Canabalt Review: Minimalism as Perfection

Canabalt rises from humble origins. It began as a five-day experimental gameplay project, was unleashed upon the web as a free Flash game, and quickly took the Internet by storm. Now, you can keep it in your pocket.

The premise is simple. Giant robots are destroying the city, and you must run for your life. It just so happens that the attack catches you on a high floor in an office building. With the building literally coming down around you, what could you possibly do but take your escape to the city rooftops? Hurdling a couple of chairs and crashing through the nearest window, your flight begins. And it never, ever ends. At least, not until you do.

Canabalt is an endurance game. Your protagonist dashes pell-mell over the city rooftops as the giant robots wreak havoc and destruction in the background. There’s no stopping him, no controlling him, no holding him back. He runs! And when you touch the screen, he jumps. The longer you touch the screen, the higher and longer he jumps. Jump to avoid obstacles and to clear gaps between buildings, your goal to keep him running for as long as possible before meeting his inevitable end.


Style: Canabalt is exquisitely minimalistic in presentation. The game is comprised entirely of old-school, pixel graphics steeped in shades of gray. While the game’s breakneck pace is a part of its thrill, you almost want it all to stand still, just so that you can get a better look. The animations are beautifully rendered; such detail in movement is rarely seen in games of this sort, and it hearkens back in many ways to the original 1989 Prince of Persia. Whether the protagonist’s running and jumping animations, the shattering of glass, the flight of pigeons, the crumbling of buildings, the passing of warships, the crashing of bombs or the stomping of giant, bipedal robots, Canabalt’s animations are nothing short of gorgeous. The game’s lack of color leaves nothing to be desired. Canabalt’s grey world and noir asthetic fits the setting and situation perfectly.

Sound: By turns ambient electronica, then throbbing techno, Canabalt’s music is wonderfully compelling. A single track written literally overnight during the game’s short development period, it nevertheless perfectly underscores your desperate getaway. At times, I’ve found myself coming back to Canabalt just to hear it again.  Canabalt is a game you will not want to play in silent mode, the music is so deeply a part of it. Rather it’s a game you will want to play with headphones, and head-splitting volume.

The game’s sound effects aren’t too shabby either. The protagonist’s pounding feed over the rooftops, the roar of passing ships, the rumble of collapsing buildings and the tinkle of broken glass all sound great, and add to the feeling of desperation.

Pacing: Everything about Canabalt is fast. Your protagonist quickly accelerates to hazardous speeds, slowing only when he stumbles on one the many obstacles strewn in your escape path. From the moment you smash through that first window, the game is relentless. A single stumble can often spell your demise, as you will no longer have the momentum necessary to clear the next jump. You can’t always jump high and far. It’s often the smallest jump that will allow you to clear the box, hit the short span of rooftop on the other side and make the next leap to the building beyond; a longer leap would send you sailing into the abyss. Other times, too high a jump will cause you to overshoot a window, planting you against the build exterior. Moving forward at such speed, decisions must be instantaneous, made by reflex. A moment’s hesitation is death.

But it’s not just the running that’s fast. Beyond the initial load, the game carries on briskly. Play sessions are short, making it ideal for standing in line or killing time. When you die, you are presented a Game Over screen showing the distance covered. A single tap restarts, beginning a new run at once. And you always want to play just … one … more … time. Because you know you can always do better than the last time.


No Achievements: It would be great to see Open Feint or some other type of social achievement tracking implemented in Canabalt. Achievements could, of course, be based on distance, but could also include goals for boxes leapt, windows broken, pigeons scattered, etc. It might even be fun to count deaths, categorized by cause — death by falling, bombs, smashing into a wall, etc. The game does allow you to Tweet your scores, so some type of social aspect was apparently considered. It’s just lacking.

No Global Leaderboards: Local High Scores are recorded, but it would be great to see how you stack up against other players.

No ‘Back’ Button: There’s not much to the game menu-wise. My only complaint is that there’s no way to escape back to the main menu from the game. I’d love to see a button on the game over screen that allows you to get back to the menu to check high-scores.

The iPhone is home to many ‘one-touch’ games, and Canabalt is hands-down the best of them. It offers presentation values through the roof, and one of the iPhone’s most pulse-pounding thrill rides. It’s easy to pick up, hard to put down and perfect for quick sessions. Some gamers may find the game repetitive, or a one-trick-pony, and there is certainly justification for thinking so. But as a bottom-line, Canabalt does right whatever it does, and doesn’t try to spread itself too thin. The game is focused and fun.

At $2.99, it might be a hard buy for some. There are definitely games out there offering a lot more content at that price. But as a longtime fan of the free Flash version, I didn’t hesitate to throw down for this one. I thought Canabalt was brilliant the first time I played it, I still think it’s brilliant on the iPhone, and I think that’s worth my financial support. I would encourage you to try the original (free) Flash version of Canabal, or the free Flash-based mock-iPhone version and make that decision for yourself.


Canabalt was developed by Semi Secret, and I played through version 1.0 on an iPhone 3G. The price is $2.99.



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