Canabalt’s backdrop is apocalyptic, appropriate for a game intent on annihilating its genre’s core design tenets.
The platformer is largely the designer’s playground; little is left to chance in most of these worlds of bottomless pits and perfectly situated enemies. Reflexes and memorization are just as important as exploration, and the secrets that exist feel as deliberately placed as Moses’ burning bush. An impressive Mario speedrunner has more in common with a virtuoso concert pianist — hitting every note with an obsessive, passionate dedication to the act — than with an adventurer launching off into the unknown. The road maps of Mario and Sonic are so immaculate and unchanging that the dedicated, record-seeking champs spend months of their lives plotting and re-plotting the perfect route. (This fascinating Gameological profile of a Mario 64 speedrunner by Peter Malamud Smith showcases how these fanatics know the game’s rhythms down to the millisecond.)
A platformer without this preciseness can feel like anything from lackadaisical to a downright hostile experience. I immediately flash back to the hours I wasted on SNES-era licensed shovelware whenever a sidescroller feels like it’s in lesser hands than Nintendo’s divine watchmakers. So the idea of a procedurally generated platformer seems patently absurd: Why toss out the creator’s blueprint in one of the few genres where level design still reigns over all?
Canabalt sidesteps this question by stripping away navigation of its environment. Mario’s world isn’t a chore to explore because every inch of it has purpose. Like those other titans of mainstream psychedelia once said, there’s nowhere you can be which isn’t where you’re meant to be. Yet nothing in the Mario games feels as good as jumping; much of the success of the recent Galaxy games hinges on increasing and mutating the character’s aerodynamic abilities. Canabalt distills that sense of momentum and challenges the conventions of what, in 2009, seemed like a genre with little room for new ideas. Adam Saltsman’s one-button miracle argues that a laboriously arranged string of Koopa Troopas isn’t what attracts twitchy gamers to the platformer. It’s the motion, the push forward, the split-second spatial calculations. Canabalt‘s suited protagonist doesn’t need your input to keep running from certain oblivion. All you need to do is press “jump,” perhaps the most viscerally satisfying action in all of games. Think about any game with a jump command, from Super Mario Bros. to World of Warcraft, and try not to derive a little lizard-brained joy from imagining your avatar hopping along to your commands. It feels like a tiny discovery every time.
Everything in Canabalt is designed to feed off the player’s momentum. More importantly, it is all designed quite well. The game’s greyscale, crumbling universe contrasts sharply with Suit Running Guy, rendering him a visible focal point. (Another similarity between Mario and Canabalt is that both games’ creators designed their heroes’ iconic appearances mostly for visibility’s sake. Mario has a red cap and mustache to keep him from looking like an indiscernible pixel blob, and Suit Running Guy has his suit and tie.) Every object he encounters either hinders or informs him of his speed, be it mechanically pertinent elements like the velocity-halting debris or the more purely aesthetic flourishes like the birds flying away as he passes. These little touches are what make the game belong to Saltsman and composer Daniel Baranowsky. Despite the randomized nature of the cityscapes, when I hear my avatar’s footsteps softly clinking across a metal crane right as the game’s excellent electro soundtrack momentarily quiets, I never doubt I am in the hands of artists and perfectionists.
I’ve never been frustrated at Canabalt, quite a feat for a game where death is imminent and often not the player’s fault. Perhaps it’s the game’s touch-screen simplicity, seemingly designed for on-the-go spurts of play. There’s a reason this is the game that became the classy prototype for how to make a smartphone game. Its accessibility is key to why it’s enjoyable, not a base level for piling on banner ads and microtransactions. But I think there’s more to Canabalt than its suitability for the ephemeral bus ride to work. Its pure enjoyability separates it from many of the pissing contests and debates of worth that plague most games. I’m sure a few players get intense about Canabalt‘s leaderboards, but I imagine far fewer of the game’s diehards care about scores and progress than in one of its more bells-and-whistles-heavy descendents like Temple Run. The ultimate way to play Canabalt is, simply, to play it and be carried away. Its unpredictable, ever-changing skyline creates a danger-around-every-corner suspense that only grows giddier the longer Suit Running Guy survives. And while the “endless runner” is an idea already cloned to death, the lack of an endgame in a skilled incarnation like Canabalt allows the player to simply enjoy the moment. How often does a game ask players to commit to nothing more than the thrill of playing it?