Canabalt Home Screen

The Prelude

I recently purchased a new game for my iPhone: Canabalt. It was initially recommended by John Gruber, writer of Daring Fireball. After Mr. Gruber recommended the game, I decided to at least try it: his taste is usually quite good. I picked it up from the App Store, but let it sit lonely on my home screen for several days before actually trying it. I had bought it during a busy week, and it was easily forgotten whilst sitting on my third home screen (my third home screen page is reserved for apps with ‘less-then-exceptional’ icons.)

But more recently, my good friend George remarked that it was an incredibly fun and addicting game. Remembering my purchase, I was quick to lie and say that I also loved it, and had been playing it quite a bit in my spare time. I’d say I came off sounding quite nice in that case, even though it was a complete lie.

I only lied about it because I was embarrassed about buying it and never even trying to play. I didn’t want to seem like buying apps was a frivolous process for me, something I do without thought, even though it really is. I suppose that covering this up really is pointless, considering how many apps I own (roughly 175 at the moment.)

The Story

The storyline, or what I have gathered about it, is that you are escaping a location, and doing so by jumping across the tops of buildings through a post-apocolyptic city. I’m not sure what you are escaping from, but judging by the background of the game (by which I mean the actual background images) you are fleeing some sort of destructive robotic attack.

I could go on with more of my own speculation, but I think that one of the great parts of this game is that it is completely open-ended. The world of Canabalt is whatever you make of it. It lets you create your own version of the storyline to match whatever scenario you’d like. So try the game out, and see what you make of it.

The Game

Canabalt is deceptively simple in its gameplay, but has many small details hidden in every aspect of the game. These additions make the game addictive, enjoyable, and most of all, unique every time.

The game is quite simply a fast-paced side scroller, where you do not have control over acceleration or direction, only when to jump. This is one of the great parts of the game, which you can read more about in the Controls section below.

Canabalt Gameplay Screen

The scoring system is based on one measurement: distance run. The idea is that the farther you can get away from whatever it is you are escaping, the better you have done. You have to time your jumps perfectly so that you don’t overshoot a building, or end up running straight off the edge. The speed at which you’re running will go up if you can run for longer periods of time without running into things. There are some rather large obstacles that sometimes fall from the sky: they’ll kill you if you run into them. But there are also crate-like obstacles (I think that some of them resemble air conditioning units) that get in your way. They won’t kill you, but they will slow you down. This is usually a bad thing, but it can be a good idea at times, especially if you’re finding it difficult to make jumps fast enough. But watch out: if you’re too slow, you may not be able to make it across some of the larger gaps.

The Controls

The controls of Canabalt are dead simple, and that is where their elegance lies. The iPhone platform is hugely popular because of the complex controls that it offers, including multi-touch gestures, accelerometer, and more: but sometimes they can all get to be a little much. I am often frustrated with other games that require so much thought before actually using controls (What would shaking do right now? What would happen if I put two fingers on the screen instead of one?) and Canabalt fixes that by simply having one control. When you want to jump, you tap. You can tap anywhere on the screen, for any amount of time, and with whatever number of fingers you’d like. No matter what, a tap will make you jump. There is no confusion, no learning curve.

Getting There

Many games require startup, a selection from a menu, another menu or two, and then a loading screen before you can begin playing. This is all well and good on a real console, but on my phone I’d like a game to be ready to play when I am. From the moment I decide I would like to play Canabalt (starting at my home screen) it takes 13 seconds for me to start actually playing the game. In sharp contrast, it takes me about 30 seconds to get up and running with the ever-popular geoDefense Swarm (not to say that I don’t absolutely love that game as well.) Even the great Ramp Champ takes about 20-25 seconds to get up and running, from the home screen. This small amount of time may seem minor, but it makes the game feel much more responsive and ready-to-go.


Canabalt Game Over Screen

Some may criticize Canabalt for using pixel graphics: I am not one of those people. Pixel art is extremely impressive, when done well. This is a case where I’d say it has been done very tastefully. It accents the side scroller aspect of the game, giving it a slightly dated yet still very modern feel. The background of the game is also in constant motion, and has details that are only available to the quick eye. Or the slower eye, if you’re willing to die while looking.

The main character is a small black and white man. He may at first seem simple, but you will find that his body bends when he jumps, and he will oftentimes land and do a front-flip before continuing to run. Almost as if he was showing off for someone. In any case, the game is extremely detailed, and worth playing even just for the incredible graphics.


Canabalt Startup Screen

That is the screen that Canabalt displays while starting up, and it does not lie. The full experience of Canabalt is lost without the sound effects, and they are not done justice when played off of the iPhone speakers. After donning my Sennheiser headphones and turning up the volume I was instantly immersed in the world of Canabalt. Although the soundtrack can get repetitive after long periods of time, it’s really best to play in short bursts: carpal tunnel syndrome is a serious problem.


This game fits in perfectly on the iPhone. It is simplistic yet detailed, and gameplay is smooth. I haven’t had it crash at all, which is a feat all by itself considering how temperamental my iPhone can be.