Have You Played… Cannon Fodder?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

This was the first videogame controversy I was ever aware of: the British Legion were cross about the use of the poppy in Cannon Fodder, and the tabloid newspapers were slamming the game as a result. I didn’t have a complete grasp of the issues at the time – I didn’t know much of anything about World War I aged 8 – but I did know that Cannon Fodder was excellent.

Cannon Fodder is the epitome of ‘left-click command, right-click conquer’, in that it’s a topdown military strategy game in which you don’t do much of anything but those two verbs. You perform them by controlling a small group of between 1 and 5 soldiers, whose sharpshooting and survival causes them to gain rank between missions, and each mission – across jungles, snow, and desert environments – challenges you to clear the map of enemies. You left click to move as a group, right click to shoot the little pixel enemies, combine left-and-right-click to toss a grenade at the hut they’re spawning from.

I liked it for its explosive barrels, the way the doors would sometimes fly off the huts when you blew them up, and the way an occasional pixel enemy would not die when shot but instead lie on the ground, writhing and spurting blood. It was gross and subversive and darkly funny – great, if you’re a kid – and in retrospect I can see why it caused a fuss.

Yet it’s also a shame that the press and the British Legion didn’t look a little more closely. If your soldiers, each of whom had a name, shot a little less sharply and therefore failed to survive, then they died forever and were represented by a white cross on the hill of the main menu screen. Every so often new recruits would come marching down the road to join the fight, walking past the gravestones of your spent soldiers to their own almost certain demise. I might not have left Cannon Fodder knowing anything more about World War I – it’s not set during any particular conflict – but at its core lay a very simple reminder of the human cost of war.

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33 Comments

  1. Mr.Snowy says:

    War has never been so much fun…

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      phuzz says:

      Managing to get a fully voiced intro song onto a floppy disc was pretty mind blowing for me as a kid.

      RIP Jools, Jops, Stoo…

      • JB says:

        And if we’re going to talk about the CF theme song, I’ll just leave this here: link to youtube.com

        • PancakeWizard says:

          And I’ll make your link immediately irrelevant by linking to the official music video that Sensible Software made themselves

      • Jeremy says:

        I played this so obsessively as a kid that I would restart if Jools or Jops died in a mission, any mission, for the entire game.

        • DarkFenix says:

          Getting Jools and Jops through the game alive was basically the [i]real[/i] game. Everything else was secondary.

          • Jeremy says:

            I am so glad someone understands.

          • Fleko81 says:

            Did anyone actually get Jops and Jools though the game? Surely not!? I remember intensively attempting this and eventually getting to mission 9 with no one dead. The first ‘one man’ phase in the snow I could never do in one go.. incredible what the 35 year old brain still remembers about being 12!
            CF is one of the few games I really ever completed and still remains my favorite game of all time albeit I acknowledge this is probably heavily tinged with childhood nostalgia. I remember thinking the level design and difficulty curve (in general, sudden 200% increase in enemy accuracy and speed on mission 8 noted!) was fantastic and struck the right balance of being a puzzle you had to work out whilst still providing the rush of ‘panic clicking’ when required. Duskers (weirdly) gives me a not dissimilar sense – for ‘clicking’ read ‘typing’.
            CF2 i bounced off. Possibly an age thing though as many have mentioned the difficulty was horrific and the aesthetic a bit too ‘alieny’ which I appreciate was the point but never sat right with me.
            Also – “Hi!” It’s my first post here, long-time listener first-time caller as they say!

          • ansionnach says:

            I got them through. Almost drove me mad… although,
            maybe it did. There was one mission with (I think) seven phases that was crushingly difficult. Any of them where you had to ramp a vehicle (skidoo!) over something or drive a jeep off a cliff into water, quickly get out and escape made saving all the soldiers seem impossible. The last mission was pretty hard, too. Think you needed to split the party to activate a few pads. You needed to keep retrying until you got lucky. Leaving soldiers was often a problem as they might get themselves killed. You’d have to try and pack them away so they wouldn’t see any enemies and do something stupid.

          • ansionnach says:

            The version I played was the PC one. I think there are noticeable differences between it and the Amiga one other than inferior music and (maybe) more colourful graphics. Don’t know which one was harder – did the PC one run faster?

    • Ghostwise says:

      War has never been so much fun…

      And it never changes, either. Or so I’m told.

  2. gambl0r says:

    I loooooved this game as a kid! As you pointed out, the fact that your recruits ranked up between levels if you kept them alive really made this game stand out from RTS games that rewarded wave after wave of nameless units.

  3. Vicho says:

    I played Cannon Fodder because of in order;
    the graphic blood spurting
    simple controls
    each death matters – seeing that hill of gravestones and the procession of ‘replacements’ got me in the feels
    the grenades
    the jungle maps
    the vehicles. and there were many of them. Especially in CF2
    These games were incredible. It was the modern Ghosts and Goblins. Impossible difficulty, yet you kept going,

  4. Sp4rkR4t says:

    Best game music in the history of mankind.
    Also superb game in so many ways.

  5. Paul B says:

    Also, without Cannon Fodder, we wouldn’t have the excellent Cannon Soccer (which was an Amiga Format Christmas cover disk): link to hol.abime.net

    Video: link to youtube.com

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      Al__S says:

      Quite possibly the best Demo level ever produced. Played it to death until I got the game

  6. Werthead says:

    Epic game. The original was fun and straightforward. The sequel was straight-up mental, hard-as-balls though.

  7. keefybabe says:

    In some ways it’s probably one if the greatest pieces of art based on war.

    At first you see it as fun and the people as disposable, and then it shows you that they were individuals. Emotionally it was quite complex at a point when games weren’t really doing that.

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      Al__S says:

      I think if they’d been a little less punk about it and gone to the RBL at early stage, that “Not endorsed by the Royal British Legion” screen could, possibly have had the “not” omitted.

      • Sin Vega says:

        The Legion would probably never even have heard about it, nor would anyone be daft enough to make the leap from “early 90s game with poppy on the box” to “this must be in association with the Royal British Legion” if not for the Daily Mail stirring some stupid cheap fuss up for a quick buck, as is their miserably low standard.

  8. stringerdell says:

    I was too young to pick up on the furore in the press but luckily not too young to play the game on my mate’s Amiga. timeless, excellent game.

    I was too young to ever get past the snow levels though… the rocket launchers got me every time

  9. thekelvingreen says:

    It also has an excellent save disk formatting screen, but I don’t know if that was in the PC version.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Al__S says:

    Dying from rocket soldiers off screen. And so going back, with new recruits, to try to anticipate them with a grenade

    Enemy helicopters

    The horrible vehicle controls, especially if you needed to jump a lake.

    The grave stones

    The march of new volunteers after each campaign. But trying to nurse veterans, so you’d split the squad and send the n00bs to scout ahead, with the big boys hopefully somewhere with limited approaches and a good field of fire so they could deal with intruders.

    Basically crying if Jools or Jops died.

  11. Sin Vega says:

    Everyone always bangs on about the theme tune, but that was semi-good at best, and good old fast. But the Boot Hill music, on the other hand, is a masterpiece.

    Cannon Fodder 2 was much better. Oddly, I always got hopelessly stuck around Mission 8, a notoriously huge difficulty-and-arbitrary-bullshit spike that I remember well even 20 years on. Then I went on to play the sequel, and despite it being far, far harder and often lethal even from the opening missions, I ended up completing it. I then went back to the first and with some struggling was able to finish that, too. I contend that the second was simply much better thought out, thanks to level designer and notorious bastard turned pro-Scotchish-independence writey bastard Stuart Camp of Bell.

    • Tycow says:

      The Boot Hill music has a permanent place on my phone. Such a great piece of music… so moving, especially when staring at a screen full of gravestones.

    • Spacewalk says:

      I don’t believe you, nobody has ever beaten Cannon Fodder 2 it was impossible.

  12. StAUG says:

    It was playing this on a family friends Amiga when I was about 6 or 7 years old that made me want a computer and got me into gaming in general, some 25 years ago. Absolute classic.

  13. Jackablade says:

    I think this might have been the first game I played that had anything approaching bloody violence. I remember the bleeding out animations being quite upsetting

  14. PancakeWizard says:

    The doors sometimes blew off? If you didn’t blow the doors off, the enemy soldiers kept pouring out of the building.

  15. fug says:

    Going back slightly further, I remember playing this link to en.wikipedia.org
    at the local swimming pool!

    <3 4 80's!

  16. LordMidas says:

    I never played this as a kid. Probably because I was 21 when it came out. You yooves. Bloody great game though.

  17. hjjools says:

    Loved it on the Amiga, was the first game I can remember completing, then when online gaming became a thing “Jools” was, and still is my choice for a handle. Have a friend who always chose and still chooses “Jops” as his, and another friend who is “RJ” although those are his real initials :)