Canabalt Review—Almost as Fun as Cannonball Run
Canabalt is something of a modern day classic, popularizing (perhaps even creating) the automatic running game genre. We’ve seen clones of this game appear as Minis, most notably I Must Run! and One Epic Game, but the original has now been brought to Minis by Beatshapers, who have done a great job of bring us a solid stream of good games over the years.
In all honesty, though, Canabalt pretty much passed me by. Since I don’t play Flash games on the PC, nor do I own a smartphone, I have only heard about it secondhand. So I wasn’t sure what to expect, really. When I fired it up, I felt like a kid of today playing Pac-Man for the first time.
The first thing that strikes you about Canabalt is the graphics. They are black and white, which is not something you see very often today except in retro-themed games. And yet the graphics are anything but retro, as they are very well detailed, apparently depicting a ruined city—or rather a city in the process of having something disastrous happen to it.
The next thing you likely notice is “Hey, my little guy just fell through a window and died!” Canabalt wastes no time on explanations or tutorials (though you do get a sentence recapping how your guy died). You’re thrown right into the game, starting off in what appears to be an office building, in which the guy starts running to the right, headed straight towards a window.
Once through the starting window, you must navigate an urban landscape mostly made up of roofs of buildings, but sometimes billboards and cranes. The only thing you directly control is when your guy jumps; he moves on his own, gradually accelerating so he moves faster and faster. The terrain is generated randomly, so you never really know what to expect next, except on a few occasions, when you see a red dot appear on the screen. This, the game’s only use of color, warns you that something is about to fall from the sky.
Just what falls I’m not sure—it seems to be part of a jetliner engine. If you run into it, you apparently die quite horribly. Also, on occasion, instead of that small object falling, something much bigger falls (the whole plane?), destroying all of the building except one tiny portion. This is by far the most difficult obstacle to traverse in the game, at least for me.
Indeed, that’s actually another thing that struck me about Canabalt: it’s actually sort of easy. There are only two things that generally cause me to die, that thing that destroys most of the building and when you run into another office building and have to crash through the window to enter. The main thing is to manage your speed—don’t go too fast (occasionally run into a box to slow yourself down), but don’t go too slow, since otherwise you won’t be able to escape a collapsing building.
There’s not a lot of variety in the graphics, but they are very well detailed, especially the background. Occasionally, you can see moving things in the background. It’s hard to say what they are, some sort of giant things attacking the city, but they look more like robots than anything else. But conjoined, like two of them attached to each other, but with separate legs and arms. Or possibly doing something else.
The same goes for the sound in Canabalt; there’s not a whole lot, but what there is is well done. Different surfaces make different sounds when you run on them; there’s the sound of glass breaking; and, you have airplanes zooming. You can pick from three different musical tracks, all electronic, as well as silence at the main menu. The music is good, but not quite my cup of tea, so I choose silence.
As I was playing Canabalt, it dawned on me that I had played this sort of game before. Oh sure, clones like I Must Run! and One Epic Game, and to a lesser extent The Impossible Game. But going back much, much further to a game for the Atari 2600—Keystone Kapers. Oh sure, it wasn’t randomized, and there was a goal (of catching a thief), but other than that, it’s very similar in feel.
Moon Patrol was also a game where you were constantly moving and had to jump over obstacles, though in it you could directly control the speed.
Canabalt is a hard game to judge. On the one hand, its clones (particularly One Epic Game) have surpassed it both in features and in fun. On the other, it was the game that popularized the genre, if not invented it. While it’s lacking the bells and whistles, like different modes, achievements, different terrain, it still is a lot of fun, and originality should be rewarded.