War is fun. It may have been a controversial statement, but there was no denying that Sensible Software’s Cannon Fodder was just that. Jon Hare looks back at the popular shooter and recalls its creation and why it fell foul of The British Legion.
Some games rightfully stake their place in history, referred to time and time again as the inspiration behind modern titles. Cannon Fodder is not one of them. Despite being one of the earliest titles of its kind, historians are more likely to cite the likes of Command & Conquer as leading the real-time tactics and strategy brigade. And yet Cannon Fodder arrived two years earlier, combining the unit management of Lemmings with the ‘considered’ bloodshed of Ikari Warriors (as opposed to the frenetic Commando), tightly wrapping everything up in a layer of deeply black humour. But although Cannon Fodder’s story eventually became one of frustration for designer Jon Hare, there’s no doubt that the game’s development was a different matter.
For the uninitiated, Cannon Fodder arrived to rave reviews in 1993, and offered a thoroughly modern style of gameplay. Entirely mouse-controlled, you take a small squad of soldiers on various missions, exploring varied landscapes, blowing things up, rescuing hostages, and driving highly erratic vehicles. The squad can be split into teams, to provide cover for soldiers undertaking more hazardous manoeuvres, and Sensible Software’s typically liberal dollops of black humour ensured Cannon Fodder further stood out from the crowd.
The game’s origins are largely forgotten to Jon today, but he thinks the seeds might have been sown in pre-Sensi days: “Chris [Yates, Sensi’s co-founder] and I designed a war game on the back of a wallpaper table. Lots of grids, with various troops and stuff, and some elaborate rules.” However, the gestation of the game also stemmed from two other sources during Sensi’s early Amiga days. Mega Lo Mania, released in 1991, touched on war, if not action, and the team wanted to push the war angle in a new game. Also, experiments with sprite trails proved interesting. “That was the first thing we did for Cannon Fodder,” says Jon. “There was this trail of sprites, which turned into soldiers, and then we got bullets coming from multiple people.”
Jon’s keen to downplay certain aspects of his creation. For example, he doesn’t consider Cannon Fodder particularly innovative – “It’s not that different from all the old Rambo-style games, and it’s a fairly obvious and basic combat game” – although he remains proud of the troop idea. He also dismisses praise regarding the mouse-based control method (click to move to a point, right-click to fire, left and right-click to fire a ‘special’ weapon), noting that “we were used to using configurations of buttons to do things in our games, and this was an extension of that, really. It’s all pretty obvious.”
What Jon’s keener to talk about is design, the area in which he feels Cannon Fodder is most successful. “Level-design-wise, it’s the best game we ever did,” he says. “From a design point of view, it’s quite calculated. I remember drawing the maps with coloured pencils in a Chelmsford library, and we worked out all of the features of the game at the start – traps, spikes, tanks and things you could climb into. I made a conscious effort to ensure that in every level of Cannon Fodder you saw something new.” For Jon, this was a key aspect of the game – there’s always a reason to push forward, because every level provides something you’ve never seen. This might be a new piece of background, a new weapon, or a new experience, but there’s always something different. “That was important to me, to reward the player for getting past each stage,” says Jon. “By adding new features and then mixing up the size of maps, length of missions, number of men, and terrain types, you get variety, but also a sense of progress.”
There’s plenty of variety to Cannon Fodder’s stages.
The viewpoint, borrowed from Sensible Soccer and Mega Lo Mania, combined with tight level design provides a tactical component to Cannon Fodder, adding depth over the run-of-the-mill run-‘n’-gun games like Commando that peppered 8-bit platforms. Running around gunning down enemies doesn’t get you far – instead, you can and must look ahead, decide what to do, determine whether to split the troops, and use all available resources to your advantage. But with so many elements added to the mix, was the game difficult to get right? “Cannon Fodder is just another example of a game with a universe that has a bunch of laws attached to it in terms of how everything works. As long as you get those laws solid and take your time, everything sorts itself out,” claims Jon.
We ask whether Sensi’s usual ‘complete every level once and move on’ testing method was employed, which he confirms, noting that with Cannon Fodder, the team ensured the game mechanics were nailed down and that each level could at least be completed with fairly junior guys. And we then mention mission eight, where the difficulty curve suddenly became a wall. “It’s the most ridiculous use of Cannon Fodder’s game mechanics, and it’s about not panicking in a crisis,” says Jon, adding, with more than a hint of wryness, that it’s his favourite level.
The Sensible Soccer team, happily posing in the credits.
Elsewhere, Jon’s approach was surprisingly hands-off. With previous titles, he’d been responsible for most game visuals, but Stoo Cambridge took those particular reins for Cannon Fodder. “The graphics were based on the style of Sensible Soccer and Mega Lo Mania, but Stoo added his own style to it,” recalls Jon. “He was very much into cartoony stuff, and so some of his humour came through, which is good.”
Humour was apparent in most Sensi titles, and Jon considers that the company’s approach was to be not too serious about what it was doing, but to keep things clean. “This approach was similar to Nintendo’s – the games were fairly humorous, but we were always thorough about making everything polished. Our treatment of Cannon Fodder was about as light-hearted as you can get for a war game, while covering a serious issue. I guess it was just our style.”
Shoot first, ask questions later.
When Cannon Fodder was released, Amiga owners bought it in droves. It leapt to the top spot in the all-format charts, and reviewers couldn’t heap enough praise on the game, typically awarding scores higher than 90%. Not everyone was as impressed, though: the game’s humour and poppy usage hit a nerve. The British Legion was up in arms, and the Daily Star started a campaign to sink the game, quoting such gaming luminaries as, erm, Sir Menzies Campbell MP, who waffled: “It is monstrous that the poppy should be used in such a way.”
Jon is unrepentant about the criticism that was levelled at the game by such quarters: “What irritated me is that they’d obviously not played it.” When we suggest perhaps Sensi was courting controversy, Jon disagrees: “I think we did the opposite. I’d not seen a game up until that point that focused so much on the people that actually died, and the idea that in war people really do die. We named everyone and showed all their graves on the Boot Hill screen. That effect really works for anyone who’s played it for any length of time.”
He also reveals that for all of its bluster, the British Legion was most concerned with rights issues: “Basically, they were annoyed that we had used their poppy. In the end, they said ‘if you give us 500 quid, we’ll keep quiet’, and so we paid them off.” Jon notes that he’s never bought a poppy since: “I bought all of my poppies in 1993, and I actually thought f*** them – they come on all moralistic, and you can pay them off with 500 quid… There’s a big lesson there about how companies work…”
You can read the rest of our Making Of Cannon Fodder in issue 54. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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