The Making Of: Cannon Fodder

It stirred the British Legion into a fury, was immediately hailed as a classic by Amiga magazines (it didn’t do too badly in issue five of Edge, either) and abides as one of the 16bit generation’s most memorable games. Though best known for the eponymous Soccer, Cannon Fodder was the third hit of Sensible Software’s golden age: a period between 1989 and 1994 when the UK codeshop could do little wrong, enjoying universal critical acclaim and validation, in retail form, to the tune of cash registers ringing up millions of sales.

With a principal team of Jools Jameson (code and design), Jon Hare (design), Stoo Cambridge (art) and Richard Joseph (audio), but with contributions from throughout the close-knit company, Cannon Fodder was initially part of a four-game deal with the doomed Mirrorsoft but later signed by Virgin. Sensible co-founder Hare is vague on the subject of Cannon Fodder’s direct origins, but does recall the initial inspiration behind it: “I can’t remember whose idea it was, and I’ve never been able to remember. I think it mutated from an idea we had for a Gauntlet-style game, but in a military setting, which is why we ended up with holes in the ground where men ran out – like the ghost-creating machines.”

Like other Sensible games of the time, Cannon Fodder had a unique visual style. “We had Mega-lo-Mania, we had Sensible Soccer – the Mega-lo-Mania men dressed up in football kit – and we’d established a look, so Cannon Fodder was the third ‘Sensible look’ game on the Amiga and ST,” explains Hare. “I think the military-action route was an obvious one. You take a bit of what Sensible stuff looked like, take Gauntlet, take explosive hardware, and that gives you an idea of where we started.”

Superficially a mouse-driven shoot ’em up, Cannon Fodder was more akin to a puzzle game in many respects. Although its earlier levels gave players very simple objectives – kill all enemies, destroy all enemy buildings, or both – play evolved in a manner unusual for its era. Although there were clear boundaries within the confines of an individual stage, the means the player would use to ‘solve’ any given confrontation required a more evolved response than a simple quick trigger finger. Through tight level design, Sensible provided the means that players could beat a given map. The manner in which the player approached was, somewhat refreshingly for 1993, often his or her own prerogative.

We put Cannon Fodder’s evident puzzle game leanings to Hare, and found him entirely receptive to the theory. “I think a lot of military games, or shooting games, miss out on this stuff,” he opines. “It’s really quite easy to do. I like the way that in Cannon Fodder you didn’t always go forwards. Sometimes you’d go backwards. You’d find a building and not know how to deal with it, and then travel the map and find a helicopter, then return and blow it up. The levels were very tight. It’s the tightest level design we ever did.”

That said, Cannon Fodder could be brutally difficult in places. Not guiding the player by the hand by offering resources but rarely a readily apparent conclusion, its emphasis on experimentation could lead to some frustrating instances of trial and error. This is a flaw that Hare readily acknowledges. “I think the difficulty curve became a little bit too steep too early,” he says. “I think there were a couple of levels, about 16 or 17 in, that people got stuck on. I think, perhaps, that we could have done more to help the non-hardcore players into the later stages.”

Cannon Fodder, though somewhat exacting in its expectations of player ability, had a reward system worthy of a Nintendo own-brand game. Its various munitions, vehicles and scenarios were introduced in a measured fashion. Beyond every excruciating failure, the prospect of the next satisfying pay-off beckoned. Vehicles, a device in vogue with modern shooters, were a principle Cannon Fodder innovation. With the weapons-free skiddoo and jeep, Sensible flirted; with the later introduction of helicopter gunships and tanks, it delivered. “I really like the way we blended people walking with people getting into vehicles,” says Hare. “I don’t think anyone had really done that before.”

Speaking to Hare, we get the impression that the development of Cannon Fodder was something of a stroll, an example of a codeshop firing on all cylinders and vaulting all hurdles with relative ease. He does admit, however, that one aspect of its development was at least mildly problematic. Sensible Software might easily have opted for a single commando strolling through its assorted levels but, from an early point, opted to favour players with a group of soldiers that could be separated into individual squads. Hare acknowledges this device as the biggest single technical hurdle the team had to overcome: “I think the biggest problem we had was getting the pathfinding for them right, the sharing of who took the shots, who defaulted to be leader and ensuring that getting in and out of vehicles worked smoothly. That took a lot of work.”

The most charming aspect of Cannon Fodder, besides its salient qualities as a piece of game design, was that it had a distinct feel, a sense of humour that veered between dry and wet with arterial, schoolboy-pleasing gore. This was a game that concluded each level with jaunty, circus-style tunes, the surviving soldiers waving or leaping for joy, and yet it took the time to remind players of those that had died during the mission.

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