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Cute But Controversial, ‘Cannon Fodder’ Remains An Essential War Game

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Cute But Controversial, ‘Cannon Fodder’ Remains An Essential War Game

To think of a war game today is to immediately picture something like Battlefield or Call of Duty. But in the early and mid-1990s, the first-person shooter was still finding its feet, and the first Medal of Honor game wouldn't come out until the final months of the millennium. War games of the era were often strategy orientated, top-down affairs, where you'd move units around a map to claim victory. Command & Conquer is the game that popularised real-time strategy as the go-to genre for armies at play - but before Westwood Studios' seminal release of September 1995 came something much simpler, much cuter, but a whole lot more controversial.

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Cannon Fodder, designed by the Sensible Soccer team at Sensible Software, released for the Commodore Amiga in late 1993 and used the same diminutive figures seen in the studio's spectacularly received kick-about simulator. But rather than kit them out in shorts and shin pads, it gave them guns and bombs, sent them to jungles and deserts, and asked them to flat out murder each other. No diving headers from 40 yards out, here - instead, suffering, pain, screams of agony, and tiny pixel soldiers bleeding out on your computer screen.

A screenshot from Cannon Fodder, showing the early game jungle stages / Credit: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (Europe), mobygames.com
A screenshot from Cannon Fodder, showing the early game jungle stages / Credit: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (Europe), mobygames.com

Played from a top-down, slightly isometric perspective, each mission in Cannon Fodder gave the player a squad of soldiers and an objective to achieve: kill the enemy, destroy these buildings, annihilate these vehicles, and so on. As well as the enemy soldiers themselves, who become sharper marksmen as the levels progress, there are environmental hazards to consider: landmines, quicksand, and rivers that you're unable to fire from while crossing.

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Using a mouse for its initial Amiga release, and still perfectly playable with a control pad for its later 16-bit console ports, Cannon Fodder was wonderfully intuitive to get to grips with. It used simple menus to split your squad and select weapons, and these were the only intrusion on a screen that was all about your position, the position of the enemy, and how to get the better of them and bring all your boys back home alive.

An icy landscape for a later level / Credit: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (Europe), mobygames.com
An icy landscape for a later level / Credit: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (Europe), mobygames.com

And that wasn't easy - later levels saw your little guys gunned down with alarming regularity, and every time a recruit fell, so a little grave marker appeared on a menu screen showing 'home' and 'away' scores for kills, and a line of new privates ready to arm up and ship out. The more soldiers you lose, the more white crosses and the shorter the line becomes. Use up your supply of willing vict... um, volunteers, and that's that, game over.

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Cannon Fodder didn't look anywhere near as realistic as today's first-person military games - but it quickly attracted not entirely undeserved negative attention for some of its marketing decisions. Publishers Virgin Interactive Entertainment showed the game to press on Remembrance Day in 1993, a month before its release; and the Royal British Legion, alongside a handful of politicians, declared the game insensitive and offensive for its cover art, showing a simple poppy.

The poppy still appeared on the game's title screen / Credit: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (Europe), mobygames.com
The poppy still appeared on the game's title screen / Credit: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (Europe), mobygames.com

That art was changed, pre-release, to show a soldier on a camouflage background (while in America, they went much louder - as seen in the image at the top of this article), but the tabloid-baiting tactics of the game's publishers worked a treat. Cannon Fodder was a hit with Amiga users, and received critical acclaim to match with many Amiga-centric magazines awarding it scores of over 90%. In the years since, Cannon Fodder has been seen more as an anti-war game than a celebration of it - but with its own tagline of "war has never been so much fun," chances are the developers knew what they were doing. Sensible Software used humour to underpin a game that's both surprisingly brutal and a profound commentary on the utter futility of throwing bodies at a problem that's bearing arms, and in doing so provoked both sides, its defence and attack, into words-sparring action.

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Played today, Cannon Fodder feels remarkably fresh for a game that's getting on for 30 years old. It doesn't shy away from being pretty graphic within its aesthetic niche, but stops a long way short of the over-the-top viscera served by modern military experiences. It's cute and colourful, with a cheery musical score, but the deeper you go into its missions, the greater the emphasis on strategy - no more guns-blazing glory runs, as a more detailed, thoughtful approach appears. It can easily hook you and hold you for a good two-, three-hour session - and it's not like you'll be finished in that time, either (on console, passwords allowed you to return to the mission you were up to, open powering down - but nowadays, more conventional saves have been implemented).

As war games go, this is one of the very best there's ever been - and even if you weren't even a glint in your mother's eye when it came out, Cannon Fodder deserves your attention. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll cackle at the tabloid controversy. But most of all, you will have a lot of fun.

Cannon Fodder is our game of the month on Antstream Arcade
Cannon Fodder is our game of the month on Antstream Arcade
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And you can play Cannon Fodder right now, for free, on Antstream Arcade. It's GAMINGbible's game of the month on the retro- and arcade-game streaming service, which can be accessed for exactly zero pounds and pence, or users can upgrade to a more premium experience. Antstream is available on PC, Linux, Mac, Android, Amazon Fire and Nvidia Shield, and while you're there why not also check out some of our previous game of the month picks - Mortal Kombat, Metal Slug, and Earthworm Jim.

Featured Image Credit: Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Topics: Opinion, Retro Games

Mike Diver
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