It’s the 26th of October 1993. Sensible Software are mere days away from releasing their new game Cannon Fodder, which takes visual cues and the quirky sense of humour that abounded in prior hits like Mega-lo-Mania and Sensible Soccer and applies them to the gritty horrors of war. All signs point toward the game being very well received indeed, and Amiga gaming bible Amiga Power is carrying the game on their front cover with a multi page review, the issue set for release, appropriately, on Armistice Day on November 11th.

Then, controversy strikes. News of the title, its slogan of ‘war has never been so much fun’, and the usage of the remembrance poppy, a symbol for war veteran charities worldwide, on the front cover of the game, as well as within the game itself and on AP’s cover, reaches tabloid rag the Daily Star, and the British Legion. Damning editorials rang out and despite attempts by Sensi and publisher Virgin to defend the usage of the symbol, the pressure is too great. Changes must be made. Game artist Stoo Cambridge is not pleased.

CF big

‘It was a bit of a nightmare at the time’, he recounts, ‘I’d gotten a (remembrance) poppy (the paper and plastic pins are sold around Armistice Day in the UK with proceeds going to veterans’ charities) and Sellotaped it to my monitor to figure out what it looked like. I drew one, put it in the game, and then we had to change it all. I dashed out the office and thankfully there were quite a few (real) poppies growing around our Saffron Walden offices, so I grabbed a couple, and did it all again. I thought “oh, I’ve done this nice bit of bitmap work here” and then had to go and change it”, just because some people thought we were glorifying war which we weren’t. To this day, if they’d actually play it, they’d realize the point was war isn’t fun’.

Cannon Fodder’s darkly comic statement about the futility of war has helped lend it lasting appeal that perhaps wouldn’t be quite as strong through its squad based action and almost puzzle game like approach to brutal mayhem alone. It contrasted solemn details like a hi-res (for the era) poppy in roll calls of the dead with the cutesy small sprites in gameplay that were a Sensible trademark. This, alongside little gags like a ‘HOME:AWAY’ scoreboard of casualties above a steadily filling graveyard hammered home a message that I missed at age 10 when I first played the game, but which has stuck with me since. It helped that you felt such attachment to your squad, a difficult thing to pull off when they were only a few pixels high.

‘When you saw those new recruits lining up on that screen, you really felt “oh, these are my little guys”,’ Cambridge reminisces ‘you really wanted to look after them, and that played a part in the game. If you managed to keep your guys alive, they’d move up through the ranks and actually become more precise and powerful. So you were invested in these characters, and I don’t know whether that had really happened before’.

Sim Brick was one of many Sensi min projects for Amiga Power, which also included an interactive making of CF, and Sensible Train Spotting.

Sim Brick was one of many Sensi mini projects for Amiga Power, which also included an interactive making of CF, and Sensible Train Spotting.

For Cambridge, a freelance artist and game designer through the 80s and 90s, Sensible Software was a big break. His initiation came in the form of Amiga Power coverdisk gag game Sim Brick. ‘I’d been invited up for a second interview, and was staying in a hotel around the corner. Jops (studio head Jon Hare) said they were doing this coverdisk game, which was a pisstake of Sim Ant which had just come out and asked if I could do the art. I said “yeah” and pulled an all nighter’.

While enamoured with the big chunky sprites in action games of the era ‘I was really impressed with Team 17’s fighting game, Body Blows. They were doing great things with the Amiga’, Cannon Fodder set the tall order of imbuing some miniature soldiers and wide open maps with a lot of character.’It was just the biggest challenge to create a sprite in, whatever it was, 11, 12 pixels height. Plus you only had sixteen colours to work with, take one off because one’s transparent, and there’s only fifteen,’ Cambridge recalls, ‘and out of those fifteen you’ve got to do maps, sprites, bullets, explosions’. Work had to be economical, and even the inclusion of water on maps would cause headaches. ‘I had included a bright blue for water originally and swapped it for green, but Jops said “it has to look better”, and the blue water came back, but that blue was a massive pain in the arse for me, because I’d lost a colour. You have to treat colours and gradients in a really precious way’.

There’s an ingenuity to every part of Cannon Fodder, and just as its team based strategy was an innovation at the time, there were some cunning tricks performed to make things look right. ‘A big hurdle was how to make the soldiers look animated when they were facing the camera, how to make their arms look like they were moving and such,’ Cambridge remembers, ‘so the trick I used was with colour; when he’s stepping forward and his arm’s in front of him it’s a white or light skin tone, and then I alternated with a darker tone for when his arm swings behind him. So even though it’s just one pixel moving up and down, it looks more animated. You had to work within all these restrictions back then. Now I’m horrified when people just do pixel art in Photoshop’.

As limited as CF was by the technology of the era, it carried what was quickly becoming known as a Sensible trademark art style of small but expressive sprite work, shared by Mega Lo Mania and Sensi Soccer. ‘The key was in wanting to show as much information as possible on-screen. To be able to see more of what’s going on you have to shrink everything down, and that was the same in Sensi and Mega-Lo-Mania. So it was more a game design than a visual thing, but as a result of that we became known for our little tiny sprites’.

New recruits line up in front of the fallen. This one screen alone is darkly funny, but also hammers home the futility of your conflict.

New recruits line up in front of the fallen. This one screen alone is darkly funny, but also hammers home the futility of your conflict.

Those little sprites meant Cannon Fodder and Sensi felt like they belonged in the same world (there was even a mashup level built for a Christmas Amiga Format coverdisk), but there were subtle differences. ‘Jops did the Sensi Soccer sprites, and put in the whites of the players’ eyes, and I chose to just have black dots, as the helmets would have covered these guys’ eyes. Later, Virgin were looking at doing a Cannon Fodder 3, and the concept art had all the soldiers’ helmets covering their eyes, and it was just really cool. You can have a lot of detail in small sprites now, but then it was harder to make these tiny sprites unique’.

While CF, and the Sensible library at large has a lasting legacy in its native Britain (something that drove the recent Read Only Memory book covering the rise and fall of the studio, expect a review around these parts very soon) it’s bemusing and disappointing that the game didn’t find quite as much of a niche worldwide. ‘There’s always been a divide between American games, and British, European and Japanese games, and back then those lines were much bolder,’ Cambridge muses. ‘Things are much more global now. Plus the Amiga did so well in the UK, and while we did a PC version it didn’t do as well. Now, everyone who’s played it loves it, but I guess at the time in America, they didn’t know what to make of this wacky British game’.

While Cannon Fodder never was given the long franchise it deserved, with only one sequel Cambridge wasn’t involved in; ‘it wasn’t a bad game at all, but went scifi and lost the message. It was the wrong direction,’ and last year a name only CF3 licensed to Russian developer Burut CT  ‘an abomination; not Cannon Fodder at all’, that seems only to have enhanced the game’s legacy, an accessible yet demanding game, somber yet with tongue buried firmly in cheek, and with goofy music video to match.

Now still involved with freelance work in the games industry in between work writing and illustrating children’s fiction, Cambridge has fond memories of the era, but is more excited about what the future has to offer. ‘Sometimes you can get hooked up in what you did in the past, and the key to enjoying life is to look at the merits of what you’ve done but not dwell on it; keep moving forward and try new things’. If that philosophy sticks across the industry, perhaps war has a chance of being as much fun once more.

Full audio of the one hour interview with Stoo can be found below or in our iTunes feed, and contains plenty more talk about the industry in the early 90s, the games press, Stoo’s more recent work, and Read Only Memory. Don’t ya dare miss it.
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