Prepare yourself for a barrage of hyphens, for Cannon Fodder is not an easy game to describe simply. [Deep breath] It is an mouse-driven military-themed action-strategy shoot ‘em up game that, frankly, is one of the best games to be made on an Amiga, for the Amiga.
Created by the small yet incredibly talented British game dev shop Sensible Software in 1993, Cannon Fodder sports gorgeously painted pixels and excellent sound effects. It’s tight, smooth, attractive and fully engrossing. TL;DR it’s a lot of fun - and thought provoking.
The game-play and mechanics are quite similar to Lemmings in the sense that you click on the screen to direct your little band of troops (who walk in column formation) throughout various missions, and the missions slowly increase in difficulty level. The view, however, is more a "god's eye" view from the skies. With the shooting of enemies from this vantage point, obvious comparisons to Commando have been made, too. The game offers 23 missions divided into several levels each, making 72 levels in all.
There are three main types of terrain: jungle, snow and desert. All offer their own peculiarities and challenges. And they almost always involve some amount of forest, cliff, water, or quicksand obstacle that adds fascinating strategic challenges to overcome. The most hair-raising is, of course, the river since you can’t shoot while swimming. Crossing bodies of water can quickly get your heart stuck in your throat until you make it to land.
As this is a war themed game, there is a deliberate juxtaposition between the cute and the gory. Your little troops are fun to control, and when you destroy the enemy, their bodies get torn to shreds and sometimes can be shot multiple times to take the pixelated agony to the next visual level. Bombs sometimes cut characters completely in half, throwing the carcasses several feet away from impact. There is a unusual realism in the world, too, like how you can accidentally blow your own men up by getting too close to your own grenade explosions.
But it can get worse.
There are moments when a mission might require you to kill indigenous people and destroy their homes. If you don’t the enemy won’t stop using them as shelters. It’s kill or be killed. And it does stop you to think about what you're doing as you mow down mostly naked villagers running around with leaves and grass for hats and pants, a bubbling stew over on their fire. I won’t forget the moment I realized I had to kill them when the enemy troops simply wouldn’t stop appearing until I did. Harsh lessons to be taught through a video game. And so it is that sobering message that overlays some of the violence on screen which, in my view, makes the game more respectable in some ways. War is offensive. For 1993 standards, this would have been exceptionally provocative I'm sure.
The sounds, while a bit sparse, are beautifully rendered and can evoke a surprising level of realism. For example, every now and then during the course of some missions birds can be seen flying overhead across the jungle canopy or snowy realms, and when they caw the effect can be rather lonesome and eerie.
As missions increase in complexity and difficulty, the fate of your digital troops can bring about a real sense of dread and foreboding as they explore the screen you’re clicking on. And that only adds to the joy that this game brings to those who play it when you survive to the next level. The levels eventually do become seemingly impossible to beat, but perhaps that’s part of the point, too.
It is no wonder that Cannon Fodder was quickly ported to nearly every other computer and console platform at the time. It’s an Amiga classic.
Notes: The game was reviewed from an Amiga 1200, running the WHDLoad version. The original game came on 3 disks. The PC version was banned in Germany for its depiction of extreme violence.