The moment you hit “Play” on Canabalt your character runs forward, intrepidly smashes through a window, and descends onto a rooftop. The explosion propels the glass; its tiny shards tinkling as they tumble outward along the top of the building. You roll with the momentum of the fall and rise up into a continued run towards the edge of the building.
Canabalt is a game people fail at immediately but understand quickly. It is a simple platform game fueled with a profound parkour sensibility. The essence of parkour is a form of movement that seeks to navigate your path with pristine efficiency as though you are being pursued. When you watch videos of parkour it is clear there is a planning process involved in how its practitioners will use the terrain as their ally. Parkour involves a lot of critical thinking that Canabalt encourages because the longer your feet run unhindered, the faster you go.
The only action you can perform in the game is a jump, and jumping is pressure sensitive — essentially the height of your jump depends on the duration of your touch, but your speed influences your jump as well. As you run you come across obstacles: boxes, bombs that fall from the sky, crumbling buildings, a monstrous object falls and demolishes buildings, and windows you must crash through.
Should you choose to look at the background as you nimbly leap over obstacles, you see that game designer Adam Atomic has bothered to add a dystopian landscape to the black, white, and gray palette game. As you run, you see spaceships fly by and shake the screen. The buildings in the distance seem to have chunks missing, and further behind them you see the occasional AT-AT Walker-shaped robots trudging past smoke that billows up into the sky.
Similarly, Danny Baranowsky’s music enriches the industrial-themed background and fuels your infatuation with the gameplay. His score begins with a foghorn-like portent that rises into a machinegun-style drum beat. The theme then erupts with a synth guitar grind that waivers before progressing into the a playful marimba that gradually rises in tempo.
But Canabalt‘s true brilliance is rooted in how its reliance on your senses is a virtual echo of parkour’s ideals. When bombs or those monstrous objects fall during the game, there is an audible shudder that precedes them. This sound forces you to plan your leaps so that you are able to bound over them safely. You must also keenly focus on the path ahead; hit too many obstacles and you might not be running fast enough to make your next jump, run too quickly and you might not see the upcoming window and miss the timing required to successfully leap through it.
The immediacy of the gameplay also entices you to keep pursing its hurdles. A death in Canabalt doesn’t deter your desire to conquer your previous score because no two games share the same path of rooftops or obstacles. Each failure only encourages you to reconsider your philosophy of play, or demands a promise to hone your senses, a promise that states that the next time you spawn at the beginning of the game, descend on the first building, and watch the flock of white birds rise you vow: “watch how I soar.”
Canabalt is rated RP (Rating Pending) by the ESRB for Content Descriptors. This game can also be found on: PC.