In a slighty disappointing year for games, where few in the mainstream barely even bothered trying to push the goal lines, there were not many games that can be called hip. Canabalt is hipper than a cat wearing shutter shades.
Canabalt is a haute couture robot apocalypse about a man running for his life. With it’s crisp and delicious animations and bold monochrome colour scheme this is a game that would be equally at place projected on the wall of a gallery or in a grimy back alley. This is what 8 bit games would look like if they were made by art school layabouts who chain smoke and sneer. The big boys may have found new ways to render the wetness of eyeballs but outside of the quest for hyper realistic virtual pornography does anyone really care? Screw realism with a steak knife, Canabalt looks better than the real world. Do graphics matter? Of course they do, videogames are a visual medium after all, but at this point I’ll take a bold creative art direction over a clinically technical one any day.
Quick question how many games last year can you hum the music too? For me there’s only Canabalt. Is it just me or do most games try and make the music deliberately unnoticeable these days? I can sort of understand why, we’re supposed to be there to play the game not to listen to sick jams but the current Inon Zur-aration of videogame scores depresses the hell out of me. Videogame music used to be inventive and interesting. Other artforms embrace music as a way of explicitly enhancing the experience. Stars Wars isn’t the same without it’s signature pieces and Andy Warhol’s screenprints damn near need the Velvet Underground blaring in the background to make any sense. Canabalt’s music is in your face and sticks in your head.
But what really makes Canabalt exciting is how flawless the jumping feels. A good run is an adrenaline rush as you franticly try to control the variables. Obviously you’ve got to time the jumps but there’s more to it than that, you’ve also got to control your speed, the height of your jumps and, if you want to really master the game, the arc of the jump. That’s where the genius of the windows comes in. At first they can be annoying but once you learn to harness the decay of the jump they become managable and by manageable I mean do able. The windows separate the wheat from the chaff and clearing one is always a joy. Soon you’re deliberately only barely clearing the jumps because landing on a roof earlier means more time to reset and hit the next jump, which means you can go faster, which means you can rack up points quicker. That’s classic risk reward right there.
All of this is tied to smartly tuned procedurally generated level design. The obstacles may be modular but far from becoming repetitious the game’s focus on the importance of execution makes each one a challenge. I’ve heard people talk about Spelunky and how the randomly generated levels prevent it from growing frustrating. I can see that but I could never connect with it. Spelunky is too slow and too cruel, investing ten minutes into a game only to die for some slight mistake rubs me the wrong way. Canabalt on the other hand is an incredibly quick game, a score over 5000 may only take a minute or two to achieve yet it’s still a hell of an achievement.
It might be the perfect game for the millennial generation, it may be the perfect synthesis of casual and core, what I know is that it’s a stunningly elegant Tetris-like design. Except better because it’s got robots.
And yeah it’s controlled with one button.