The original Cannon Fodder was one of the best selling, most successful games to be released for the Amiga, receiving conversions to machines as diverse as the Atari ST, 3DO and Jaguar. To this day it remains my favourite game of all time.
So imagine my excitement as a grubby-handed 16 year old when a sequel was announced for release ahead of Christmas 1994 on Amiga and PC. New levels! New environments! New weapons! This was going to be great. Right?
Although I completed the first game on release (and several times since), I never actually finished this first time round, eventually reaching the final mission some 20 years later.
Yuck. Let’s just get this out of the way nice and early. The alien planet worlds are absolutely vile. Horrible, garish purple blobs, punctuated by weird mushrooms. It is a truly disgusting.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Where the first game concentrated on the traditional war environments of jungle, desert, snowy peaks, underground bunkers and, er, Yorkshire Moors, the sequel takes an alternative path. From the remnants of a discarded plot, your band of hardy soldiers start off in the middle east but soon find themselves transported to the aforementioned alien world as well as medieval times and prohibition-era Chicago, courtesy of some levels aboard an alien space ship.
The middle east levels are a nice addition, visually fitting in with the theme of the first game. They have a gritty realism to them, the viewpoint subtly pinched up from the first game, that sets a tone that is sadly not matched by what is to come. The warning signs come early as your battle through the tight confines of an unnamed middle eastern street soon gives way to the appearance of an alien spacecraft, signalling your first foray into the alien spaceship levels.
It is quite the jump. The juxtaposition from the dusty streets to a garish green ship, complete with weird bleeps, death pits and strange aliens is jarring and takes you completely out of the moment. Things don’t get much better when the action switches to medieval times. At first glance these levels are reminiscent of the jungle or moors levels from CF1 but this sense is lost when you realise that you are doing battle not with rocket firing soldiers but magic firing wizards. The Chicago levels look great and in isolation would be fine for a period blaster. But again here they feel out of place. And by the time you reach the horrific purple alien worlds, you are numb to it all.
Normally the visuals play a small part in the overall enjoyment of a game, coming very much secondary to the gaming experience. But here they are so jarring, especially in contrast to the more reality based setting of the original that it serves to undermine the experience. Whatever the quality of the game underneath, your emotional attachment has been reduced at an almost intangible level.
Phew. Not a good start. But let’s try and move past the visuals and assess the game on its own merits. So, what has changed from the first game?
The core mechanics of the game are unchanged from the original; shoot, destroy, fly, drive, rescue and protect are once again the order of the day. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Cannon Fodder is one of the greatest games of all time and it would be foolish to stray too far from a winning formula.
That said, the sequel sticks rather too rigidly to the original concept. The mission structure is unchanged so you are presented with a further 72 phases spread across 24 missions. But when I say unchanged, I mean unchanged. So mission one is once again a simple introductory level whilst new weapons and vehicles are gradually introduced as the player eases into the game. As a sequel it is disappointing. Surely most people buying this were fans of the original and would have either finished that game or at least played a significant portion of it. To start off the sequel with such basic levels feels unnecessary.
The sense of familiarity extends to the weapons. Your primary tool remains the machine gun with rockets and grenades available in later levels. Once again jeeps and tanks (or their period equivalent) can be driven whilst helicopters / spaceships can be flown. Again though, there is no change to their operation. Handling of the vehicles is the same as the first game, there is no variation between, say, a 1920s vintage Chicago car and a medieval chariot whilst flying missions combine the same elements of fetch / carry, bomb dropping or rocket fire. No attempt has been made to implement air-to-air combat or to make each setting feel unique other than at a visual level.
Within these confines though, the structure of the levels themselves has undergone a significant transformation. There is a tendency to look back wistfully on what came before but truth be told, the first game suffered from ludicrous spikes in difficulty, veering wildly from the simple to the mouse-breakingly frustrating (I’m looking at you, mission 8.2). The level of challenge here is more consistent but is considerably more difficult right from the start. Enemy soldiers are far sharper shooters than their original game counter-parts whilst the levels themselves are real tricky tricksters.
Primarily designed by erstwhile Amiga Power editor Stuart Campbell, missions are often fiendish, punishing you relentlessly if you stand still or storm in all guns blazing. Strategy is the name of the game here, a well planned assault reaping greater rewards than blindly stumbling forwards, utilising a single soldier on a well executed strike often more effective than dragging the whole squadron along. Some levels seem to almost entice your into a firefight to the point that you wonder how you will ever beat the level, only to discover a far simpler path, cunningly hidden in plain sight for those hardy souls adventurous enough to look for it off the beaten track. Eschew the obvious, plan your moves and reap the rewards.
Missiles and grenades are at a premium too with some dastardly levels seemingly bringing you up short of the amount you need to destroy everything, forcing you to be creative in how you take out all the turrets and doors, suckering an enemy grunt into loosing a stray grenade perhaps or playing chicken with a turret to trick it into blowing itself up. This dastardly design extends to the vehicles too, a jeep or battering ram placed temptingly within reach, beckoning you in, only to be wiped out by an on-rushing foe, the solution to the mission found in a more oblique approach.
For all that, there are too many levels where you have to react almost instantly otherwise you get blown to smithereens. There is little challenge to such levels, you either click your mouse button quickly enough or you die in an almost arbitrary fashion.
Difficulty aside, the quality of the levels is technically an improvement on the previous outing. The first game had a number of sprawling levels with little to do other than wander around looking for the one enemy grunt who hadn’t had the good grace to die already, or tracking down a hostage that seemed incapable of walking back to his own house. The design here is tighter with generally more packed into each environment. It makes them tougher and in a way more shooty.
Initially this can be jarring. Whilst the quality of level in the first outing is more inconsistent, whether by design or otherwise, the sprawling missions in between the harder shoot outs served as downtime, a chance to draw breath before recommencing battle. Here, there is no such lull. Virtually from mission one this is a relentless challenge right through to the final bullet but it has the effect of sometimes feeling like a grind to play through. You admire it, you respect it but it’s tough to love it. Where the first game felt like an ultra violent version of paintball, this time round, it seems the game simply hates you. You will die. A lot.
But the further you go, the more attuned you become to the mindset required and the more you begin to enjoy the challenge. It is hard yes, but rarely feels outright unfair. There is always a strategy to see you through, the levels offering a depth and cunning that in truth the original oft times lacked.
In-game sounds are largely unchanged. The rat-a-tat-tat of your machine gun remains the primary sound, accompanied the trusty whoosh and whee of a fired rocket or a lobbed grenade. It is a little disappointing that sounds do not vary by setting; alien weapons sound much like medieval weapons and all soldiers emit the same death rattle.
The stand out aural element of the original though was of course the phenomenal title music, with a nod of the head also due to in between mission tracks. And once again we find a common theme in the translation from the original to the sequel. Between mission music is fine but the new title track, which has echoes of the later SWOS theme, whilst perfectly decent in its own right is simply not as catchy as the original.
It is testament to the quality of Richard Joseph’s work that compared to most other games, this would be heralded as a gaming classic. But when your competition is your own incredible work, this can’t help but pale in comparison.
At an almost intangible level, less fun and yet in many ways technically superior to the original, this is harder, more consistent and more focused.
As vile as the alien worlds may look, as disappointing as the lack of evolution may be, as teeth-grindingly frustrating as the levels sometimes are, this is a fabulous game. From the chariot race around the garden; to the backs-against-the-wall last stands; the perfectly timed jump over the gaping canyon; to the last laugh of the final mission, this is one of the most simple, addictive and downright brilliant games ever released and an incredibly satisfying challenge to beat.
Read more of my retrogaming reviews at http://vgalmanac.com/author/dirkgently1066/