canabalt

a review of Canabalt
a videogame developed by semi secret software
and published by semi secret software
for the iOS App Store ($2.99)
play the full game for free at canabalt dot com
text by tim rogers

4 stars
#31

Bottom line: Canabalt is “Super Mario Tetris.”

Canabalt is psychic plagiarism. We’re not angry, to be perfectly honest, that someone reached inside our heads and stole our Perfect Game Idea. We’re flattered, actually, especially, that the visual style actually goes so far as to near perfectly resemble the way we render the screenshots on this here blog-like website that exists for the purpose of reviewing videogames.

Actually, maybe the plagiarism isn’t psychic — we did write, once, in our review of Super Mario Galaxy, that we wanted to play a game that was entirely about running and jumping, all the way until the end of the world. We wanted a rope of a game that gave us a character who ran and jumped to infinity. We didn’t want any messy tutorials, or segments in which we ride manta rays, or segments in which talkative penguins teach us how to ride manta rays, or segments where talking asteroids teach us how to play a refrigerator-opening mini-game. We wanted running and jumping forever.

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 our Super Mario Galaxy review, technically, the game we 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: our 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: we really, really, really don’t need any more story than this, even in our 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 we 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.

We’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. (Our 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 we actually paid money for from the iPhone / iPod Touch App Store. We could have just kept playing it (for free) through the game’s website, though we wanted to play it on the train, the way we play Gran Turismo Portable on the train. (Time trial laps of Route 246 in a WRX STi (we are so lame).) With Canabalt, we got people staring at the game, eyes glowing. Weirdly, actual human beings spoke actual words to us: “What is that?” We 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?”

It doesn’t.

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.

design by reroreroIf 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. We 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 we were to change anything about Canabalt, we 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. We know we’re daring.

Huge-budget releases included, this is one of the year’s best games.

–tim rogers

Comments

73 Responses to canabalt

  1. The only thing shocking about Canabalt is why it took someone this long to make the damn thing.

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  3. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but I can’t seem to find the browser-based version on the official website, which is a pity because I don’t have or particularly want an iPhone.

  4. My only complaint with Canabalt is that it’s more about maintaining a moderate speed than seeing how insanely fast you can go. I just want to avoid the barrels and junk, but they’re central to the strategy.

    RT55J: The official website IS the browser-based version. Maybe there’s something wrong with your Flash settings? Anyway, you can find it at a about a dozen different sites if you google it.

  5. Yeah. It’s probably a problem on my side. I seem to have trouble getting flash stuff to appear on my browser (particular streaming videos). My main annoyance lied in the fact that the last time I went to that site I was able to play it without any hassle, but when I visited it now it looked like it had disappeared, thus leaving the only things on the site a picture of an iPhone, a fancy “Buy Now” button, and a bunch of quotes saying “It’s Great!”, which thus led me to believe that the author decided to take the ax the browser version.

  6. 5546 meters! YEAH!

    Anyways, while playing it again I thought it would be cool if the game had a more complicated scoring system. For instance, you’d get a score multiplier at the end based on your average speed, certain bonuses for getting past certain obstacles (windows, nukes), and other stuff like that. Then I realized it would be stupidly redundant. The game already rewards you for doing those things by either allowing you to either continue player or get “points” faster. It’s sort of like what Tim said in the Tetris review about getting Tetrises.

    Anyways, as for “why it took someone this long to make the damn thing” (to quote pip), my answer would be that the concept has been around for quite a while*, but it was just a matter of time until someone decided to go the full nine yards to cut off all the fat, leaving us with a food analogy I won’t bother completing.

    * Quite a few sidescrollers had “run or die” levels: Kid Chameleon’s (Sega’s SMB3) had those stages with the advancing wall o’ death, while the flash game Dino Run (or whatever it’s called) has an eerily similar concept to this game (minus the randomly generated levels and eschewance of traditional platformer conventions).

  7. This review doesn’t mention the birds.

    :(

    They help make that game man!

    @Mm

    It really strikes me as something that wasn’t intended, but that’s how it wound up working out. In the future, let us hope that such oddities are less odd.

  8. I like this game. But in comparison, I love the original MSOIDS by Cactus. The music drives me more. The action has perfect pacing. I feel more responsible for losing in MSOIDS than in Canabalt. The very best part, that Canabalt is sorely missing, is the perfectly painful process of moving your hand to the enter key after dying. It is absolutely the exact amount of slap-on-the-wrist any game should have when you die. It is the precise amount of pain produced only by the interruption of pleasure that is MSOIDS. I can’t think of many games that make me want to live so that the process of playing is never actually interrupted. As far as story and atmosphere go, I’ve never hated asteroids so much. I simply want to fuck shit up in this game. If I die I have to stop fucking shit up, and I can’t stand it, so I must fuck more shit up to survive.

    The endless game is a great way to prove a good game. But Canabalt relies to much on a score. Playing a game for a score is not nearly as great a feeling as playing a game so you can keep playing it longer.

    I can’t stress how crucial the time spent moving my left hand from the left side of the keyboard to enter is. Pressing the same button to continue in Canabalt is a critical mistake in my opinion.

  9. I played Canabalt for the first time a few days ago and I immediately thought of the Galaxy review up here.

    Using barrels to slow you down is no fun, man! Breakneck speed = broken necks = fun

  10. Even though my browser constantly lags up a bit right when I need to make a split-second jump, I still love this shit.

  11. Whoever was talking about Cactus: yeah. I don’t know that even his stuff is quite this pure, and his games certainly aren’t subdued, but tim, if you haven’t already (and you haven’t, because if you had you’d talk about him) go download a random handful of his games. Google is your friend. Cactus is designing games for you, I promise.

    this game is great. I think there’s a little more to the not-having-a-run-button than you let on. It shifts the game’s perspective. It gives us some emotional distance, like we’re observing this poor guy’s plight raher than directing it. And it absolutely has everything to do with the game’s appeal, yeah. There’s a hypnosis at work that just subtly melds all your attempts together into some gelatinous brick.

    (also the idea of a game about running from something, never stopping was COMPLETELY MINE and I (think) had it BEFORE Half Life 2, even!)

    the lack of level design is a bit of a sore point. it is absolutely necessary, as the game cannot be about memorizing paths with being bad, but think of the possibilities! super jumps that drop miles down, steep sloping paths littered with tumbling garbage, crashing through window pane after window pane in a deserted building, teetering beams of half built high risers, smoke clouds obscuring a city park

    I do appreciate keeping the robots and the consequences of the destroyed city far away from the player, though. that’s a real noble thing, that restraint. I guess my version with meaningful level design might be less visceral, and would certainly be less hypnotic, which is kind of a problem

    tim this game reminds me of Missile Command. many, many games are endless modes structured around death – like, say, every arcade game released before the mid 80′s – but few of them had the balls or imagination to structure that fatalism around something. Missile Command had resonance as a result. it wasn’t nearly as relaxed or hypnotic or subtle as this game, but the frantic nature was better suited to its idea anyway.

  12. oh, i have played cactus games. i just . . . kind of don’t like the way they look.

    they’re nice, i guess.

    i like “fuck space”.

  13. Perfectly fine review, but while I do appreciate the game’s aesthetic, I just feel as though the thirty-first best game ever ought not to be a game that I can play for about an hour and then think, okay, there’s pretty much no need for me to ever touch this again. Obviously, mileages vary immensely here, but mine isn’t doesn’t get me very far. I’m a big fan of old arcade games, so I must enjoy the repetition to an extent, but those games at least change in small ways as you get further. There’s always something to shoot for. Once I realized that Canabalt was always, always going to be exactly the same thing, and that it wasn’t even saving my times, my interest waned fairly significantly. I found it to be fine for what it was–I didn’t pay money for it, after all–but it didn’t exactly make my heart sing.

  14. Perhaps I will. But you might be surprised at my ability to consume a single Pringle.

  15. also good: mini-game “skating board” in the original warioware

  16. I’d totally laugh my face off if a Warioware microgame made it onto the ABDNM.

  17. The sharp black-and-white graphics are mesmerizing. It’s like a classic Game Boy game, though I know it never would have worked on that system’s blurry screen.

    The endless question is an interesting one. When I first played Canabalt, my mind became fixed on improvement, on running farther and farther with each play. Then I realized that the distances aren’t comparable because the layout of each play is different. That’s when I began to enjoy playing the game. Do we really have to consume games, and put them aside, knowing we’ve completed them?

  18. truly i think most games would be improved with endless random levels. to cite what i’m playing at the moment: endless tenchu. kill endless ninjas in bushido blade. endless roguelike valkyrie profile. endless devil may cry. endless gungrave.

    actually, forget the last one. gungrave is perfectly-sized as it is.

  19. I’m shocked you like this game so much.. the graphics are great, lots of polish in the presentation, but really it’s simply “roll the dice” which gets boring very quickly.

    The randomness is just too much — it’s very easy to get into a situation where there’s no possible way to survive, thanks to a previous decision (to slow down or now). But the previous decision had to be made without knowing what was coming next, which means that half the time you guess right and the other half you die.

    This is basically the problem with “dope wars” type games; they amount to rolling the dice again and again, and every once in a while you get a big winning streak which feels great, but ultimately it’s still just dice.. not really a fun game, as there are no interesting decisions to be made.

    If you could see 4x as far in front of you, so that the decision to slow down or not was more than a pure guess, it might be an amazing game. Everything else is perfect, except for the fact that — assuming you master the jumping — it’s ultimately just a random-dice-roll.

  20. Actually I could go on about how good the music is. How it loops perfectly despite having very different parts. How it has completely awesome riffs. How it has nice electronic touches. Or I could talk all day about those running sounds. How you can hear every single step. How it sounds different when you run over steel. I could also mention that breaking glass. Sounding so good, that I want to trough myself out of the window right now. (I’m living on the first floor, so why not?). If I would talk about all of this, I also would have to write a sentence about the shattered glass. How it falls pixel perfect and tumbles across the rooftops.

    I actually could do all of that. Instead I’m just going to say –

    I like jumping. And running.

  21. raigan:

    re “if you could see 4x ahead of you” — i already told you this in an email (lol), though for other commenters with the same question, try the original flash version of the game

    http://adamatomic.com/canabalt/

    which is much wider.

    and also, apparently, grinds a lot of people’s computers to a halt.

  22. Canabalt on the abdnm top list? For shame. If you’re getting bored with dem traditional video games that seem to thrill the younger (12-25) crowd, it probably means you’ve just mentally matured to the point where you can see all the little tricks and directorial flairs coming. People do get [i]smarter[/i] as time goes by, which means their ability to be pleased at the new, even if it’s all quirky and artsy and subtle and understated and such, falls as their brain predicts the outcomes and solves the puzzles well in advance.

  23. BAH…accidental double post…

    And as they get older, they also get tired-er of the things which younger people, still learning, accepted, be it random battles in RPGs or cheap deaths in action games. Non-interactive entertainment, such as movies, or a minimalist movie masquerading as a “game” with only one action button and an avowedly random way to die, become the drug of choice. This game is slick pablum for the old and tired gamer, not a title deserving of any top hits list. Speaking as a 28-year old tired gamer myself, I’d say we at least have a DUTY to the young and silly to search for better examples of the “endless” genres-at least something like Geometry Wars, fercrissakes.

    The game does have good music, I grant.

  24. @Epoetker: Well, I’m also a tired gamer (who isn’t here, really) and I have had my shares of minimalist game design. Canabalt rises atop of them and Geometry Wars simply by it’s purity. See, where Geometry Wars does need fancy graphics, shiny explosions and bright lights to keep you engaged (who wants to shoot at a dull cubicle?), Canabalt keeps it gray, only “mentions” graphical aspirations and focusses on the core game mechanic. As for the random way to die – there is a system. Or at least I keep telling me that. But isn’t that makes it great? Kind of like why I do keep going back to roulette and poker. Because I know “the system”(not for money, do not fear, folks). So yes, Canabalt is a big fat lie. And you know what? I like it. Because life is a big fat lie. But yet, I know “the system”. In a way, under influence of alcohol AND magic mushrooms, you could say Canabalt is a commentary on game design, intelligent design (what a joke that word is if you take a closer look, it always surprises me), life and god. Canabalt is the last word.

  25. Canabalt is not the “last word.” Canabalt is the decadence of the old gamer writ code. It’s probably better than Mirror’s Edge in design philosophy and cleanness of presentation, but there’s no way in hell that it belongs up there with masterpieces like Out of this World. OOTW was UNFORGIVING, not random. OOTW had a story that inspired younger dudes like me to either blindly run around dying or explore around laboriously trying everything in every spot to figure out how to escape to the next spot (kind of like Half Life, come to think of it, except with fewer glitchy block-stacking/jumping puzzles. Or NONE, even better.)

    And who the heck played any SMB by just holding down the run button? That game ain’t designed to be played that way. (Donkey Kong Country is. Sonic definitely should be but too often isn’t.) I ran between all the platforming elements after I got kind of good at the controls, but jammin’ on B was too often a quick trip down the pit or into the enemy.

    (You damn sure didn’t beat OOTW that way, that’s for sure. Running judiciously and knowing exactly when to stop or jump on which frame of which animation was the all-important skill.)

    Putting Canabalt on an all-time best games list is like putting Disney’s The Lion King’s Wildebeest stampede section on it. It’s a rather big failure of imagination that puts a part above the whole. Plenty of good videogames have a mine cart section. If they happen to be your favorite parts due to midlife crisis or something, it still isn’t responsible to take an ostensible Ur-minecart experience and pretend that there’s a real game behind it. It’s like watching Obama get the Nobel Peace prize for hopes and dreams, while people who helped women not get cliterectomized in Afghanistan have to wait till next year. We’re adults, we should remember and act accordingly. (Hey, Within a Deep Forest has an EXCELLENT mine cart section, metroidvania elements, speedrunning potential, weird shit, and it’s free! [url=http://nifflas.ni2.se/index.php?page=1003Within+a+Deep+Forest]Check it out![/url])

    Microsoft, having catered to the grayest of tiredest of gray heads all their lives, has already made a game with random defeat and random victory (that comes more often with practice, at least!) that is super-pure and doesn’t even need a cool musical score to addict people. It’s called Solitaire, baby.

  26. “And who the heck played any SMB by just holding down the run button?”

    If you play any SMB game without holding the run button AT ALL TIMES you are most definitely Doing It Wrong.

  27. Only if I’m getting chased by Phanto/angry sun, ditching Thwomps, dodging the spiked ceiling, or being a ridiculous glutton for punishment and feel particularly lucky with the Hammer Brother layout on certain 8-type worlds. Or flying. The point about running through SMBs world is more ‘you can(on certain levels,) but why would you WANT to?’

    Ever since SMB 1, for that matter, Mario’s moved away from being about running and very much toward being about jumping. If you want the levels designed for the compulsive runner, get on back to the jungle and hit the DK games.

    I am BORN CERTAIN that no one, child or adult, ever STARTED playing any SMB game, thought “Boring!”, and played the rest by running through the levels as fast as possible. Self-imposed challenges are commendable, but not part of the common experience, and therefore not ABDNM-worthy. Even on a site as highbrow and hardcore as this one.

    For if thou continuest down this mad and heretical path of greater and greater ‘purity,’ divorced from your first loves in favor of capturing the fleeting and ephemeral desires of youth, thou shalt turn inward upon thyself, come full circle, verily build a giant nostalgia vortex that warps the experience of all games outside thine narrow code, enter the ninth circle of gaming hell, and truly declare Solitaire to be the greatest game of all time.

    Why grow up that fast?

  28. I think you are confusing “pressing the run button” with “running.” They’re completely different! I usually play Mario 1 very meticulously, grabbing lots of coins and stomping most of the enemies. But holding the run button down all the time just means I don’t have to worry about it! With the button held, Mario has a full range of velocities he can run at, all the way from very slow walk (right when you hit the directional button from rest) up to his top speed. Without the run button pressed, this range is approximately halved (or maybe thirded? Mario runs really friggin’ fast in the first game…).

    The game can be played in whatever way the player wants. Just make sure you hold down that run button!

  29. Epoetker, your mention of “Within A Deep Forest” got me interested and then I found out you don’t hold run in SMB :/

  30. As wonderful as it feels to hold a button and then let go, it’s even better to press, hold, let go, tap, or otherwise Press The Action Button while still holding down that Run Button for all eternity.

  31. Why is it okay for Tetris to be random, but not this game?

    Besides, the game seems to work with you. The bombs telegraph themselves with a noise. You can run into boxes to slow yourself down. The game adjusts the width of its gaps to suit your running speed.

    I think the joy of this game is the same as that joy Tim described about Tetris: “the closest you get to feeling like you’ve won anything at all is when you narrowly prevent yourself from losing.” I like that. The difference between Tetris and Canabalt is that losing in Canabalt is usually the result of poor reflexes, not poor planning.

    I agree that I am tired of big-budget games like Bioshock, Prototype, Dragon Age and Metal Gear Solid, which shout so desperately for my attention and emotional investment that I turn bitter and angry. However, I don’t think that Canabalt is any less creative than those games. It just doesn’t push its ideas in my face, and I appreciate that. Its crumbling world scenario isn’t original, but it works because its kept in the background, behind the action, where I can choose to think about it if I want to. I don’t see it as wholly different from big-budget games, just less abrasive.

  32. Some dude at Microsoft made it for Windows 3.1, though.

    The only thing they need to work on in Canabalt is improving the random level generation. Much like Tetris was improved when they made the piece-drops not entirely random, Canabalt with an intelligent level generator would be great. As it is, too often the player dies because they commit to a jump and then die because the next building isn’t as long as you’d expect, or has boxes just outside the field of view. As it is right now, a few too many deaths feel a tad unfair, being the fault of the random generator as opposed to my terrible sense of timing.

  33. Holy shit, that opening line was about the Solitaire discussion up above. I should probably refresh the page after ditching my computer for the day before I comment next time.

  34. oh hey, someone mentioned wario ware, and yeah, that’s probably be a better choice for this spot. same idea, but more in tune with the joy of hitting the Action Button

    a little more muddled though

    and not endless

    (except a couple of the bonus games)

  35. @LisVender: Thank you for taking the words out of my mouth. I do completely agree with you. And that noise which warns about the incoming bomb. Boy. I didn’t notice it right away. It’s genius. Once you here a click you know that it comes down on the next building. So simple.

  36. I just played this, and yeah, I think I’m going to have to take back what I said in the SB thread about this list needing Dino Run.

  37. Oh ye runny whiners. I definitely hold down the run button a lot more in SMB-after I’ve memorized the level. No doubt the fact that the run button has all but disappeared or reversed in most games following it (for instance, in Mario 64, you had to hold down a button to crawl, and in most other games you have to hold down a button to walk.)

    Counterexample: A game in which I definitely did use the run button all the time: Final Fantasy VII.

    Game in which I ended up playing a lot better once I found the ‘slow the hell down’ button: Within a Deep Forest.

    Game which really could have used the dynamic speed switching system of WaDF: Canabalt.

    I move that Canabalt should have made JUMPING automatic and instead had action buttons for speed up/slow down. And a minimap to serve as the ‘piece preview’ of Tetris.

  38. Nah. Gradually altering speed like that isn’t really an Action Button at all… it’s more like a slider! I’d much rather press a button to jump than press a button to adjust my Dynamic Real-Time Speed Velocity Quotient.

  39. Epoetker: that would be like basically watching a video of a dude running. Speed is 5% of the Canabalt formula; 90% of it is watchin’ the edges and 5% is jumping over nuclear bombs. It’s a game about dealing with what’s 50 feet in front of you two seconds in the future; you can’t seriously want it to be about speed modulation, with a minimap.

    CAN YOU???

  40. well, this game is roughly 30 times worse than Out Of This World, so I guess this spot is fair. that’s still pretty good.

    nedge, what is you smoking. this game isn’t “pretty well perfect”, it’s just devoid of content. it’s cheap. it’s cheap in the way that it doesn’t offer you even the hint of a win scenario. ChoRenSha68k is (several) thousand times better than this (and you know it). it gives you an ending, well, several actually, without ever truly ending. it’s endless. and yet it’s got more of a gripping narrative than this. it’s got much more context and more content while being almost as simple. most importantly though it keeps your attention for longer. treats it with SOME FUCKING RESPECT, man.

    yeah, this doesn’t keep my attention for long. it just makes me want to play OotW a whole damn lot.

    and 68k, which seems to be the only thing I ever play these days (and have been for months now).

    fuck this shit, man! Canabalt needs some more challenges! what is this crap! you just keep coming back to it because the music’s earwormy! that’s cheating! play it without sound and see how much you like it! that’s right, you don’t! think about the deaf! Deaf Gamers For Better Gameplay unite!

  41. malasdair: YES I CAN, because then Canabalt would actually be original, interesting to play, challenging, and physics-ally educational, and not simply an unwitting rewardee of the time when Timmy Rog’s reductionism went from ‘charmingly efficient game review device’ to ‘mind-narrowing sanity-destroying idol.’ Good things do go bad if applied in the wrong way, or in this case, a rather UNDEMOCRATIC way.

    Poor Tim seems to have not gone through that phase in life where you play as many short, free games as possible online-just for a change of pace. So when a slick piece of whatever that anyone who had followed newgrounds.com or jayisgames.com for a year would have instantly recognized as cribbed from a zillion other mini-famous entries of the day, the normal person’s impulse is not to enshrine it as THE TOUCHSTONE OF AWESOMENESS. For one thing, that really wouldn’t be fair to the work of those zillion others who came before. For another, if I’m going to say that about a game that people can IMMEDIATELY play, and see almost all there is to see in the game, for free, right after reading the review, I’m going to pretty fucking well run that idea by a few other people first.

    But normal (even ‘mainstream’) reviewers are or learn to be democratic as they grow, and generally hope that the experience they had was or will be the experience that others had. For instance, I just played Half-Life 2, and it was every inch the game that everyone had described it to be, fully deserving all the praise from all sectors of the reviewing community, and it’s spot as #3 on the ABDN list.

    Canabalt is simply a Newgrounds entry that got lucky, and enshrining its ‘concepts’ (which are actually in far more Newgrounds entries far earlier than this) on a top list of best games of all time simply cheapens the list and insults the work of actual master designers. For revolutionary casual gaming and ridiculously awesome distillation of concepts, you’d be far better just spending an entire day on eyezmaze.com

  42. Oh dear, epoetker, you seem to have developed the wrong idea about our friend Tim. You see, Tim is not the type of person who should have regular access to his very own “best games of all time” list, because this is a privilege he will abuse. And here, in this article, he says canabalt, a pretty good game, is one of the greatest games, and yes, he is probably a bit off. If this is the sort of thing you can’t forgive him for, you may need to leave him behind. Tim is not Bertrand Russell; his body of work is not a system through which one can put a game and expect the same, consistent answer every time. He is just a funny dude who loves games, and, as when Lester Bangs touted Philosophy of the World and Metal Machine Music as all-time music masterpieces, he’s sometimes going to go pretty far out on a limb to make a point. Tim wants to shake you up a bit, make you less complacent about what you think of as great gaming. And if I think Bioshock is better than Canabalt, I can also see why Tim think’s Bioshock’s a sort of game equivalent of Emerson Lake and Palmer.

    Tim loves games! I love games! Let’s all love games together!

  43. Epo, it does actually befit the Manifesto though. Even if it’s sort of a placeholder entry. It servers Tim’s videogame design agenda. Which makes this very democratic. In a cynical way. Which is good. All in all.

  44. the question is, which of you will be the first to not be surprised when this game is, one day, not on the list anymore?

  45. epo, your sense of quality, and, well, aesthetics, I guess, is pretty repulsive and evident of the “reductionism” of which you accuse tim. as if play is some built-upon thing that is necessarily in debt and subservient to its foundation. you know what game Half Life 2 cribbed from? Half Life! It even has it right there in the title! hell, this whole notion of control arose before we ever started bleeping and blooping our way through the days, and certainly play and story go back as far as humanity. clearly number one on this list should be The Illiad, and not that lame text version, but the one recited to crowds before the TV was even invented!

    in fact, that which acutely touches on what has been done “zillions of times” before is generally the better for it. what are we, if not vessels of refinement and application?

  46. You just feebly denigrated Half Life 2 in order to defend Canabalt. I need no further proof that those who defend it’s spot on the list are victims of a very pernicious mental trap. When you start pissing on legendary and groundbreaking games just to make a point, you no longer deserve the respect of a reviewer of anything.

    We are people who use ranking systems to separate what are essentially Wario Ware entries from actual games, for one thing. We are people who honor people who work hard to show us something we never even thought we were missing. Half Life 1 was a ridiculously entertaining romp through an environment that simply encouraged exploratory escaping. Half-Life 2 took 1984 and made the poignancy of a destroyed, oppressed world as real as possible, simultaneously removing some annoyances with the physics engine.

    Canabalt copied the aesthetic of Out of this World plus the zillion Newgrounds entries that use its animation style, added some walkers and very nicely animated doves, and put the whole thing into a Wario Ware endless loop, with a score to cement the comparison. Worthy of a blog post mention, perhaps, maybe even a Game of the Week. Not worthy of that many top 50 or 100 lists, unless they cover mini to microgames.

    For that matter, it also copied the aesthetic BADLY. Stuff was cribbed, but it was not cribbed by a dude who was thinking very hard about it. There’s no point in contemplating a destroyed world where the destructors aren’t particularly well identifiable behind the killbots, no point in caring for a protagonist that has no defining features or backstory, no point in trying to get better at a game that’s essentially random and luck-based, and no point in attempting a higher score when getting better at the game is such a hit-or-miss proposition. It’s got a nice little physics engine that responds rather well to player input and that’s about it. Good college try for a minigame; if one were to put compelling faces on the characters, compelling backstory on the levels, and compelling levels for the physics engine to use, it might actually be able to make it out of beta!

    The whole previous comparison up there reminds me of Halo, which we pretty much honored precisely for its physics and gameplay engine being both well done and universally accessible for the first time. Halo amalgamated the look of the Covenant roughly from the Vortigaunts, the Combine, and the Protoss, but they didn’t give them any proper motivation-seriously, the hyper-advanced aliens are simply a victim of….apocalyptic fundamentalist religious zealotry? Seriously? (Hey, zealots were the rank and file of the Protoss ground forces, but the Executors at least had some sense-there’s not a very good Zeratul to Artanis ratio.) And the Zerg/headcrab hybrids with their OverGraveMind never even tried the rather well tested idea of, say, planting sleeper agents or at least a delayed Flood virus among the human and Covenant populations, so they could take over them without just crashing ships all the time.

    I played Halo before Half Life, and when I played Half-Life 2 for the first time, my thought was basically: “This is like playing Halo without all the gay.” It is almost always preferable to play a game made by people who actually think about shit, rather than just copying the look or the feel of something else without realizing what made it successful in the first place.

    Which I’m pretty sure is kind of a running theme on this site’s reviews, come to think of it.

  47. I’m just going to go ahead and say that your idea of what makes a video game good is so bad that I’m a little angry that you like Half Life 2, on account of that actually being a great game.

    and please don’t get royal on me – “we” aren’t doing shit. I don’t know what to say to you if you think we need the backstory behind the people piloting the robots in the background of Canabalt for us to appreciate how the game operates. the entire point is that you don’t know anything, and that you don’t need to know anything. it’s there to offer a hint of gravitas and as an excuse to use that music.

    what do you know about Gordon Freeman? that he’s a scientist? anything else you get from his character is attributed to it as you play. there is no back story there.

  48. Oh, so you see NO SIMILARITIES between Half-Life and, say, OOTW? You don’t think the top 10-20 games on the ABDNM list have ANY common qualities? Like the fact that most are story-driven, or successfully integrate the gameplay and the story, or simply refine the gameplay so much that adding a story is just a bonus? Actually, #5 on the list, written in wiser times about a somewhat similar game, is the one that actually puts the nail in the coffin.

    Reading the Pac-Man championship edition review and tagline tells me exactly what’s missing from Canabalt, and why it’s ‘not actually a videogame,’ or at least a proper ‘endless’ type videogame-there ain’t no reward for playing well or quickly. In Pac-Man, moving faster and playing better gets you REWARDED with higher speeds and point values, so you can actually avoid all the stuff that screwed you up before. And the playing field actually changes, and such. In Canabalt-no, not so much. Hope you remember to keep hitting the random de-speed boxes.

    And this review of what could have been a Valve Wario Ware-type collection called something like Seven-Hour War Resistance, or something like that (which would have at least justified the fact that you’re fated to die, come to think of it) comes when Tim has left his senses behind to the point where he can’t even take instruction from his past self anymore.

    As for what I know about Gordon Freeman, he’s a theoretical physicist who had barely received the distinction of his Ph.D at the time of the Black Mesa incident, and thus barely worth my notice, especially when I’m behind his eyes most of the time. It’s kind of EVERY SINGLE OTHER CHARACTER IN THE FRIGGIN’ GAME that you sympathize with, wonder about, actually kind of wish to save, or at least learn more about, and keep playing the HL expansion packs for. Not to mention that he seems to inspire large numbers of anonymous people to create games like Counter-Strike and Portal. Sort of in the way that real genius in quality among true masters democratically inspires additional genius among those who didn’t know they had it. You did actually PLAY Half-life 2, didn’t you?

  49. Oh hey, turns out the guy that did this is also the guy behind Fathom, which is also quite great. Go google it or something.

  50. Epo, you are the worst type: an idiot who is not aware that he is an idiot. Please remove the stick from your ass.

    neggy explain fathom to me. It’s cute, but I never quite…got it, so to speak. At least with Canabalt, I get it, I just don’t entirely like what’s there.

    Also, what happened to SB? it is gone!

  51. As long as we’re plugging games by this guy, I might as well suggest Gravity Hook:

    http://adamatomic.com/gravity/

    It’s sort’ve like Canabalt except it’s vertically oriented and not at all like Canabalt (except for the parts that are).

  52. Gravity hook is for people who really, REALLY like games like Touhou, specifically, those who really want to know exactly how big their hitbox is. Fathom is for people who should have read the wiki entry on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” before playing. Also a story about a guy dying, told not all that well. Noting the pattern in these games, I suppose Gravity Hook could have an ending, but I’m pretty sure the guy just dies. As before, the game is not made easier by getting further.

    Okay, so Flixeldude really, really LIKES designing one-off concepts based on a physics engine, and doesn’t have much time for story or endings I get it. But to quote this site’s Half-Life 2 review:

    “These games are bright and colorful, short, and about as involved as that “football” game the kids used to play at the lunch table in middle school where they’d fold a piece of paper into a rigid triangle, and “kick” it with their index finger through a classmate’s Cheeto-powdered uprights. Those kids were just wasting time while their Sprites and Lunchables digested into a toxic glob, and these new videogames for “the casual market” serve the same purpose, really. Does a man waiting in a five-person line at the bank really need to distract himself with a rousing game of Bejeweled on his cell phone? Is this what’s going to create a new generation of players? Three-minute gem-swapping sessions for ADHD sufferers?

    In the eighties, the industry neared collapse (I’m told), and videogames, after having some buzz for a couple of years in the afterglow of Pac-Man, once again became uncool. It wasn’t some short little arcade game that got people excited again. It was Super Mario Bros.”

    Full. Motherfucking. Stop.

  53. Epoetker makes a Damn Good Point. I don’t think any game will ever the best game of all time without both narrative and an ending.

    A lot of this could go in the Tetris review comments…but that’s not where I was prompted to write it.

    Tetris ENDS. You can’t play Tetris forever. It’s impossible. If it stayed on Level 0 eternally you could, or if you had easy spin and no line clear limit, but then there would be no point. Modern Tetris limits you to a certain number of levels, upon which at a certain point blocks fall instantaneously and you must spin blocks at the bottom till your balls fall off, and then you get stopped.

    I would suggest that the original Tetris was conceptually flawed as it had to end, but it didn’t have a real ending. Well I guess you can see the rocket take off if you got the score, but its real ending is just when it gets to the point where it is impossible to keep playing (and not humanly impossible mind you, but actually impossible). It’s not hard to get there.

    Eventually, Tetris became a game of making a perfect run. And this is only possible by limiting the duration of the game (by lines or by time), and by discriminating what kinds of line clears give you the most points (a tetris or a T-spin).

    Without these limits, the only form of Tetris that is a legitimate test of skill is VS. Tetris, and that’s a whole different story.

    Super Mario Bros. has both narrative and an ending. Mario saves the Princess in the end. Then the game loops. But here’s the kicker: your success loops the game, not your death. In Canabalt, the story is you run and you die. Then you run and you die again. In Mario however, eventually you win, and what happens after is just another cycle of the archetypal story. And for those who never beat the game? Doesn’t matter. They know Mario saves the Princess.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

    Canabalt is not Super Mario Tetris because both Mario and Tetris have an ending.

  54. I just noticed that the camera goes fractionally downward before each jump. I thought this was a bug, but I think it’s there to give the sensation of bending your knees before springing.

    I like how small this game is. It’s condensed.

  55. So, uh, I’m almost morbidly curious to see what everyone’s take on that Robot Unicorn Attack game is. I’ve heard it described as “God Hand plus Canabalt” and I dunno how accurate that is, but it certainly sounds great.

  56. @Wild_Bull: it’s not. That’s a list of games I *wish* were endless and random-generated, not that are so.

  57. “It’s so much fun, you won’t even notice that you’re not killing anybody.”

    I love you … I mean, that there is a great line.

  58. Pingback: Notes on “Starcraft II” and the Blizzard Paradigm « Damon Beres Presents: The Blog of Glunders

  59. Just wanted to say that this is the first game, ever, that my entire family plays. I am the only “gamer” in my household, but we all know that 7,864m is the score to beat for domestic dominance. Thank you, ABDN, for bringing this crown jewel of “casual gaming” to my attention.

  60. I thought this was some seriously hyped up bullshit since its basically a web browser flash game (of which there are millions.)

    until I noticed lightly tapping the jump button makes you small-jump, perfectly vaulting you over obstacles.

    thats some good shit. the smash bros player in me that has an affinity for small-jumping was extremely pleased

  61. Pingback: Race the Sun - PAXtravaganza 2013! - Theology Gaming

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