Retro First Impressions: Cannon Fodder [Amiga / Strategy / Action / Shooter]

Welcome, one and all, to another edition of Retro First Impressions. This time around, I’m heading back to 1993 for a journey through the critically acclaimed Sensible Software classic, Cannon Fodder. The game was originally released for the Amiga, but then ported to the Atari Jaguar, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, SNES, 3DO, Atari ST, Acorn Archimedes, and MS-DOS. The version I have been playing is the original, and it has been running – via 3 ½ inch floppy disk no less – on an Amiga 600.

cannon fodder poppy
The classic but controversial opening screen

So, what are we looking at here? The game is essentially an action game, but with some strategy and shoot ‘em up elements thrown in. What I found quite interesting was that it utilised a modified version of the Sensible Soccer engine. Quite a different type of game, eh? Still, it makes sense. Sensible Soccer was not only a goal scoring superstar hero of a game, but one of Sensible Software’s biggest hits. When you consider that, not to mention that the development team comprised of only six people, it makes sense to sue something that already works. Soccer was not the only link for the team though, as they built the game to take advantage of the success of their real time strategy game Mega Lo Mania.
cannon fodder screenshot gameplay
Ready … aim … fire!

Given that I’ve spent the last paragraph talking about the creators using their previous engine as a base for the game, I’m going to start with something obvious here: the visuals. You can see the Sensible Soccer link, can’t you? The top down camera, the sprite style, it’s all there but with army helmets instead of football kits. From a personal standpoint, despite being dated in style, I really liked it. I spent a great deal of time playing Sensible Soccer in my youth, so the familiarity was a really good gateway into gaining an instant liking for the game.
Of course, even that fun nostalgia kick wouldn’t save the game if it played badly. In this instance though, that’s not a problem. At all in fact. Despite not owning an instruction manual for the game, it was easy enough to pick up. The opening screen for each mission gives you the win criteria, and the controls are easy to figure out: left click to move, right click to fire, hold right button and tap left to use alternate weapon. This simplicity makes the game easily accessible and ensures that there’s no need to over-stretch the system with unnecessary weapon toggling and cumbersome additional moves.
Like many games of the era, the simple nature of the controls are deceptive too. It would be easy to dismiss the game as being potentially repetitive and with little variety, but the truth is, the general set-up of each mission goes a long way to ensuring a fun experience. From the enemy huts, to their actual placing on the map, things have a habit of getting hectic pretty quickly, and I personally found that the difficulty level grew at a decent pace as I went along. Well, initially at least. I did hit a point where the difficulty spiked from ‘Ugh, I’m gonna die again’, to ‘And how am I supposed to win this exactly?’ Frustrating, but there you go.
cannon fodder screenshot gameplay guerilla
Check out the bird flying by!

One thing to note here though is that Cannon Fodder was almost very different though. Early versions saw individual soldiers having different attributes and skills, and a lot more icons to be used. These were dumped in favour of the instant action approach, and I for one am glad about that, but why did it happen? Well, this is a quote from one of the developers: “The reason we make good games is that if we put something in that turns out crap, we’re not afraid to chuck it out.”
Sensible Software tended to test ideas rigorously as they went along and scrapped a lot of stuff during these sessions. The general idea was that they were happy to accept if something just wouldn’t work and would keep tweaking until they got the result that they wanted.
For my next point, I need to mention the controversy that the game garnered. The Daily Star were highly critical of the game. The combination of war and humour, the use of the remembrance poppy all led to the game being branded monstrous and offensive to millions in the newspaper. Now, aside from the free publicity that this gained the game, I do feel that they missed the point somewhat. One of the things that I loved with the game was that, even with each soldier looking identical, you do tend to get attached to them. So many times, I saw one soldier end up the sole survivor multiple missions, only to be mowed down by my own stupidity. When you then end the mission, you see gravestones and the lists of the dead and … well … it made me a little sad.
cannon fodder screenshot gameplay gravestones
You tend to lose soldiers quickly through out the game

The creators themselves said that they did this to show that war is senseless. The idea was to show that soldiers are not just faceless sacrifices – like the title would indicate – and that people do die in conflicts. The idea was to use satire and violence to create a fun war themed game that was actually anti-war. In this, I think that they succeeded. The Daily Star disagrees, but then, they’re certainly no strangers to controversy with video games. They even had to publish an apology to Rockstar Games once after failing to research an article before printing it.
Finally, we come to the sound. The in-game sounds are as good as you’d expect them to be for the era. There’s no music during missions, which was a good choice in my opinion. There is the notoriously catchy intro music though. And yes, it is as catchy as people remember it.

So, in all, Cannon Fodder definitely lived up to the hype. Even now, many years after the release, the game still handles well and is rather addictive. Plus, some of the scenery was based on the soap Emmerdale Farm, which left me with images of the Dingles joining my battalion. That made me smile.
But what about yourselves? Did you play the Amiga original, or one of the ports? How did you find it?

  1. I played a lot of Sensible Soccer on the Megadrive. Never owned Cannon Fodder, but played a bit of it on a friend’s computer. Yeah, the difficulty really ramps up later on. The bad press I still remember. It didn’t take much for papers to bash games back in the day.

    1. Yup, it was the Mega Drive that introduced me to Sensible Soccer too. And you’re right, it really didn’t take much for something to get a bashing. It’s certainly not like now where papers actually review games rather than just slate them.

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