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Canabalt (PC) artwork

Canabalt (PC) review

"Does exactly what it promises: Runs and jumps."

I’ve got bad news for you naysayers: Tic-Tac-Toe is a game. Sorting cards is a game. “I spy with my little eye” is also a game. Not to belabour the point and encourage discussion, there are no de facto rules about what a game can and cannot be, because they are - in fine - subjective entertainment for mental and physical stimulation. Now, you won’t catch me using that to justify the existence of the Steam edition of Canabalt, but I wanted to be you understand my perspective on the subject of what constitutes a game.

Wait, what do you mean you’ve never heard of Canabalt? How can you not have? Oh very well: Canabalt was an early web sensation by a small group of friends, and with a low-rez 4-bit greyscale pixel aesthetic that uses minimalist animations to communicate the danger and terror of disaster snapping at your heels. It was later ported to iOS and has, after a number of years, landed on its home platform. There’s no question the easy-to-learn gameplay was aided by the impressive synth and orchestral soundtrack that thrums in the background, ramping up the tension effectively.

It also doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack was composed by the talented Danny Baranowsky, now a legend of dungeon crawling dance.

Mechanically, Canabalt couldn't be simpler: As a side scrolling platformer, your character automatically runs while you decide just when to mash the "jump" button. What's more is your distance before death is recorded so that you can attempt to increase that number. Over and over again. Truthfully the idea to me is fun for ten minutes to a half hour, then I put it down and don't touch it for months. I'd say that's Canabalt in a nutshell, but it undersells the talent behind its professionally executed presentation.

Alright, here’s the rundown: The alien invasion has begun, and no apparent reason you’re a runner trapped in a hallway. With no time to spare, you make your break through the nearest window at the end of said hallway. Your best hope for survival is to keep jumping from rooftop to rooftop until fate or your coordination terminates your escape. Your speed increases with each successful landing, so your eye needs to track what’s ahead while you blind leap to the next platform.

That was all you could do in the web and mobile versions of this game, but that can't be enough for a paid Steam edition. You'd be right, so what have they brought to the table, this time? There are eight new challenge modes, three new songs (one featuring Mega Ran), Online Leaderboard support, Two Player mode and Achievements. If you were expecting more than this I’m not exactly pleased to report that your options are limited when all of your options consist of "jump now".

Not that the developers haven't tried to make this a prospect worth considering on Steam. Canabalt normally has implied depth, but in this port they’ve taken the time to create a 3D rendition of the world to run in, though it is polygonal, not anaglyph. Being it’s in greyscale, I don’t see how simulated 3D would have benefited the game anyway. At that rate, I highly doubt it's even possible. Anyway, there’s also a new two player mode, so if you’re feeling competitive... that could be fun? I'm not sure, because I didn't play it, but I'm not the sort who goes for the sort of knuckle grinding this game parades as rivalry.

I need to get a little more specific about how Canabalt works before I talk about the new modes. In the original mode entitled “Origin”, any number of obstacles can slow down or bring your escape to a messy end as you gauge the leaping distance between things. Buildings can be randomly demolished by alien towers which can abruptly change your landing platform into something much smaller than you expected. A bomb can land in your path and “turn you into a fine mist”, or you might turn out to be the needle that starts the next building crumbling. Oh, and that meter counter could either drive your determination or crush it, depending on how much adrenaline is running in your bloodstream. Yes, that is a thing.

The new game modes do a fine job of increasing the tension, or your frustration, and you can see that the developers really put some serious effort into making them interesting. “Box Tripper” and “Bombardment” rout your attention by dramatically increasing wooden stumbling boxes and falling unexploded combustibles for your singular attention. Respectively, not simultaneously. The remaining modes do much better, thankfully.

“Leap of Faith” stands out as a uniquely difficult modification. Every single platform is rendered invisible - indeed not rendered - and is marked briefly with the presence of birds that fly away upon your approach. This leaves you to guess where the platform ends as you try to estimate your jump accordingly. In practice this feels a lot like Origin, but adds that edge of uncertainty which keeps gameplay engaging.

“Fractured” is my least favourite, but when your sole refuge is the occasionally stable building, the fact that every other building collapses under your feet is another sort of engaging, even if it’s not particularly compelling. In terms of challenge the low point is most definitely “Purity”, but since Canabalt doesn’t have a difficulty setting, it could prove palatable for younger players.

The intense speed ramping of “Panic” is debatably fun, even for those with super sharp twitch reflexes. “Invasion” shakes things up by implementing that random alien tower mechanic, which isn’t too difficult to manage if you factor in its propensity of only eliminating smaller buildings in your path. “Defenestration” is the one I fail hardest at: It is concertedly more difficult to leap into a corridor than it is out of one, especially when your platform may be extremely close, and/or not level with the window you’re entering.

One important point bears mentioning: At what point do we stop castigating games for failing to exceed their intended scope? Did Canabalt promise to be anything more than a side scrolling auto-runner? Absolutely not. Does it fail in its pursuit of that goal? Not in any way. Its soundtrack is top notch, art direction atmospheric and effective. It was developed with a pinpoint focus on a singular mechanic and executes it precisely. No zero day patches or mid-game glitches. If this is what you want in a game, this one is a winner.

I understand that the developers have tried to make a hill out of a speedbump, and that may not impress you very much, if at all. When I first played Canabalt there was nothing else like it. Even so, I’m glad to have paid for something I did enjoy. The notably landmark existence of this title may burn out its novelty very quickly, but I can easily recommend this game as a “tip in the jar” for the hard work of this small team. Call it gratitude for the fun they wanted you to have. For a few dollars, how can you go wrong?

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (November 17, 2018)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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