Canabalt is psychic plagiarism. I'm not angry, to be perfectly honest, that someone reached inside my head and stole my Perfect Game Idea. I'm flattered, actually.
Canabalt is vaguely what Super Mario Bros. Felt like to a seven-year-old. When you play Super Mario Bros. while under the influence of being seven years old, you imagine this sinister iceberg beneath the surface — you hold up some weird, fear-like hope that the game in front of you is never going to end. For some adults, Super Mario Bros. never did end. We never rescued the princess on our own, though we may have seen a friend or two do so in the past.
In my version of Super Mario Galaxy, technically, the game I imagined was tentatively titled Super Mario Acid, in which Mario begins standing atop a block slowly melting into a small planetoid of acid. More blocks collide with the surface of the acid planetoid, creating tall stacks which eventually, too, get sucked into the planet. Your goal is to run along, jump off, and / or climb up these blocks as long as you can. There would be no ending to the game. It’s just you, alone in a driving range of sorts with Super Mario 64 physics.
Canabalt is kind of like that, only it’s in 2D, and there’s no climbing (just jumping) so maybe it’s not plagiarism. You just keep jumping. As in Super Mario Acid, there’s that delicious element of randomness, in that you never quite know which of the game’s favorite obstacles is going to come your way. You will never see the same “stage” twice. The game isn’t about level design. It’s an ever-evolving obstacle course, constantly testing your ability to adapt.
Just as Wonder Boy (and then Adventure Island) looked at the Super Mario formula, realized that everybody just held down the run button all of the time anyway, and decided to do away with the run button and give you a character who accelerated the longer you held the directional button down, Canabalt revels in its decision to cut out even the hassle of having to keep your finger on a control pad. In Canabalt, your guy is always running. You can’t stop, and you can’t turn around. If you run into a box, he trips, which slows him down a little bit. Slowing down too much might mean you don’t have enough momentum to make a big jump. However, if you know what you are doing, you can slow your guy down without any negative consequences.
Crucial: you can make short little jumps by tapping quickly, or you can make longer jumps by tapping and holding down. Within the wide range between tiny hop and super-long-jump lies the entirety of the game’s longevity.
The obstacles are: gaps between buildings (fall in and die), chunks of metal that fall from the sky (run into them and die), and the sides of buildings (jump just right to crash through glass and run into the building; miss, and you hit the side of the building, fall, and die). The game joyfully throws these together in random order. Every once in a while, you’ll have a really good run — maybe 1,000 meters or so — without one of the pieces of debris falling from the sky and freaking you out. Sometimes, a piece of debris falls right at the beginning. You’ll never complain that something-or-anything in Canabalt isn’t “fair”. You just tap the screen and start again.
It starts the same way every time: your character is inside an office building. He immediately begins running, full speed, to the right. The character stays close to the left side of the screen. We don’t see what’s chasing him. Whatever it is, it must not be nice. The character never slows down. We will never see what is chasing the character. (Crucial.) The only thing that ever kills him is gravity or collision with an impossible object.
The silk-like multilayered scrolling background depicts a city on the verge of complete destruction. As we are keeping our eyes on the road ahead, it’s hard to precisely make out the looming, humanoid, giant objects on the horizon. It looks like they’re shooting laser guns. The player character probably has very good reason to be freaking out.
This is going to sound a little facetious: I really, really, really don’t need any more story than this, even in big-budget mega-million-seller hits. Like, why couldn't Mirror’s Edge have been just a story about someone who runs and jumps? Why couldn't they make it so we can avoid all the combat? It must have been, like, the executives were like, “Hey, yeah, non-violence! That’s great! We are behind you one hundred percent!” And then the game was almost done, and they were like, “Oh, it seems that (according to MetaCritic) people like violence. Can you maybe shoehorn some killing in there?”
In Canabalt, as in Out of this World (the best game ever), more often than not, the atmosphere is the story. (This is hugely crucial.) Canabalt‘s atmosphere — its simple grayscale pixel graphics, its thumping soundtrack, its pristine, crispy little sound effects (footsteps, stumbles, explosions, crashing glass) — is perfect. It communicates deadly urgency and terror to the player seamlessly, every time he boots it up. And it is the always-momentary thwarting of that terror that allows the player to have as much fun as he does. It’s so much fun, you won’t even notice that you’re not killing anybody.
Look. We’ve learned a lot, as a human race, since Super Mario Bros. was released, way back in 1985. Super Mario Bros. was released before Tetris, you must realize. Super Mario Bros. was the first game that enslaved droves of the “normals”, the non-game-savvy (which around that time included people who had either hated, forgotten about, grown tired of, or never knew of Pong). Tetris was the second. Why has no one ever combined them? Why couldn’t Super Mario Sunshine, at least, have a kind of sumptuous endless mode (in the fashion of those wonderful special stages) for reformed epileptics like ourselves? The answer to the lopsided question of how to make a captivating platform game in the modern age, far removed from the glory days, seems to have been interpreted as “beef up the story, add cut scenes, make sure the game never stops giving the player new things to do, right up until the end”. Why does there even have to be an end? As I just said, Super Mario Bros., the holiest of holies, didn’t have an “ending” for most players.
Canabalt works as a platform game because it is fun to jump, and it feels good to succeed. It works as a piece of entertainment because it is not without catharsis: from the very beginning, the character is destined to die. Characters die in games all the time, and death is always presented as some temporary obstacle. It’s always so didactic, telling the player, “no, you shouldn’t do that”, or “you shouldn’t do that thing that way”. Death is an “educational” element in most games. The final lesson is usually no deeper than how to solve the game itself. Canabalt presents you with a situation that has no solution. Death, more than anything else, is the story.
I've said before that if some element of your game design isn’t interesting enough to work flying-colorfully in the context of an endless mode, then you’re obviously doing something wrong. Gears of War 2 proves it is up to snuff with its Horde mode, and Halo 3 ODST proves the same with its Firefight mode.
Just because a game design should work in an endless context, does that mean that all games should be endless? That’s a great question. The answer is: probably not. Though it’d be nice to give us the option to just play forever.
Just as some of us enjoy hitting balls at the driving range more than we enjoy actually playing golf, some of us enjoy playing the time trial mode of Gran Turismo in our favorite car more than we enjoy racing an actual circuit. Did you realize that it took Polyphony until Gran Turismo 4 to make the time trial mode endless? It used to be, if you wanted to just race around and around forever, you had to choose the “free run” mode. And then, your best times wouldn’t be registered in the time trial database. Why were they so dense? We may never know. (My Insider Informant says it’s because real-world car-enthusiasts on the development team argued that the ritual of preparing for a real-world time trial was so psychologically taxing that it’s just not fair to let the player practice eighty laps uninterrupted and allow him to rank the best one. The interruptions allow dread, regret, and fear to grow. Endless modes take those away. (Ultimately, someone argued that endless modes in game-simulators might, theoretically, encourage bolder real-world driving.)) Games like Gran Turismo are and were so obsessed with consistency — make a pit-stop to get new tires, just like in a real race car — that they kludged a few decent-sized opportunities to just settle down and be fun. The weirdest part is that these opportunities wouldn’t have compromised the “realer” elements of the “simulation” one bit. Bad things about cars: they need gas, the tires wear down. Good things about videogame cars: they don’t need gas, the tires don’t wear down. Just let us race forever, alone, uninterrupted by menus, if we want to (you jerks).
Also: current owners of the intellectual property formerly known as Sonic the Hedgehog: play this game, please.
Canabalt was the first thing I actually paid money for from the iPhone / iPod Touch App Store. I could have just kept playing it (for free) through the game’s website, though I wanted to play it on the train, the way I play Gran Turismo Portable on the train. (Time trial laps of Route 246 in a WRX STi (I'm are so lame).) With Canabalt, you got people staring at the game, eyes glowing. Weirdly, actual human beings spoke actual words to us: “What is that?” I plopped the iPhone into stranger after stranger’s hands: “Give it a shot”. Every player knew that the iPhone only has one “action button” — touch the screen — so they figured out within microseconds how the game was played. They soon figured out how to survive, how to die, and how to attempt the escape again.
“That’s pretty cool.”
Only two people — both of them games industry professionals — asked “How does the game end?”
Or: it ends every time you die.
The game is a story about a guy dying.
The game is a story about a guy dying during some apocalypse involving lasers, robots, and overcast skies.
It’s art, because, every once in a while, he jumps onto a rooftop, and dozens of white birds take frightened flight, freer than our hero will ever be.
If you look at the review quotes on the game’s official website, you’ll see one that calls it the new trend in “casual games”, or that it’s the kind of game that “reinvents” what you can do with the iPhone. I won’t say either of these things is false. Tetris was a casual game, for example, and is also home of some of the insanest high-level play around. It’s not a case of saying how games can be both hardcore and casual at the same time — it’s a matter of saying that they should be.
If I were to change anything about Canabalt, I would change the text at the game over screen. “Tap to retry your daring escape”. Oh, darling, you don’t have to use an adjective.
Huge-budget releases included, this is one of the best games ever.