Cannon Fodder (Commodore Amiga, 1993)

(image from Lemon Amiga)

War, as Cannon Fodder’s box art quite clearly tells you, has never been so much fun. Created by the legendary Sensible Software, Cannon Fodder is, despite its sense of humour and somewhat irreverent approach to war, responsible for one of the most poignant moments in my gaming life.

If you’re unfamiliar with the game, it’s simple. You take control of a squad of up to five soldiers (depending on the mission), each with their own name. Over the course of 24 missions (themselves split up into 72 phases, with some missions being just a single phase, and others being up to four) you have to guide your squad through the hell of war, accomplishing missions such as “Kill All Enemy” and “Destroy Enemy Buildings”, and sometimes (but not always) while avoiding civilian casualties.

Each soldier has a machine gun with unlimited ammunition, and you can pick up grenades and rockets along the way in each mission. You can also split up the squad into different groups so you can perform pincer movements and other tactical delights. So far, so fun.

But the game does not pull its punches. Right from the start, your chaps are incredibly vulnerable, it only takes one stray bullet to pick them off. And enemy soldiers, once they succumb to your gunfire, might not die straight away. Sometimes, they lie there, bleeding out amd crying out in pain, almost begging for mercy and asking you to finish them off. Sometimes your guys do that when they get hit too.

And if all of your soldiers are killed in action during a mission? Well, the mission’s over and you have to go back to base, where an ever-growing line of new recruits are there, waiting to be thrown into the meat grinder. And they line up to go to battle in front of Boot Hill, an idyllic green hill, verdant and clean to begin with, but as you progress through the game and take more casualties, it becomes very messy indeed:

If you lose troops faster than they can be recruited, it’s game over.

It might sound silly to people these days, but seeing Boot Hill slowly fill up with headstones, and seeing the names of fallen soldiers scroll past the screen after a successful mission (accompanied by an instrumental version of the solemn Narcissus by Jon Hare, one of the game’s developers) really drove home to me just how awful war is, and what a senseless waste of life it is.

Not only that, but the first three soldiers that you recruit in the game are always named Jools, Jops and Stoo. After each successful mission, soldiers rank up (up to the 4-star generals you can see above) and with greater rank comes better aim and range on your guns and grenades, so almost everyone playing Cannon Fodder tries to keep those three alive at all costs, and sometimes even get emotional about them – it hurts when your high-ranked soldiers die.

I never completed the game. I never got past Mission 8. It was brutally hard.