Retro recollections: Cannon Fodder

War has never been so much fun… or so grimly presented, even in pixellated form, as it is in Cannon Fodder, Sensible Soccer’s wonderfully evocative anti-war war game.
It’s a funny old week to be writing about war games, thanks mostly to the brouhaha that erupted over the reveal of Battlefield V, and its inclusion of female combatants. The usual array of Internet trolls reared their very ugly heads to squeal about “historical accuracy” and such…
Thankfully, I don’t have to write the rebuttal to their terribly weak arguments, because (once again!) David Hollingworth has already done the hard yards with a lovely fact-based article about the very real women who fought in WW2, and quite how very deadly they were.
You should very much go and read that article right here.
I’ll wait.
The thing is, I’m pretty much out of the first person shooter war game space these days. There was an era when I was quite passionate about them, especially the first few Call of Duty games, because (funnily enough) they had a strong focus on historical accuracy, and specifically pointing out how terrible war actually is.
Sure, they were action games for those with itchy trigger fingers, but they were tense, terrible battles that reminded you at every step that these were conflicts in which real people struggled and died.
There was a narrative thread that made this clear, and it’s something that’s either been glossed over with more gung-ho tales (from Modern Combat onwards) or dropped entirely in favour of multiplayer where there’s no narrative beyond the simple types of bang-bang-you’re-dead games that appeal to 6 year olds. That was pretty much where I left the modern FPS space, more or less.
Over the weekend, though, I’ve been playing the classic Sensible Software title Cannon Fodder, a top-down, strategic game that I first played on the Amiga 500. This was the PC version for the weekend (sadly, my A500 is no more) which means that the music is much worse, but the core game is the same.

Cannon Fodder was a game with a touch of infamy to it, due to the use of the poppy in opening scene and in the roll of honour that rolls past after each set of missions, something which offended the establishment greatly. Controversy and video games have long travelled together, folks.
Cannon Fodder shows its age, of course, but I was struck by the thought that in one important aspect, it’s far more “realistic” (if that’s to be the catch cry) than most modern military shooters, simply because it treats war with a greater level of respect, even as it’s satirical of it.

Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon…

What, you don’t think a nearly 30 year old game can be more realistic than a modern one? Well, Cannon Fodder is very good at one thing, and that’s showing the consequences of war, and the very random way in which lives can (and are) cut short by it.
As you build up your squad, they get better at their chosen tasks, but death is only one short bullet, explosion, mis-timed order or environmental obstacle away. It’s easy to grow attached to your little troopers, but one stray enemy grenade, and they can be blown to bits, leaving you to start again with fresh troops.
The old ones are dead and they STAY dead. No magical respawns, and the new troops start at square one, which keeps the tension extremely high, and the sadness quite genuine when a skilled trooper is taken down by an enemy you didn’t see or a bullet they didn’t dodge.
Sometimes it’s your own fault, as they’ll follow any order you give them, like good little soldiers, even if it leads to their death. In one instance, a character I’d seen through multiple campains walked straight off the edge of a cliff… because I’d accidentally clicked there in the heat of battle, effectively ordering him to his death.
Likewise, there’s an economy of visuals when it comes to death, whether it’s your troops being blown apart by their own armaments, or the dreaded sucking chest wound. It’s one of the most efficient uses of pixels I can think of, because a very simple animation and a screaming sound that you can’t silence or do anything about conveys just how terrible the situation really is.
I was playing Cannon Fodder initially for the escapism, but it’s a deeper game than that. The more you play, the more your troops do indeed become literal Cannon Fodder, and you can’t escape this, even in-between missions. That’s because as you progress, and as you lose troops, the hill behind which your recruits mass gets covered in tiny white gravestones and crosses.
You want realism in war? Millions of dead, and not being able to forget that is about as real as it gets, at least until somebody releases a game that lets you play just once, until you’re randomly killed and can never play again.
Cannon Fodder is a little friendlier than that, but it never lets you forget what it is that you’re actually doing.
Retro recollections are just random musings on retro subjects, usually whatever I’m playing at the moment.

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