It’s weird what makes the world go round. Everybody has different tastes. I suppose that is an essential element in life, otherwise we would inhabit a very sterile and dull place. For example I love rock music. I have done since I was young and for the last twenty-five years I have played in a variety of rock covers and tribute bands. But I hate the band ‘Kiss’ with a passion. In my view they are a band with an extraordinary talent for putting on a show and self-promotion, but underneath it all they have little to offer. Musically and lyrically their songs sound (to me) as if they have been written by a thirteen year old. I see them as THE ultimate example of style over substance. But still I have a number of friends that like them. Am I wrong? Are they wrong? Or we all simply entitled to our opinion?
I wonder what those friends would think of Cannon Fodder. It was released in 1993 by Sensible Software, a software house that was riding the absolute crest of the ‘Sensible Soccer’ wave which, after its 1992 release, quickly established itself as one of the most popular and best selling Amiga games of all time.
Cannon Fodder is a top down action/strategy war game. You control a small troop of soldiers with your mouse; navigating a landscape and fighting enemies by left clicking to where you want them to go and right clicking to fire their machine guns. You can also collect grenades and rockets left carelessly about the level which, once collected, can be fired by a combination of holding right then left clicking. The controls are very intuitive and are picked up very quickly. The A.I. can, on occasion, go a little squiffy, since the soldiers always try and walk point-to-point. They won’t automatically self-navigate if something is in their way, so if you click for them to move across screen and there is a clump of trees between them and their intended destination, they won’t walk around them, but will instead walk into them and get stuck. This is a minor point as they can easily be rescued by click-routing them out again, but it can irk nonetheless.
Each mission is made up of a series of levels that have to be completed. The levels are generally of the ‘Kill all Enemy’ or ‘Destroy all Buildings’ type, but there are others such as ‘Rescue all Hostages’ and ‘Kidnap Enemy Leader’. If you lose all your recruits during a mission you have to try again. Completion of a mission sees you progress to the next one with an option to save, but not before a poignant visit to a hill which grows increasingly covered with the headstones of those that have fallen along the way. Those soldiers that survive the mission get promoted before their next foray into battle, improving their accuracy. This becomes a sub-game in itself, while not being any kind of real mission objective you find yourself favouring certain recruits and it is genuinely quite sad when they bite the dust. Those that have played can almost certainly remember the time they lost ‘Jools’ or ‘Jops’, the first two to venture into war. Some even try and complete the game while keeping them alive throughout.
There are seventy-two levels to play within twenty-three missions set on various landscapes including jungle, snow and dessert. Each level includes traps and obstacles that you must avoid, such as booby traps, quicksand and rivers that need to be crossed, during which your players are slowed and cannot fire.
Within the confines of a level you have the ability to split your mini army into smaller groups, or ultimately have all recruits acting alone. This gives the advantage of being able to attack on more than one front or using one soldier as a decoy while the others sneak in the back way. It adds an element of strategy and becomes essential to progress the later missions. As you make it deeper into the game, you get to capture and drive various vehicles, including snow ‘skidoos’, helicopters and tanks.
The presentation of the game is magnificent. From the weirdly uplifting ‘War has never been so much fun’ introduction, to the menu screens, in-game graphics and superb sound effects that accompany each mission, this game is dripping in quality touches and atmosphere. The levels are very crisp and the men, being very small (‘Sensible Soccer’ style) allow the scale to be sufficiently ‘zoomed out’ give you a good field of view so you can always see where you are going and any approaching danger.
When the game was released it caused quite a stir, the use of the poppy in particular unpopular with certain newspapers and the Royal British Legion, who complained that the game was trivialising war and was disrespectful. Not everyone agreed of course, but as with ‘Kiss’, everyone was entitled to their opinion.
And that is why, in reviewing the game, I am comfortable in saying that I don’t particularly like it. For me it lacks proper variety in missions to be a true challenge. Each level is pretty much like the last one. Yes, the landscape changes and you get the odd vehicle thrown in later on to mix things up, but you quickly become aware that the gameplay really isn’t going to alter significantly. Within just a few missions you have already seen the majority of what the game has to offer. In comparison; ‘Lemmings’, another point and click strategy game, was constructed with real progression, both in terms of the difficulty level and learning curve. The challenge in Cannon Fodder is pretty random. Some levels are a breeze and then suddenly you will hit one that is seemingly impossible and you can quickly lose the will to live.
I am aware that I am in the minority. This is a hugely popular game and it would be wrong for me to pretend otherwise. But this is a game that I will periodically load up, convinced that I must have been missing something and will be turning off again twenty minutes later, after concluding that I really haven’t. It’s fun in the very short term. But once you have picked your way carefully through a ten minute level only to be shot by the last man standing for the third or forth time you lose the will to keep playing.
I recently slaughtered ‘Walker’ in a review for a lack of variety and in the interests of fairness and balance I should say that Cannon Fodder is nowhere near that bad. In fact it isn’t a bad game at all. It most respects it is a perfectly good game, but it isn’t great. I am frequently vexed when I see it topping the polls for ‘best Amiga game ever’. Off the top of my head I could very easily name twenty or thirty Amiga games that are more fun to play than Cannon Fodder. And isn’t that what it is all about, ultimately? Something can be impressive, but it should also be fun.
So there you have it. It’s well presented. It looks and sounds fantastic. The game mechanics are well thought out and generally work extremely well. But underneath it all it’s all a bit samey, at times enormously frustrating and ultimately not actually that enjoyable to play. A confirmed case of style over substance then. Many won’t agree with me and that is absolutely fine. But then at one stage the ‘Kiss Army’ fan-club had over a hundred thousand members and not one of them is ever going to convince me that ‘God gave rock and roll to you’ is a good song…
Cannon Fodder (Sensible Software Game, Commodore Amiga, 1993)