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Canabalt (PC) artwork

Canabalt (PC) review


"I view people who subscribe to the holy book of Canabalt the same way that Orson Scott Card intended readers to view Xenocide's Qing-Jao: as obsessive and deranged failures, compulsively tracing lines in wood until they realize they've accomplished nothing. Then they die."



2009's indie darling Canabalt is a game about a man fated to die. He runs from left to right, jumping over obstacles and leaping from one building to the next. There's always a next building -- his journey only ends with death. The man runs automatically, picking up speed as he makes his daring escape. Players only control his jumps. If the man runs into a bomb, he dies; any other obstacle simply slows him down. If he misses a jump from one rooftop to the next, he falls to his doom.

The goal is to achieve a high score, which is accomplished very easily. Whenever possible, players should let the man run into obstacles. The game is wired to become harder as the runner gains speed, until the random level generator throws an impossible situation in his path. Crashing into obstacles keeps it slow. Keeping it slow keeps it possible.

So, the key to Canabalt success is to press the jump button -- the one means of exerting influence over the running man -- as seldom as possible.

Canabalt is not a good game. This should be obvious. Unfortunately, many gaming "journalists" have fallen into the trap of believing that something addictive is the same as something good.

If you're not learning, then you're not living. I view people who subscribe to the holy book of Canabalt the same way that Orson Scott Card intended readers to view Xenocide's Qing-Jao: as obsessive and deranged failures, compulsively tracing lines in wood until they realize they've accomplished nothing.

Then they die.



"Reviews" at various indie game websites say the game would be better with a story or an introductory mini-movie to explain why the Canabalt man is escaping. The game is otherwise perfect, or so the scores of 10-out-of-10 would lead one to believe.

This game is built around the concept of interacting with the game as little as possible. Cutscenes are the last thing that Canabalt needs. The things that Canabalt needs are so extensive in scope that the result may as well be an entirely different game.

People say that Canabalt hearkens back to an age when all games were simple, but that really isn't true. For one thing, Canabalt never changes. Defender looks simple on the surface, but it demanded both murder and rescue -- and failure to protect the world meant players had to kill everyone when they became mutants. After Berzerk's players acquire a taste for robot slaying, they have to flee from the grinning overlord Otto. There is no such turnabout in Canabalt.

What Canabalt does do well is make "nothing" look like "something". As the man runs from left to right -- keep in mind that the player does not control this running -- birds fly into the air. When the man leaps through a window, glass shatters. Buildings crumble (with no impact on the game) and giant robots shuffle in the background. A lot of things are moving onscreen; the player just isn't controlling any of them.

Canabalt was made in five days for a contest based around the theme of "bare minimum", so this is a case where the creator knew he was making something ridiculously simple. It's the goofy audience that erected Canabalt's undeserved pedestal. Here's a guy who knows how to dress up even the simplest concept . . . and idiots encourage him to keep wasting his talents on crap. If this guy can make non-interaction look meaningful, imagine what he could accomplish on a worthwhile project!

That's why calling Canabalt "a good game" isn't just wrong -- it's downright cruel. The world should acknowledge Canabalt for what it is: a polished turd. Humanity's tragic flaw is that we actually care what others think of us. If we want game designers to reach their potential, we should praise them for the right reasons. Otherwise, we're encouraging inferiority.

//Zig

Rating: 1/10

zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (February 23, 2011)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 24, 2011:

Zig, this review made me happy.

I've never played this game, but I would probably agree with you had I. It reminds me of a WiiWare game called Tomena Sanner. Much the same, except running into objects is actually bad, and you're trying to beat a clock. Slightly better, but still pretty meh IMO.
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fleinn posted February 24, 2011:

:) great read. ..It is a game with one button for control. Where the jump is variable in height, which then again varies in length depending on speed. While the animation for the jump and the roll depends on those variables. So as a simplistic running game, that can be played on the holy iPhone and so on - it's a pretty good game. It reminds me of the rolling intro-sequences to the first games that started using simple shifting layers for projecting movement in some direction or other. So even though it lasts.. ten minutes.. it's a brilliant piece of work for what it is.

So maybe not a polished turd - but more like a single drop of water in a desert, or something like that. Not much, but appreciated.. Depending on how desperate you are.

And I agree with your premise and the points you make. A lot of unbelievably annoying things have been said about this game..
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pickhut posted February 24, 2011:

I always thought of Canabalt as a mere distraction, I never figured people had such high praises for the game. o__o

I enjoyed reading the review, you make some good points and observations with so little words.
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zigfried posted February 24, 2011:

So even though it lasts.. ten minutes.. it's a brilliant piece of work for what it is.

So maybe not a polished turd - but more like a single drop of water in a desert, or something like that.


I get what you're saying in that Canabalt does demonstrate some true talent and imagination, just not as a videogame. Every good game is worth playing for more than 10 minutes, and I do literally mean every good game. "Distraction" is a better word for it (thanks Pickhut!)

One problem with the water/desert analogy is that "desert" implies we live in a dry age... but we're actually surrounded by an ocean of awesome stuff on every console. The second problem with that analogy is it implies a million Canabalts would constitute a videogame oasis. So I'm calling the game a turd (ie, a fundamentally bad videogame) that shines in some ultimately unimportant ways.

//Zig
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Ben posted February 24, 2011:

This reads more like an editorial than a review - it's as if you're directly responding to some of the other critics' reviews. I've nothing against your negative opinion, but it seems harsh to ridicule people like me who enjoyed the game. I think you could have voiced your views more effectively without focusing on how others feel. Each to their own is what I'd usually say.

I certainly don't believe this game deserves a 10. I believe a game like this should be judged on a different scale because it's not a proper game. However, I like it just fine on the iPhone, definitely moreso than a lot of the more fully-fledged titles on the device.
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fleinn posted February 24, 2011:

"One problem with the water/desert analogy is that "desert" implies we live in a dry age... but we're actually surrounded by an ocean of awesome stuff on every console."

True.. and not entirely true as well, I guess. There are a lot of games that are created with the same philosophy in mind as Canabalt... except they are made with million-budgets, careful design, and expensive tech. That's.. difficult to get around. That many game-designers genuinely want to replace navigation and narrative in a digital world with one key-press for any significant action, basically...

If that's what you want from a game - an illusion of participation, rather than what some would... well.. would call an effort that "casual gamers" would never get past. Then Canabalt is the perfect game. Not only does it have extremely simple controls, no complex mechanics and no explicit story-line that publishers may catch on to - it's made on a non-existent budget as well, and can gross $3.99 on iTunes (after costing .99 cent at release.. after it was available for free on Newgrounds.. which it still is.. just like superior games such as Fancy Pants Adventure, or Hapland..).

So it's the usual publisher's wet dream. And they're surrounded by unsellable hardcore niche-titles that only smelly, juvenile adults who are unpopular with the ladies will buy. Etc. Etc.

..but obviously I want to kill people who say things like that to my face as well, I won't lie about that. Specially since I really like the nod to old arcade titles with the moving layers, and so on. And can appreciate how difficult it is to program jumping animations that seem as smooth as this. I mean, it's a small feat. A "demo", maybe, of clever tech.

(Anyway.. I'm off to Zigworks :) )

edit:
"accomplishes the task of giving the user enjoyment, which I think is the end-all goal of any game."

..I can see why you seem a bit angry now.
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zigfried posted February 24, 2011:

Ben:
This reads more like an editorial than a review - it's as if you're directly responding to some of the other critics' reviews. I've nothing against your negative opinion, but it seems harsh to ridicule people like me who enjoyed the game.

A review is a form of editorial. It's true that I attack the views of others; that's because I do not like their views. I don't ridicule people who simply enjoy Canabalt... just people who think it is a good game and therefore praise it beyond its value. I have no problem with people who derive pleasure from Canabalt but acknowledge that it is a poor videogame.

I think you could have voiced your views more effectively without focusing on how others feel. Each to their own is what I'd usually say.

A large part of the Canabalt phenomenon is its public image. When we write about Super Mario Bros 3, we may say how Super Mario 1 changed the gaming world. When we write about competitive fighting games, we may write about how it was received by the competitive fighting community. Incorporating a game's public image into a review is a natural -- and sometimes critical -- piece.

So you may see my review as a response to others, but I see my review as an evaluation of Canabalt's current status in the world, as well as an evaluation of Canabalt's design philosophy. Responding to trend-hopping "journalists" isn't important, but crushing the pedestal upon which Canabalt rests is very important.


Fleinn:
There are a lot of games that are created with the same philosophy in mind as Canabalt... except they are made with million-budgets, careful design, and expensive tech. That's.. difficult to get around. That many game-designers genuinely want to replace navigation and narrative in a digital world with one key-press for any significant action, basically

Yeah, I don't like that concept of game "design" either. We should be pushing designers to incorporate more player involvement and mental stimulation (aka complexity and challenge).

//Zig
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S-Cynic posted December 19, 2011:

Embarrassing, and that's putting it mildy.

Leave skewering the Indie scene to people who can actually write.
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Leroux posted December 19, 2011:

I too find INTERMITTENTLY TYPING IN ALL CAPS to produce a superior QUALITY OF WRITING. Excellent point, CHUM.
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zigfried posted December 19, 2011:

The gaming world needs more people denouncing Canabalt, not less.

//Zig
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JoeTheDestroyer posted December 19, 2011:

Oh, how edgy! You're linking to someone else's article and using that as your entire argument. That never got tiresome at GameFAQs.
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S-Cynic posted December 19, 2011:

You're linking to someone else's article and using that as your entire argument.

Using it as an example, actually.

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