Cannon Fodder: Commodore Amiga

Cannon Fodder: Commodore Amiga
Cannon Fodder: Commodore Amiga

Insert Disk collects Cannon Fodder for the Commodore Amiga.

Today’s retro game review is Cannon Fodder Floor for the Commodore Amiga. This retro gaming classic is a the perfect game for a Christmas Special review. With a memorable theme tune and strong anti-war message Cannon Fodder remains one of the greatest games of 1993 and of the 90’s. Sensible Software took the opportunity to be brave and bold in this point and click masterpiece.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. It’s that time of year again, Christmas. These days I enjoy a simple Christmas. Decorating the tree, playing with all the flashing lights and generally putting work aside for a bit in favour of relaxation, good food and the Muppets Christmas Carol. It never gets old.

If you’re a regular to the channel you’ll know that the Christmas episodes are not necessarily about a Christmas themed games but of games that I would play as a child over that holiday. Usually those games that needed a bit if extra time to enjoy so the holiday period was the ideal time. This year I’d like to re-live those magical memories of playing a game that still holds a special place in my gaming history. A game that’s not only still fun to this day but a game that also carries a strong anti-war message. So, throw another log on the fire, grab a mince pie and gather round for a game that proved that even at Christmas war has never been so much fun. Let’s unwrap a game that can only be Sensible Software’s masterpiece Cannon Fodder.

With it’s now legendary theme song Cannon Fodder was released back in December of 1993, all ready for the holidays. The game was primarily aimed at the Commodore Amiga crowd but it also found its way on to other platforms such as the Atari ST, MS-DOS, Acorn Archimedes, 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, SNES and Game Boy Color. Yes, Cannon Fodder despite essentially being point and click game hit the right game play notes to receive widespread appeal. It’s especially loved here in the UK but did find a wider audience as time went by.

The game was developed by the British developer Sensible Software who were sort or a renegade band of coders. Looking back they didn’t have a large games library to their name but everything they did release became an instant hit. Sensible’s debut in to the mainstream was a game called Wizball, a game I played to death back in the late 80’s. It was your task to restore the colour to the world by shooting various enemies to power up and then collect the appropriate colour drops. The twist, you were a wizard that turns in to a green ball thing and your cat is the only one that can collect the colour drops after they have been turned in to a satellite, a catelite if you will. The game features very few of the trademark features that Sensible would be come to be known for but did see a mass release and was incidentally one of the first Amiga games I played on Christmas morning 1989. It appeared in the 10 star pack bundle sold with many Amiga’s and became a household name.

1991 saw the first big hit for Sensible Software though in the way of Mega-Lo-Mania. A real-time strategy God sim like game where you would level up tribes of small people to eventually attack rivals and dominate the world. Again, the game was initially aimed at the Amiga fan base but saw successful releases on several of the 16-bit consoles. The game was well received by the magazines of the day with score consistently topping 90%. Mega-Lo-Mania is a game that really has now gone on to be rather forgotten by later generations. Games like the Settlers, Populous, CIV arguably all went on to leave stronger real-time strategy legacies in the end. However, Mega-Lo-Mania had an even more important role to play than just being a decent RTS. It introduced us to little people, doing things. The little people concept triggered the thought of, what about small football players?
By 1992 Sensible Soccer was released. Tiny people playing football, it was a smash hit and fundamental to what Sensible Software would be come to be known for. There were in fact many editions of Sensible Soccer after the initial Commodore Amiga release. All of which helped lift the reputation of the Sensible team.
Sensible Software were becoming known for being that small British developer with a sense of humour that could deliver. Perhaps not ready to take on America but the UK was gripped in perhaps only a way that the Bitmap Brothers could rival at the time. This leads us on to 1993 and the need to answer to the question, ok, what else can little people do? The Sensible Soccer engine was soon modified by the team for a new deadly purpose. War was coming in one of the most controversial games of the decade.

So what was so controversial about Cannon Fodder? It’s just tiny men shooting at each other isn’t it? Well, in fact it’s so much more than pixels. It’s a social commentary and a brilliant one at that. A lot of my viewers here in the UK will understand this straight away but it is worth an explanation for the wider audience. Our game opens up in typical Sensible style with the rather catchy yet ironic tune, “War has never been so much fun”. Nothing too controversial here, just good old British irony, as real war is certainly no fun at all. But then comes the red poppy and the games name, “Cannon Fodder”. The title may as well say dead soldiers.
So, for those of you that are not familiar with history. We had a rather difficult time of it back between 1914 and 1918 as the First World War, also known as the Great War ravaged our fragile peace. It was a war in which the allied nations fought the Central Powers of the German, Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. It’s a little more complex than that obviously but to cut a very, very long and complex story short millions died on both sides in a long and drawn out war. One of the lasting images from the conflict was the scarred poppy fields and dead in Flanders Fields.
Of course it wasn’t long before we did it all over again on an even larger scale with more destruction and more deaths. *Merry Christmas all*

Anyway, back to the use of the poppy in Cannon Fodder and why it raised more than an eyebrow over here in the UK with the media. You see specifically the red poppy has a very particular meaning for some. The British Legion website helps tell the story here. In 1915 Canadian doctor Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in battle-scarred fields to write his now famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. He had recently lost a friend in the battle of Ypres. The poem inspired American War Secretary, Moina Michael, who bought poppies to sell to her friends to raise money for Servicemen in need after the First World War.
This was adopted by The (Royal) British Legion in 1921 who ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year in the first ever Poppy Appeal. The poppy has been adopted as a symbol of Remembrance ever since.

Since then November 11th is known as Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day. Here in the UK we mark the day by wearing a red poppy to remember our service personnel. There are also public scenes of remembrance at war memorials. Of course this isn’t unique to the UK as many nations have a similar tradition of remembrance. However, the red poppy is very much associated with the British Legion which is in itself a registered charity. In short, it’s something to be respected and not really to be used for commercial purposes. So, you can now perhaps see the problem of sticking the words “Cannon Fodder” next to the symbol of the British Legion caused.
Yes, it was irony but not everyone was ready for this yet, despite the very prominent disclaimer. This disapproval was felt by the legion themselves. The impact was doubled as the game was first showcased on which day… that’s right Remembrance Day. As so often happens when people try to make a statement, it was not necessarily understood without context. Or at least it was chosen not to be understood by some of the British media. At the time there was a media backlash and the thoughts of the British Legion were made very clear in the national papers. Particularly the Daily Star.

“War veterans have slammed as “”monstrous”” a decision to use a Remembrance Day poppy to illustrate a new computer game… called Cannon Fodder.

The game, tipped to be the year’s biggest seller, will make its debut at a show in London’s Olympia from November 11 to 14 – Remembrance Sunday.

Manufacturers Sensible Software say: “”War has never been so much fun.”

The distinctive poppy symbol is featured on the game and on the front page of leading computer magazine AMIGA POWER, out on Armistice Day.

British Legion chiefs and MPs have branded the use of the poppy as appalling.”

The editorial goes on to say…

“The poppy is a sacred reminder of the men and women who gave their lives in two world wars.

How sickening to see it being abused to sell a savage computer game.

The distributors say the poppy is there “”to remind the customer that war is no joke.”

That’s just publicity writer’s hypocrisy. Computer game designers compete to glorify war and viciousness.

How dare they use the poppy to turn truth on its head.

Make sure you don’t buy this shameful game.”

By this point things were really starting to escalate and the planned December 93 edition of Amiga Power backed out on using the planned poppy cover in favour of a more generic screen shot. Amiga Power’s deputy editor at the time Stuart Campbell did go on to write in the pre-publish edition “Old soldiers? I wish them all dead.” This was an unfortunate turn of events as this could have reflected badly on the Sensible Software team. Who by all accounts must have been feeling that the anti-war irony message hadn’t been understood. However, thankfully history tells a different story.

The papers, the magazines, consumers saw past this and got the intention of the Sensible team. A well thought out anti-war message wrapped up in to the most hotly anticipated games of the year. Threats of legal battles rumbled on between the British Legion and Sensible Software and the poppy was ultimately removed from the Cannon Fodder box design in favour of a camouflaged soldier, followed by cartoon soldiers in later editions. Richard Branson’s Virgin Interactive proceeded to publish the game though and it became an instant classic. The game swept to a clean sweep of 90%+ reviews from the magazines of the day and was declared game of the year in Amiga Power.

As with all controversies you have look deeper at the game to understand the intentions of the developers. Pre-launch had been a mixed bag of opinions but its important to look at the structure and content of the game itself if you really want to understand how sincere and deep the message of the futility of war really went. And with that, let’s actually look at this masterpiece.

Getting in to the game you are presented with a clean green hill as your recruits arrive and are waved through the main gate. To make this personal your team of Stoo, Jools, Jops all make the draft. Clearly named after Artist Stoo Cambridge, programmer Jools Jameson and the other Sensible Software staff. There were no nameless soldiers here, they were indeed sending themselves in to war. The mission screen will give you a decent interlude before the action and explain your mission objectives. The game instantly grabs you. Simply click to move the squad and them right click to fire. The guys were right, war has never been so much fun. Or simpler for that matter. The levels proceed to get more challenging and you’re going to need to start to use more tactics. For example, splitting your team may be beneficial as a solo soldier can clear the way as a single target for the enemy. Of course it’s always great to bring in the back up when needed.
To destroy the enemy buildings you’ll need to pick up grenades. Again, there are tactics that come in to play. Do you blow up the ammo stash for that instant victory or go on the more dangerous mission to collect the ammo knowing full well that the building will be spawning more enemy soldiers.

You can’t fire whilst in water making you a sitting duck so it’s a good idea to split the team to either provide covering fire as sentries or simply not put all your eggs in one basket. Things ramp up another level when the enemy decide to get out their rocket launchers. In these cases it’s always best to send in a solo hero as a chain of soldiers will be wiped out very quickly. It’s a game where you have to keep your wits about you as the enemy, like yourself are quite small and camouflaged. Lose concentration for a moment and it could be a bullet to the head.

And should you be killed in action you’re not forgotten. Not only is there a roll of heroes but a screen to remember the dead by name. It’s subtle but it’s yet another element of the game that personalises the futility of war. The developers didn’t have to put this in but they did. Add in to this the new crosses that appear on the hill to mark the fallen as a line of fresh faced recruits report for duty you realise the true genius of the anti-war message of the game. There will always be more Cannon Fodder. It’s difficult to think of a game that does so much to make the subject of war fun yet at the same time humanise the losses of war. It’s a game that we’re better off for. Of course it helps that the Sensible team are also very likable and ultimately the themes of the game were taken to heart by gamers.

Here I have the Commodore Amiga CD32 edition of the game which depending on your view is perhaps the definitive edition of the game. The game offers excellent sound quality and everything you would expect from a slightly enhanced version of the Amiga 500 release. The biggest bonus being the FMV of the team larking around in the War video. If you saw this back in the day I can guarantee you’re feeling high levels of nostalgia right now. Yes, 352 x 288 pixels will really take you back to the good old days. This was a quirky team that you could put a face to. Not a faceless money making corporation.

In game the audio is excellent, the ambient sounds of the jungle are perfect and there’s a real sense of atmosphere despite the lack of music. Of course none of any of this would matter if the game wasn’t fun. Fortunately, it really is. The learning curve is reasonable as elements are slowly added in to the campaigns. Levels vary from small and frantic to much larger campaigns and generally you’ll be clicking away for decent amount of time before feeling any repetition fatigue. You are also rewarded for perseverance and methodical game play rather than just a run and gun style affair. The ideal game for Christmas as we celebrate. Violence and controversy.

So, let’s roll back the clock to December 1993 at my house. Dad has walked through the door with the Amiga Format Magazine Christmas Special. Good times. On the cover we see a Christmas theme and a cover disk. Well, it’s only Cannon Soccer. A small yet perfectly formed pre-Christmas treat before the big day. In a holiday cross-over the Cannon Fodder boys take on the Sensible Soccer team that preceded them. I remember getting this edition back in the day. Dad would arrive home and I would always enjoy a good demo disk. Cannon Soccer was particularly worth waiting for. Incidentally, many thanks to Dad for posting this disk off to me first class in time for the episode.

26 years later and the disk is finally reunited with the original magazine. Ok, I’m just going to take a minute out here to look at the magazine too. As I looked through it was just too good not to share a couple of pages to show what was going on during Christmas ’93. First of all, boom, double page Jurassic Park game ad. Now you know it’s 1993. An ad for T2, Alien 3 and Mortal Kombat. What a vintage year. I was hit really hard with nostalgia for this ad though from The Zone. So, I need to explain this one a little. If you were gaming back in 1993 your choice of buying games here in the UK was either, mail order, Toys R Us, Boots (yes similar to Walgreens in the US) or independent toy stores. When it came to the high street though it was the emerging Game vs. The Zone. I really enjoyed The Zone because it had a futuristic theme and their sales were genuinely exciting. If you were there you know what I’m talking about. They also held Amiga stock late in to their run so my go to shop of choice.

Anyway, there’s Christmas guides. This poor girls been lined up for an Amiga CD32. Only £299 by this point though. Next to it the Commodore Amiga 1200 for £349.99. The real question here is why is she using the CD32. It could be that standalone release of Diggers that swung it for her. There’s the usual raft of mail order games adverts. Oh cool, Simon the Sorcerer is coming. Frontier Elite 2. Turrican 3, 77%, that’s a bit harsh. The Settlers 94%, incidentally this was going to be my Christmas special this year until I’d sunk too many hours in to Cannon Fodder. Of which gets some prime advertising in the magazine. An article on game piracy, even a young Peter Molyneux has his say. Guides for flashback and of course the Cannon Fodder review of 95%. You then of course get that controversial edition of Amiga Power thrown in to the bundle. Public domain distributers using size 2 font! Oh yes, now this is Christmas.

But I digress, the magazine gives you a two page spread of Cannon Soccer. Now remember, this was the same month as the main games release so until now the masses had no idea what the fuss was all about. This was the initial Cannon Fodder taster for many gamers. A rather tasty started indeed. The game demo is essentially broken down in to two scenarios “Land of hope and glory” and “It’s Snow Time!”. Let’s look at scenario “Land of hope and glory”. It’s incredibly tricky as you work your way down the pitch taking out the oppositions. The main annoyance is the helicopter. It’s rather persistent as it spams you with grenades. I’d highly recommend taking only one soldier at a time. Your only hope is to wait until it lands inside the centre circle and then pounce with a grenade of your own. It’s rather easier said than done. But gives you that feeling of Christmas joy when you manage it. There’s also a nice touch that the goalie has a rocket launcher. How Christmassy!

“It’s Snow Time!” is even harder and much more like the main game. A real challenge, again all due to that helicopter. The game content was just right for those pre-Christmas days off from school. Small but a very decent and addictive challenge.

So, what can I say about Cannon Fodder. It really is a long-time favourite of mine. It’s simple, fun, has an interesting story and creative team behind it. The clean sweeps of 90%+ reviews of the day are more than deserved in my opinion. There is a Cannon Fodder 2 from the Sensible Team that is also very much worth checking out. It’s basically more of the same with more locations and varied level design. There is also a 2012 Cannon Fodder 3 developed by Burut CT but I can honestly say that it really doesn’t match the charm and good honest fun of the originals.

For a game that is primarily based on an anti-war message Cannon Fodder does a remarkable job of being fun yet memorable for all the right reasons, despite the controversial baggage that it gathered at launch. Over the years I’ve had hours of fun with this one and one of my favourites to revisit as I did when I was younger at Christmas.

I think perhaps to wrap up it’s best to revisit the game manual. Yes, it’s all very helpful and written in with a great sense of humour as you would expect from a cheeky British team but also ends on a rather important note. It reads… “And on a more serious note: 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”.

And with that in mind I wish happy and peaceful holidays to all, whatever piece of antique machinery you may be gaming on this Christmas. Happy gaming and I’ll see you all in the New Year.

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