28 November 2012

Thoughts on Pixels: Canabalt

I have recently started to play Canabalt again, mostly because I needed something to kill time while on public transport, and it still is a strikingly simple yet elegant game to play. Let's analyze a bit.

I needed something to play on my Android-phone. Something that starts up and ends quickly, as I would sometimes only play in bursts of three or four minutes. Something that works on a small resolution, because my phone is rather small. Something with simple but reliable input, preferably being among the very few Apps that actually recognize my slide-out keyboard because I highly dislike gaming with a touchscreen where my thumb obscures a third of the screen and the input precision is less than good anyways. Temple Run, while still being touch-controlled, was alright for a while but whenever the bus or subway train I was on turned, the phones sensors would interpret that as a tilt and that would lead to in-game troubles. So I came back to Canabalt, downloaded myself the HD-Paid-Version. It is as glorious as I remember.

The appropriate thing for the game to do in any situation I want to play things on my cellphone in is in the minimalistic and simple input. There are only two variables to player-input in Canabalt, one being when you press jump and the other being how long you press it. That's all. The first four seconds of the game are always the same, putting three obstacles in your way, first two random office-objects, then the drop behind that window. Only if you miss all three jumps, you will fall to your death. Then the game is, of course, on.

Now there is a tiny bit of strategy involved in this. When I first played Canabalt long ago, my girlfriend and I would take turns and she would be annoyed because I racked up much larger scores than she did, until she noticed what I was doing: Bumping into obstacles on purpose every once in a while to keep my speed below the maximum and thus maintain a useful reaction time.

The version that is on my phone now is a bit different. The graphics are better, of course (although that is a choice, not a must), but there is also a new type of event that, although happening rarely, greatly alters the game for me because I only survive it maybe one out of three times. I am not even sure what it's supposed to be, maybe the leg of one of the huge robots from the background, but it usually stops me. That in combination with the weaker input-periphery that makes it really hard to do little jumps, thus often forcing me to jump up against the wall above a window, has prevented me from raising my old high score of 21 km but the point of the game is, of course, to keep trying and to waste some time.

Canabalt has a random-generated world that unfolds infront of you in 2-D, sprinkling it with different running surfaces (skyscraper, crane, billboard) and events (window to burst through, obstacle to stagger over, bomb-drop, collapsing building, being stepped-on) that are gone as soon as you realize they're there, thus keeping the experience fresh at all times. You're constantly on the edge and highly threatened in this game and there is no end to it. Once I saw the mothership in the background I thought that maybe there is - and I would actually like it if there were some unreachable end at, say 100 km that keeps taunting you to go on. But even without it, you do try again. And again. Then not again. But then later again...

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