This wasn't the feature I planned to write at all, viewers. When my old chums at Way Of The Rodent invited contributions for a forthcoming "War" issue, I thought it'd be interesting to relate the story of Sensible Software's classic Cannon Fodder, and how it was rewarded for taking perhaps the most sensitive and mature attitude ever to war and death in a videogame by being vilified across the tabloid press, threatened, injuncted and censored (all in the name of "freedom") by the very people who the game's name was a sincere tribute to and commemoration of.
But in pondering the piece, I tried to remember what I'd written when I joined Sensible as the designer of the game's sequel and wrote the message for the end screen, and I couldn't for the life of me recall what it had been. I asked the ever-alert readers of the WoS Forum, and the subject of the sequel was brought out into the open again, and it occurred to me that it was well past time that the record about Cannon Fodder 2 was set straight once and for all. And, y'know, if I didn't do it, nobody else was going to.
So here it is: Cannon Fodder 2 - The Untold Story. It's a playing guide; an explanation; a long-lost plotline; a clearing-up of some mysteries; a glimpse at the workings of a leading development house; a look back to the time when the videogames industry started to move away from being one where games could be made by a tiny handful of people (in CF2's case, essentially four) working at independent developers; and more besides. At the very least, it's a list of great songs to go and discover. And we may as well start at the start.
MISSION 1 - THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS
Title: CF2 was a cross-cultural kinda game. Levels were inspired by films, music, other games, politics and events. Titles came from songs, books, and all manner of other sources. The opening mission took its name, appropriately, from a song by post-modern culture pirates Pop Will Eat Itself, called "Everything's Cool". The song's opening verse, set to a cacophonous noise and appropriately militaristic beat, issues an ominous invitation: "Take your places, choose your sins / Everyone loses, no-one wins / I have seen the future / And this is how it begins".
Phase 1 - HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN
Title: Traditional song, but also a reference to the first game's semi-ironic subtitle "War has never been so much fun".
Mission info: War has only ever been this much fun once before. Hence, the opening level is in the shape of the number 2. Despite being so simple, many unwary players lost soldiers here, the enemies being tough enough to signal CF2's increase in difficulty over the original.
Background: The plot, as it would have been, saw the brave troopers from CF1 sent to another world troublespot (this time a not-very-concealed Middle East). At first, everything appears normal. Alert viewers, however, would have noticed that the scene-setting intro screen, which would normally have shown a helicopter swooping in with our brave troopers, depicted only a landscape. The technical reason for this was that the game didn't have the graphics memory to show both a helicopter and a spaceship (which would serve as the transport vehicle in all the other settings) in that piece of code, but naturally the plot justification would have been that the troops were already fighting in the desert scenario when the aliens came to recruit them. What aliens, you say? We'll get to that.
MISSION 2 - MY LOVE HAS GOT A GUN
Title: A line from Frankie Goes To Hollywood's fantastic 80s-style disco number "Wish (The Lads Were Here)", which was also an Amiga Power office-stereo favourite of subsequent Grand Theft Auto 3 designer Gary Penn back in "the day".
Phase 1 - BOOM BANG A BANG
Title: Lulu's Eurovision Song Contest entry for Britain in 1969. It was the joint winner of the competition, in an unusual four-way tie.
Mission info: Like the original, CF2 had an overall structure in which each of the game's 72 levels had a unique feature or combination of features. For example, this mission introduces the grenade weapon, hence the title.
Background: CF2's overall structure was the same as CF1's - so if, say, the 14th level in the original featured rockets and helicopters, so would CF2's 14th level. This sort of lack of creative freedom was both a blessing and a curse - for someone designing their first game it put a useful guiding framework in place, but it was a shame not to be able to make the game more of a true sequel as opposed to essentially just a collection of new levels. I did what I could in that regard, though - more on the subject later.
Phase 2 - THIS AIN'T PIZMO BEACH
Title: From a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Mission info: This level introduces the generator hut, from where endless enemies appear until you destroy it by blowing the door off.
Background: There were two kinds of generator portal in the CF games - destructable and non-destructable. Some levels contained generators in the form of holes in the ground. These couldn't be destroyed, and would keep generating enemies as long as a single generator door was operating anywhere in the stage. The idea was to imply a tunnel system running underneath the level for a little bit of extra atmosphere. The desert levels didn't have any "hole"-type generators, obviously due to the difficulty of tunnelling under sand. (At least, when you're not Bugs Bunny.)
Phase 3 - TAKE ME I'M YOURS
Title: A cheap pun on "mine", and also a Wedding Present track of the time. It was on a tape I made while I was undergoing a long course of corrective dental treatment as a result of years of neglect - I was really nervous of dentists at the time (which is how the years of neglect had come about in the first place), and used to drown out the sound of the drill with the noisiest, densest, trebliest music I could put on my walkman, which was a custom-made compilation of the WPs. I have a superb dentist, and these days I don't need a walkman to go there - heck, I don't even flinch now if I need to have a bit of jawbone sawn out under local anaesthetic in order to remove an impacted wisdom tooth - but hearing "Take Me" (a nine-minute epic thrash which could cover up a simple filling all by itself) still gives me unsettling, gut-churning flashbacks of impending terror to this day.
Mission info: The introduction of landmines, which are only really a major feature of the desert levels (they'd have been hard to hide in the gangster levels, and illogical in the alien-mothership levels). If you have a really sharp monitor (like they all are these days, but lots and lots of people played Amiga games on their household telly) you can see them by looking closely, but otherwise it's just a case of shooting ahead of where you move, which will set them off. To be fair, I only put them in places which people would logically mine, eg roads and at narrow entrance points.
Background: For almost all of my time at Sensible, I worked in the office in leafy Saffron Walden four days a week, then worked from home in Bath on Friday. (I kept my own rented flat in Bath, and rented half of one above a shop on the outskirts of SW, shared with the landlord's daughter, a pretty but rather sour-temperamented girl of about 20 who I never saw. On the upside, I did once score with a lovely French au pair girl in the flat, realising one of every boy's lifetime ambitions.) I started in June, and many of these early levels were designed with a graph pad and coloured pencils on sunny Friday afternoons in Bath's Victoria Park, the time at Sensible being devoted to more technical tasks. One of the levels was actually based on the layout of the park, I'll see if I can spot it as we go on.
MISSION 3 - I WANT TO KILL SOMEBODY
Title: From a song by S*M*A*S*H, figureheads of the short-lived "New Wave Of New Wave" music scene of the early 1990s, notable for causing some predictable tabloid controversy as it called for the murder of various mostly-political figures ("Virginia Bottomley / Especially"). Personally, though, my favourite line is "Whoever's in power / I'll be the opposition". Remember when it was the Tories that everyone used to hate, viewers?
Phase 1 - COMPOUND FRACTURE
Title: Because you're attacking and destroying (or breaking, or "fracturing") a compound, see? It's some of that there fancy wordplay.
Mission info: These levels are all pretty easy, though you do have to watch out for the doors of buildings flying off and hitting you when you grenade them.
Background: I can't actually work out what this level's unique feature combination is.
Phase 2 - SAY IT WITH ROCKETS
Mission info: Introducing the rocket weapon. A none too friendly introduction, it has to be said, with hordes of enemies lurking behind trees forming a lethal gauntlet running towards the generator hut that's the level's primary target. The only sensible way to approach the level was to immediately scurry off into a corner out of the way of the first launcher, then send out an individual soldier to pick off the rocket men by keeping in constant motion (the rockets always aim at the lead man, so if you have a trail of troopers following in your footsteps, the rearguard will get blown to bits).
Background: You couldn't put the rocket-men too close to the trees, or the rockets would detonate against them as soon as they were fired, instantly killing the enemy. This is due to the CF engine's lack of true 3D depth, but it gave me a design idea that would go on to be the key to defeating many parts of the sequel.
Phase 3 - TIPPER TOPPER
Mission info: The first of a number of stages mimicking classic videogames. This one, alert readers might be able to guess, is laid out in the form of barman simulator Tapper, with generator doors taking the place of the beer glasses or tips that you had to run down the bar to collect. And the enemy soldiers being the angry customers, of course.
Background: It's sad that there aren't more games around these days with screen layouts so distinctive you can recognise them even in another game.
Phase 4 - IS IT A BIRD
Title: Sadly, the CF engine's title font didn't include anything as fancy as question-marks. Should probably have thought of a better name, in the circumstances.
Mission info: First appearance of switches, tripped to summon the UFO that transported the player's troops to a different setting.
Background: Huh? UFO? What? Time for that plot, then.
The story that should have gone out with Cannon Fodder 2 was that an advanced but evil alien race was planning to conquer Earth. Their method was to infiltrate, by means of time travel, three pivotal points in Earth history - the medieval period before the Industrial Revolution, the American 1930s (between the wars, hoping to change the USA's attitude to taking the Allies' side in WW2), and the Middle East conflict of the 1980s and 1990s. By subtly altering the course of history at these important junctures, their fiendish intention was to create an Earth where they would be welcomed as peace-loving saviours, shortly before enslaving and ultimately annihilating the whole of humanity.
However, dissidents within the alien race who disagreed with this savagely aggressive policy had sneaked out of the mothership co-ordinating the plan in a small transport saucer, and sought to undermine the attack by getting Earth's best fighting troops to disrupt it at its source(s). And who are Earth's best fighting troops? Why, the "Cannon Fodder" battalion, of course. Hence our heroes, battling fundamentalist insurgents in the Middle Eastern desert, find themselves picked up not by the helicopter they were expecting, but by a flying saucer which beamed them aboard before they could so much as point a rifle at it.
MISSION 4 - I BELIEVE IN SPACE
Title: From the song "Space (I Believe In)" by UFO-obsessed alternative funsters the Pixies. CF2's character set didn't have any brackets either.
Phase 1 - I'M GOING OUT OF MY WAY
Title: After a Stereolab track of the same name, to raise the issue of the troopers suddenly being detoured somewhere very far from home.
Mission info: The idea of this level was to be a fairly gentle introduction, with the troops having been secretly taken aboard the mothership of the evil aliens who were the game's overall enemy, and hence the aliens not initially being on high alert. Over-confident players could start losing quite a lot of troopers by this point, though, as the aliens were significantly better shots than they were at the corresponding stage of CF1.
Background: One of the things I most regret about CF2 is the absence of any attempt anywhere (in-game, in the manual, adverts, even in press releases that magazines could have recounted) at a storyline telling the player what the heck the troopers were doing in all these disparate worlds. (When I arrived at Sensible the idea of the five worlds, and what they were, had already been decided, but there was no story beyond "They're time- travelling".) I actually got several chapters into writing a novella designed to accompany the game (the names of the alien races etc were all taken from Stereolab records) and relate the story I'm telling you now - a short chapter (one or two pages) for each of the 72 missions - with the idea that you'd read each chapter at the start of each mission, since there was no possible way of squeezing detailed explanatory stuff into the code itself.
At that point Virgin decided it would all be much too expensive and canned the idea - these were the end days for the Amiga as a major revenue source for the big game publishers, and anything which added even pennies to a game's budget was frowned upon as an unnecessary obstacle to squeezing the maximum possible amount of money out of the platform before abandoning it. Virgin took the task of producing the manual upon themselves, and came up with a five-minute hack job, vaguely alluding to some nonsense about being mercenaries, which didn't even mention time-travel. Gah.
Phase 2 - HANG WITH ME JOE
Title: Comes from a Big Black song called "Bazooka Joe", as a little coded clue that there would be aliens with bazookas to watch out for. Obviously most people wouldn't get the clue, but clearly it's not vital, and it makes the people who do feel really clever.
Mission info: Another basic introductory level. Plotwise, the idea was that in order to be certain of defeating the aliens' plan, the troopers would have to travel to, and subdue the aliens in, each of the timezones in order to prevent any aspect of Earth history being altered, with the potentially huge consequences such alterations would entail. Therefore, they'd obviously have to make their way through the mothership to get to the time transporters.
Background: Semi-interestingly, I designed the "mothership" levels so that they'd all link together to form a single big spaceship-shaped whole, in the sure knowledge that one day I'd be writing this guide and would get to use the lovely phrase "spaceship-shaped". It also gave me a nice feeling to know that I'd taken a bit of extra care in detail that had no practical point and which (until 11 years later, when I told them about it) nobody would ever notice.
(Having said that, the way the game displays level maps means that I'm having a LOT of trouble trying to piece the darn thing back together to prove this claim, because the spaceship levels in the game didn't come in geographical order. With any luck, I'll have managed it by the time I get to the final part of the feature. But I'm promising nothing.)
Phase 3 - UH OH, WE'RE IN TROUBLE
Title: Obviously after the seminal Shampoo track of the time, and meant to signify that by now, the initial attempt at stealthy progress had failed and the aliens were only too aware of our heroes' presence.
Mission info: Accordingly, this is a pretty brutal level, with a particularly nasty corridor at bottom right with a rocket-firing alien stationed at the end of it. Again, sending a single soldier on a mad charge is the only way (but a very effective way) to avoid getting the troopers slaughtered by rocket. If the level is tackled in the most logical way, the troopers will end up in the middle of a transporter station, ready for their first time-travel mission.
Background: CF2 must surely be the Official Videogame of Britpop. 1994 and 1995, while at the waning end of what's generally considered the Britpop "era", were heady days for the UK charts, with probably a stronger presence from what were once known as "alternative" artists than at any time before or since, and much of it is represented in CF2 mission names. I was particularly moved when "Common People" came out, because I really was renting a flat above a shop at the time. (Not in order to pretend to be poor, though - renting two flats at once is the most lavish thing I've ever done in my life, and actually caused my Calvinist soul near-endless torment.)
MISSION 5 - LADY LOVE YOUR COUNTRY
Title: After the saucy, euphemistic Sleeper b-side "Lady Love Your Countryside", itself a reference to a less-euphemistic S*M*A*S*H track (see Mission 3) and a big hit with Sex, Drugs & Rock'n'Roll artist John Laws. Sadly, there weren't enough letters available to get the whole name in, but it worked in context.
Phase 1 - A BIT OF BULLY
Title: From top TV gameshow Bullseye.
Mission info: The first of several "panic levels", a new innovation for the sequel. The idea was that the player only had a couple of seconds to get their bearings, before being subjected to an intense attack. The name, and the level being in the shape of a bullseye, were the clues that you were already in someone's sights. It's an easy enough level once you realise that - just spray bullets like a New Orleans rescue worker and run like billy-o.
Background: Apparently Bullseye is coming back. Let's hope so, eh?
Phase 2 - WIZARD PRANKS
Title: Any number of 1960s/70s children's annuals. It's definitely the kind of thing Winker Watson would say, for example.
Mission info: Another stage designed as a tribute to a classic game, this time Julian Gollop's wonderful Chaos on the Spectrum, with features mimicking the game's evil woods, Gooey Blobs and so on. Anyone recognising the fact would be able to (correctly) infer a sneaky forewarning of where the rocket-firing wizards would be located.
Background: Think of it as penance for my ill-judged exclusion of said game from the Your Sinclair All-Time Speccy Top 100, okay? Now SHUT UP ABOUT IT.
MISSION 6 - THE SWORDS OF 1000 MEN
Title: Tenpole Tudor, obviously. Reminds me now and for evermore of a winning entry in the "Cheesily Cheerful Chart Challenge" of the much- missed Mark & Lard afternoon show on Radio 1. Everybody get up!
Phase 1 - AN ENGLISHMAN'S HOME
Mission info: After beaming down and wandering through some countryside in the previous stages, you've located the enemy's first stronghold - a strongly-defended castle, laid out in the traditional concentric-rings medieval style, complete with moat. Care is needed to avoid blowing up the castle before collecting the grenades located behind it, or the player will have severe difficulty in blowing up all the huts which generate enemy soldiers.
Background: This level's layout was inspired by a drawing in a wonderful magazine from my youth (actually one of those Marshall Cavendish-type "partworks" that seem to have enjoyed a renaissance recently, offering readers the opportunity to build their own radio-controlled racing car over 72 weeks for £600, rather than just going out and buying one ready-built from a shop instantly for £50). It was called Science Now, must have been published in the early 80s, and ran features several of which stay with me till this day, including an incredibly prescient and accurate one on the Stealth bomber, years and years before such a thing really existed. Marshall Cavendish would go on to have a more direct impact on the world of videogames a few years later.
Phase 2 - ASSAULT AND BATTERING
Title: A cheap pun.
Mission info: The introduction of the game's first vehicle (the equivalent of the first game's jeep), the battering ram. Sneakily, getting straight into it will lead to it being almost immediately destroyed by a rocket-firing wizard along the first tree-lined avenue, so the wise player will send a trooper to scout ahead and eliminate him first. CF2 rarely rewarded players for charging headlong into a situation without reconnaissance - the rest of the level is significantly easier with the protection of the ram, since it's almost invulnerable to the normal enemies who remain after the rocket-man's taken out.
Background: The battering ram, and its temporal equivalents, ended up being of very little significance in CF2. I'd had much grander plans for it, but with the exception of one particular level (see Mission 12 Phase 2), it ended up playing only a minor supporting role. You can read some more elaboration on that theme in Mission 21 Phase 2, coming soon.
Phase 3 - BACK TO THE FUTURE
Title: The pinball machine of the movie. I've still never seen the movie, and don't plan to.
Mission info: The ram's real purpose in this level, however, is to provide the troopers with a modicum of protection while they grab the rockets without which the stage is practically impossible, by parking the ram - as a temporary shield - between the rockets and the enemy turret they're uncomfortably in range of. As long as they're collected safely, the enemy gun turrents lining the causeway can be easily picked off one by one for a short and easy trip to the switch pad summoning the UFO.
Background: I designed many levels to be like this - as much puzzle as shooting match. If you figured out the "trick" to a stage it would suddenly get much, much easier, while still being (at least theoretically) possible if you didn't. Pleasingly, the AP review (largely) picked up on this fact. But also, see Mission 12 Phase 6.
END OF PART ONE