Theatre of Death may sound like a macabre game going by the title alone, but this Psygnosis published game from the early 90s is as lighthearted in tone as it's light in gameplay.
Beginning its life on the Amiga during the Christmas season of 1993, Software Shed's clone of Cannon Fodder got a lot of mixed reviews upon release. While the gameplay was commended, it was largely down to some cumbersome controls that let down the whole experience. Some of these were fixed for the 1994 DOS release but it still couldn't get around a rather cumbersome game engine.
If you've played the classic that is Cannon Fodder, you'll know the setup. Control a troop of men by moving them around the isometric map with the left mouse button and shooting with the right. It's a strategy game that's so stripped down to its bare essentials that it arguably shouldn't be called that anymore. Theatre of Death has at least a few more mechanics that adds some tactical thinking, but it's essentially the same. Left click: move. Right click: shoot.
The first difference you'll notice is that you can select a singular soldier to control by clicking on him. This leaves the other members of the troop where they are, but you can assign them to Attack, Defend, Retreat or Patrol and each option would be useful in differing circumstances. On the whole, though, you'd be focussed on your platoon as a whole.
The Amiga spreads all actions between the battlefield and map screens.
It is entirely mouse controlled.
As well as regular men dressed in blue, a Platoon Leader sporting a green uniform takes command of his men. If you select him, you control his entire platoon which will most often total 5 - all of whom have a below average IQ. His men will follow him blindly into danger with little regard to their own safety or the safety of others. For example, there are many environmental hazards such as mud and water in which you could perish. Stand too long in mud, and he'll sink like its quicksand. Spend some time paddling in a river and he'll likely get eaten by sharks. Don't worry too much if they all perish as there will probably be more than one platoon in each of the 50 levels.
There are positive landmarks scattered on the battlefield. Small buildings known as Ammo Dumps are a goldmine for weapons. You can replenish your limited arsenal here as well as the possibility of getting some cool new weapons (there are 6 in total). You will also come across small boxes which contains either health, ammo or points.
Vehicles will also play a big role in the game. You can commandeer helicopters, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and - in the later lunar missions - moon buggies. You'll have to be doubly aware of your surroundings and you're likely to run over a number of your brain-dead troops who will rather die than get out of the way. Also, remember to land the helicopter before you get out of it. Basically, assume all of your men are suicidal so treat them with kid gloves. Not only that, but they have a morale meter too. If it gets too low they'll panic and run away or spray bullets in 360 degrees.
There are some other options tucked away within the map screen, though they're only usable in certain missions. You can call in reinforcements using the Troop Assist button or call in an Air Strike to bomb a specific area. For both of these, you'll need to manually enter coordinates. I found that by the time you've figured it out the numbers (found on the top and side of the map), the enemies have moved on making it a bit pointless.
And that's it biggest downfall. All of these interesting mechanics put upon the fun gameplay of Cannon Fodder should sound like a winner except there are far too many niggles in the controls. It's very hard to keep track of each platoon and even scrolling the screen to follow just one can become cumbersome. The Amiga version requires you to do a lot of fiddly mouse commands on the main battle screen which have all been moved to the map screen for the DOS version - some of which have been assigned to keyboard shortcuts. PC users can now simply press M to go to the map or press space to quickly switch between a soldier's weapons. These changes alleviate a lot of the frustrations, but it's still not ideal. The PC also saw a lot of other improvements too, including better graphics, a neat CGI opening cutscene and a save system that doesn't rely on passwords.
The DOS version places all actions on the map screen only. Press M to access it.
Even so, each version retains the basic gameplay. There's a variety different tactics you can employ in each map to complete the level and each of them results in a bloodbath. For such tiny characters, the death animations are hilariously graphic, whether it be a burning body, a machine-gunned torso or an attack with such force that the head pops off like a champaign cork. All within a child-friendly 5x5 pixel character sprite.
There's a story hidden beneath the pixels too. One that somewhat takes the Death out of the Theatre. You are a cadet at the Def Com Military Academy and your training uses some new-fangled state-of-the-art technology known as Virtual Reality. So not only are you playing a virtual representation of warfare, but that representation is also being virtually represented within the game. That's some inception shit right there.
There's still fun to be had with Theatre of Death. It takes the simple strategy of Cannon Fodder, adds a few complexities, and comes out the other side as an enjoyable game flawed only by its unintuitive control scheme. As it is, what could've been a must-play on the Amiga and PC has become merely an entertaining diversion.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the PC version to modern systems and FS-UAE to emulate the Amiga version. Text Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 56 Mb. Install Size: 132 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
Theatre of Death is © Psygnosis
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me