Crawling across a glacier field.... Slogging through the jungle.... Fording icy rivers.... You lead your soldiers on one mission after another against increasingly incredible odds against a relentless enemy force. The only glory that awaits your men is another pip on the sleeve. More probably, their future only holds a final marker on a hillside, with more cannon fodder waiting to take their places.
This is the basis for the next Jaguar title to be released, Virgin's Cannon Fodder. Originally appearing on Amigas, STs and PCs, Cannon Fodder developed a small following with wargamers, and those who were generally mayhem-minded. While I never got to play the computer versions, I was interested in the title. Over the holidays, I was given several weeks to look over an almost-finished EPROM of the Jag version by its American publisher. I think I see a small sleeper hit here, folks.
To start out with, there's possibly the best title music to any Jaguar game short of Tempest 2000 - a very clean MODish beat with lots of samples, and actual singing. If you've heard the opening music in Zool 2, you know what to expect here, except it's not as quirky.
Next up, there's a simple screen that will be repeated between missions of men running over hills to join your outfit. A macabre scoreboard of enemy deaths versus your group's deaths is kept here, along with icons for loading and saving games and a strangely GEMish- looking "arrow" pointer. (Two separate games may be saved.)
You'll find out as you progress in the game, that as long as you can complete another mission, more men /f/o/d/d/e/r/ will join your ranks, and the men /f/o/d/d/e/r/ you lose along the way will flower these same hills with burial markers. Another dark touch to the game is the higher the rank they achieve, the more pronounced their gravestones are.
But as their commander, you have to realize that death is a part of it all, so though you may shed a virtual tear at someone's passing, you saddle up and sally forth with a new batch of recruits /f/o/d/d/e/r/ for the next battle.
There's 72 actual skirmishes that you'll have to make it through, divided into 15 (I believe) separate missions. Each mission takes place in a similar environment (wooded, arctic, jungle, SW American desert) and slowly builds in intensity and introduces weapons and tactics along the way.
Each mission ends with a nicely rendered static shot of roly-poly soldiers being awarded their new ranks (based on their number of kills). You will eventually be rewarded with another rendered memorial shot, remembering those men /f/o/d/d/e/r/ who fell. (The scenes shown will change, depending on the latest environment fought in.) The only drawback here is that these scenes appear to be done in 8-bit color, and color banding is noticeable.
If you fail, and lose all of your fodder /m/e/n/, there's another scene of the dictator you've been fighting against, with a text crawl telling you of your fate. There should be another scene celebrating your victory if you make it to the end, but I can't describe it. In just over three week's playing, I only made it halfway through Mission 7. (This may paint my skills at this as rather anemic, but I'd rather think it shows the increasing difficulty curve of the game. <g>) Speaking of difficulty, there are no user-selectable levels here.
You start off with about 20 recruits in reserve, two of whom are plunged into Mission 1, a single-screen "hunt-and-kill" of two bog-stupid enemy troopers. (The programmer's had a bit of fun at naming some of the missions. Mission 1 is called "The Sensible Initiation" and others are "Onward Virgin Soldiers", "Those Vicious Vikings", "Westward, Ho" and "Greenland Redblood." Gotta love those initial plugs though.)
Missions are broken up into separate levels, with easily discernible tasks to follow: Kill all enemy soldiers - Destroy all buildings. Something any grunt speaking any language can understand. You can divide your men in up to three groups - the active group is under your control, inactive groups will hunker down and try to hold their position using any weapons at their disposal. You can switch between groups with the press of a button, and groups can be rejoined easily.
Combat takes place in a orthogonal view. (Overhead, offset at an angle.) The combat screen takes up most of the screen, with an icon bar on the left side that displays how your current batch of troops /f/o/d/d/e/r/ are divided into groups; ammo levels for grenades and rocket launchers; and icons for "surrender" and a strategic map of the area.
There's that arrow cursor again, which you move around using the dpad. One of the user-selectable "ABC" buttons will make your selected group "go to" the cursor, while another of the buttons will turn the cursor into a gunsight, and the group will begin firing an inexhaustible supply of machine gun ammo towards it, killing or maiming anyone in its path.
When you do, there's a short spray of blood from those hit, and the body will slide along the ground accompanied by anguished cries of pain, all to disappear in seconds.
Sometimes, you won't kill an enemy, you'll only wound him. Until you put him out of his misery, he will lie where he fell, screaming. This may be a little disturbing to some, though the effect is nowhere as gruesome as bloody fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Kasumi Ninja. (Though there is room for some sadism here. As long as the enemy who was shot is on-screen and in range, your men can continue to pump bullets into him; each volley will be met by more cries. Such barbarism has been known to happen in real battles.)
Early on in the game, you'll have to seek out explosives that are handily stored out in the open by the enemy to finish your task. They come in the form of grenades and bazookas, and take some practice to use. (Hold the "Fire" button, place the cursor on your target, press the "Move" button.) A few times of making your men /f/o/d/d/e/r/ toss a grenade on themselves will teach you.... The beauty of a grenade is that you can throw one over a line of trees, which are normally impermeable to small arms fire and rockets - just don't stand too close to a tree to throw - I have had grenades lodge in an adjacent tree and kill the thrower. (More fodder for the grinder, please.)
Machine gun ammo is unlimited. If you break your men into separate groups, you'll have to allocate all/half/none of the available explosive ammo yourself. Think carefully before you send that raw recruit on that suicide mission - if he dies, you lose whatever he was carrying.
The sound effects in Cannon Fodder are nicely done, though like the graphics, they won't stun you. Grenades whistle through the air as they are thrown (you'll hear it when you're the one being attacked as well), rockets "Whoosh!" as they are fired, and explosions sound like... well, explosions. Ambient sounds - of birds and seals, of water flowing, and of jets far overhead - help create an atmosphere in the game. (Listen for the burble of a patch of quicksand if you're trodding through a jungle, and be careful of where you lead your men.)
There's many other details that flesh out the gameplay. You will occasionally come across vehicles that you can use. (Look for the snow skidder to help you jump at the end of Mission 5.) There are booby trap tripwires in certain places. You can't use weapons in deep water, but you can in the shallows. Some of the levels are set up as puzzles for you to figure out. (Some levels are many screens wide and tall - use the strategic map to find the locations of your group and landmarks.) There's lots more spoken of in the instructions that I never made it to, so I know you shouldn't get bored when playing. I didn't.
I made my move from console video game (Atari 2600) to computer game (Atari 400) back in 1980. I wanted the complexity and detail that computer games (like Star Raiders then) offered. I scoffed at the NES generation of games, and only returned to video game consoles when Jaguar appeared with the power of a desktop computer.
Cannon Fodder is one of a type of games I like - a moderately detailed simulation. It's not a wrist twitcher (I do like some of those), so it won't appeal to all videogamers. It's clearly a computer game that's now on a video game console, and I am awaiting its release so I can pick up where I left off, and lead my men /f/o/d/d/e/r/ on to victory!