App Club: The Tiny Perfection That Is Canabalt

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I could play Canabalt forever. Or I could if I didn’t suck at it.

Canabalt is a good example of why I’m loving the iPhone gaming renaissance so much. The iPhone has severely constrained resources, but game developers thrive on restraint. It’s good for themn. Look at Defender. What was that, like 20K? But it’s a tiny, complete, living world unto itself. So is Canabalt.

The game has one core mechanic: you’re a little 2D guy running along rooftops, and you have to jump over the gaps. Sometimes you have to crash through a window. Sometimes the building starts crumbling under your feet. Sometimes you have to jump over a box or a chair or a huge emplacement thing that drops down in front of you. Sometimes you disturb a huge flock of John Woo-esque white birds, who flap up around you looking pretty.

Equally important is what’s going on in the ruined cityscape behind you. Huge menacing tripods with beam weapons wander by in sillhouette. Plumes of smoke rise up. Sometimes a spaceship screams overhead, and the screen shakes. It’s all done in black, white and grey. Ominous techno music plays over the sound of your running feet. None of this affects actual gameplay. It’s just cool.

That’s it. Run, jump, run, jump. Your score is the number of meters you run before you die. Canabalt probably occupies as much memory as, like, a Big Daddy’s left ankle in Bioshock. But seeing an app like this, where they’ve refined a single game mechanic to perfection, rather than junking it up with a million special moves and polygons and mini-games and such, reminds me of my days as an Apple IIe gamer, playing stuff like Lode Runner and Bolo, where the entire universe was built around one key effect, which the game delivered on completely.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m old.

The friend who turned me on to Canabalt casually mentioned he’d done 6,000 m. I haven’t beat that yet. Have you?