The 1980s, the decade of commando action movies. Surely, you remember Rambo: First Blood Part II, and even the mighty Chuck Norris was Missing in Action. By the turn of the decade, it was over. Time for the spoofs to take their place. In the movie business, this was Hot Shots 2. In our world of computer games, the ever dependable team of Sensible Software stepped in and gave us Cannon Fodder.
If the idea of a commando style game conjures up images of Ikari Warriors, Metal Gear or Dogs of War for you, you're on the right track. Though this game yanks it all up by several orders of magnitude – both in style and contents.
The style component certainly makes the game much more playable today, though in 1993, the 80s still fresh in mind, it was all a bit… icky. The mega cynical attitude of “war has never been so much fun” has been followed through to the last pixel when wounded tiny soldier sprites keep twitching in their death throes while blood galore spurts from their chests until they either finally disappear by themselves (after having lost the equivalent of five times their body weight of blood) or the player shows mercy and applies the final shot. Yes, even baby seals can be shot into bloody pulp. Though, yes, after some more water under the bridge, it is quite apparent that this being presented in a cutesy pixel graphical style simply sends off those previous games and movies which, if we are honest, were all about this sort of thing.
On the gameplay front, Cannon Fodder requires a typical mixture of fast trigger finger reflexes and tactical thinking. Overall 72 missions are waiting for players, most of them about clearing out a sector completely or at least blowing up enemy installations.
While this is still fairly straightforward at first (though already not all too easy), things soon take a turn towards tricky. How to cross a river, considering you cannot shoot while swimming? Maybe there is a shallow part to wade through instead? Or maybe we should split the squad and post guards on the shore to provide cover fire while their mates are defenseless? Maybe the heavily guarded gate isn't the best way to enter the compound, but we should blow up the fence back there? Careful on slippery ice or with quicksand. This bazooka guard could kill the whole squad with a single shot, so maybe we should just take him out by throwing a grenade over the building while staying in safety? How about running over the enemy squad with a tank or swooshing in with a helicopter, guns blazing? Cannon Fodder offers a large amount of variety in mission design and the possibilities to “solve” them, and this is where its main strength lies.
This is enabled by a really thought through interface. The small squad is controlled with the mouse, left-clicking moves, right-clicking shoots and both mouse buttons together activate a special weapon (which are available on in strictly limited amounts). It won't get much more intuitive than that. Mouse movement alone moves screen focus (roughly in the way of “sloppy focus” window managers of today's computer desktop GUIs) so that looking around is also a piece of cake. Probably most importantly, movement is decoupled from shooting direction. Meaning it's not just perfectly possible to fire running backwards or sideways, but even an essential skill to master.
Though you better have the world's best mouse available. What we have to remind ourselves of is that at the time, those beasts were still working mechanically. A leftover speck of dust on the mouse ball could very well mean the end in this game, as fine-grained control is an absolute necessity.
In this context, limited squad pathfinding is both boon and bane. The only way to survive is to keep moving constantly, unless very sure to be in a perfectly safe place. Soldiers have the tendency to get stuck on trivial obstacles like trees or buildings, however. They can be sent to run some distance autonomously, but only in straight lines. You will curse this when your squad gets unexpectedly stuck and is annihilated by an enemy grenade. You will appreciate it, because it means you are in full, fine-grained control, your soldiers never doing any unexpected movement in any other direction, just because some algorithm decided it.
Thankfully, there is the option to freely save between missions. First, because there is often simply no way to actually win first time around. Detailed knowledge of what dangers lurk behind which corner is often necessary and without the gift of foresight, initial failure to learn is the only option. Second, because the game is ultra-tough. Don't pay attention for a split second, look in the wrong direction just once, have a dirty mouse, you can forget about this squad. Sure, there are plenty of reinforcements available to try again, though this comes at the typical price of the shooter genre: new recruits run slower and fire less accurately than experienced veterans – i.e. losing the latter means losing your “power ups”, making the upcoming missions even harder.
We have to thank Sensible for not making the enemy soldiers very smart, relying on full-frontal attacks, walking into obvious death traps without the blink of an eye and even blowing up themselves by shooting at the player squad although there is clearly a large obstacle in between.
You see where this is going. Cannon Fodder is heaven for expert action gamers with a knack for small tactical puzzles. Though if you're not among this group… Personally, I can see and appreciate its qualities on a cognitive level. I've always wanted to love it on an emotional level. Though in 1994, when I first got it, I was still using the standard A500 mouse which, as we all remember, was not exactly a piece of engineering art with its rather clunky mechanics. On top, never having been the best at twitch games, I failed to get very far. Nowadays, at advanced age, my skills have deteriorated much further. I fear I have simply missed out on one of the greatest games of its generation – and there will be no way to truly relive it in its full glory, ever.
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