions until you either exhaust your current supply and get a Game Over or complete the final mission. Adding even more to this concept, each dood you lose in combat will be announced by name at the end of a mission as "Lost In Action" and represented by a new tombstone on Boot Hill displayed between missions. Even playing the game for the first time twelve years after its initial launch, the mesage it sent was till quite clear, very relevant, and almost haunting in a way. You end up growing very attached to your little doods and each loss is almost enough to make you cringe at having to see yet another tomstone pop up on Boot Hill as a reminder.

You're encouraged to try and keep as many of your doods alive as possible now via that small pang of guilt. But that's not the only reason try and keep as many of them from being turned into sacks of lead as you possibly can. With each mission they happen to somehow miraculously survive, they'll advance in rank. Advances in rank up a dood's firing frequency and range and, should he fall in combat, a much prettier tombstone on Boot Hill. To make sure you're not running around with Privates by the end of the game, as you progress the fresh recruits enter your troop at higher ranks to balance out the loss of higher ranked troopers. A very nice balance tweak that could have easily been overlooked, but thankfully wasn't.

War Is Hell
Though I never experienced it at the height of its popularity and infamy, I can safely say that Cannon Fodder is not only just as fun as Kjilly made it out to be when I first played it in 2004, but it's also just as relevant as it was back in 1993. The gameplay does have a bit of clunk to it but those flaws in no way keep the experience from being fun and striking at all.

Having played many of the ports of this game now, I can safely say that the Amiga version is clearly the definitive version. The SNES and Mega Drive versions manage to capture much of the game's charm, but the Mega Drive version lacks mouse support which is a major kick in the balls, and the SNES version feels just a tad more stiff. The DOS version (which can be had for a mere $6.00 and runs under both XP and Vista) is an alright version as well, but it never felt like it played at the right speed.

With so many avenues to play the game and not really a bad one in the bunch (avoid the GameBoy Color version at all costs though) it's quite easy to recommend this game to anyone now who has never played or heard of it. So, go check it out and thank Kjilly.

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