Getting on the high score leader board for Canabalt was my white whale and I pursued it obsessively. My goal wasn’t to crack the all-time scores, or even the weekly scores. Those were too daunting. All I wanted was to make it onto the top 100 daily scores. Not an insurmountable task or anything. Rather, it’s something attainable that would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside once I reached that goal. Not many games make me play for high scores, and even fewer games make me play that game for hours in pursuit of obscure recognition. Canabalt, a game revolved around occasional tapping, isn’t like most games.
In an instant, the game begins with a small man in a sharp jacket bursting dramatically out of a window in a washed out, blue and gray world. The chase is on. Strange mechanical creatures loom in the foreground of this presumed dystopian future, although they simply add to the atmosphere. Who or what is chasing this man is never revealed. Across randomly generated rooftops, billboards and crumbling buildings, the hero leaps over obstacles in a quest for freedom. He never escapes, namely since the game never ends, but it’s still the fastest, most intense 2D platformer I’ve ever played. I can’t get enough of it.
When a game is as simple as Canabalt, the mechanics better be pretty damn good. There’s nothing really to do aside from tapping the screen to jump over things, with the strength of the tap affected just how big a jump it is. Here, it all feels so intuitive that the quest for a high score to be rewarding rather than frustrating. Considering how easy it is to fall off a ledge into “game over” oblivion, this quite a feat for such a pint-sized iPhone game.
The man with no name gradually builds up speed the more he runs, and the only way to slow down is to run into the occasional box or office chair scattered around. This is a game about pure instinct and fast reaction times, but when going too fast – and that little guy moves fast – hitting these obstacles is required to keep things manageable. This isn’t always the case, because if the next building you leap onto is crumbling and the nameless hero isn’t going fast, then it’s game over. Same for those horrifying moments when then there’s the sound of a massive bomb dropping. Without fail, the next building will be demolished with only a small area left for jumping. Canabalt is a game about balance and tapping. And a bit of luck.
Canabalt is a slightly modified port of a Flash game, and despite technical limitations, the world of nameless hero and his attempt at freedom is strangely beautiful. Everything is black and white and while there isn’t an enormous variety in the style of the buildings, the way that pigeons fly away as the man approaches and the satisfying crash from busting through a window are small touches that makes the game, in its limited an unconventional piece of eye candy. The two excellent music tracks in the game, one a moody industrial beat and the other a bombastic score that sounds like it belongs in the movie, also adds to the atmosphere.
Despite hours of play, I still have yet to crack the daily high scores list. I played the game while watching football, in the car and late into the night, but I’m still not good enough. There are more complex games out there, but there aren’t many more exciting games on the iPhone and iPod than Canabalt. Its simplicity is an asset that takes advantage of the system like few other games other have. Sooner or later, I will have my white whale and crack the leader boards. I’ll still play the game afterwards, too.
Update: After publishing this review, I cracked the high scores with 10,844. Later that day, I was off the top 100 as other people surpassed me.