Alto's Adventure and the Legacy of Canabalt

This is Alto’s Adventure. It’s an endless runner in which you snowboard down a mountain to rescue your runaway llamas, doing tricks and avoiding obstacles along the way.

I love this game. It plays well, but what sets it apart is how lovely and chill it is. So much polish has gone into the atmosphere and it pays off. There’s the obvious stuff, like a beautiful art style and a soothing soundtrack, but on top of that are so many little touches. The sun moves across the sky, setting and rising as you play, changing not just brightness but color warmth and really selling the feeling that you’ve been snowboarding all night and a new day has dawned around you. Rainstorms come and go, with no effect on gameplay but helping the setting feel more like a living world. The sounds your board makes on the snow or when grinding on bunting lines or rooftops are rich and vivid - for me, they’re borderline ASMR-inducing when I play with headphones. And I love the way that the llamas slide down slopes instead of running once the incline is steep enough.

It all comes together to create a profound sense of joyful speed and solitude, coasting down this starkly beautiful yet somehow cozy mountainside. You’re one with the wind and the snow, and all there is is the descent in front of you. Obstacles and opportunities keep coming and you need to react to them just in time - once you learn and internalize how to respond to each situation that can arise, you do so without conscious thought, faster than conscious thought, the experience flowing through you as you flow down the mountain.

Endless runners are a lot like rhythm games in this way - they create flow by presenting you with a series of rapid-fire cues you have to respond to without taking time to think. But in runners, the cues are procedurally generated, so you can’t memorize them and they can last forever. It’s like a song that never ends but keeps growing and changing. A theme with endless variation.

I’ve played a lot of endless runners that tweak the formula in various ways. But somehow, Alto’s Adventure is the one that most reminds me of where the genre got its start. It’s the one that feels the most like a pure descendant of the game that first popularized endless runners, the first one I ever played: Canabalt.

This is Canabalt. It came out all the way back in 2009, and it was an eye-opener. It looked and played more or less like a 2D platformer, with the player running to the right and jumping at the right times to keep going. But it ran for you, leaving you to focus on reading the oncoming hazards and timing your jumps to avoid them. It took away the ability to be careful and forced you into a flow-inducing, adrenaline-maximizing, full-speed-ahead charge with barely any time to react. To make this possible, it had an incredibly simple one-button control scheme: tap to jump, hold to jump higher. That’s it. And yet within this framework, it still had extra depth from a risk and reward trade-off that was under the player’s control - your character ran faster and faster over time, but you could slow down by deliberately tripping over boxes or office chairs. Going faster meant achieving greater distances and higher scores more quickly, but made it much more difficult to react to hazards in time. Eventually, for one reason or another, you failed, and the game prompted you with a tantalizing message: “Tap to retry your daring escape.” It was easy to wonder, back before people knew what an “endless runner” was, whether the game could, perhaps, actually be beaten. Whether you really could escape if you just kept trying.

Games journalist and designer Tim Rogers published a review saying that Canabalt was what playing Super Mario Bros. felt like to a seven-year-old: endless and unconquerable. He called the game “Super Mario Tetris” for the way it turned the core mechanics of a platformer into a game you could play forever if you were skilled enough. He asked whether every game should have an endless mode, suggesting that any game mechanic that wasn’t enjoyable enough to stand on its own like this was in some sense a failure. Like driving ranges for golf players, endless modes offer mechanical purity and player-driven scope instead of the limits of a predefined set of levels.

But it wasn’t just the mechanics that made Canabalt compelling. It was the atmosphere. Canabalt’s storytelling was entirely environmental and implied. There was no intro or explanation, and you never saw what your character was running from. There was the tense mood of the backing music. There was the occasional shaking from low-flying aircraft. There were the mysterious monstrous silhouettes in the distance, the collapsing buildings, the missiles falling, the scattering doves, and there was you, running along a city skyline, jumping between rooftops and crashing through windows, not daring to stop - all expressively animated in grayscale pixel art. Canabalt’s atmosphere was as refined and open-ended as its mechanics, and they came together to create one singular drive: keep going.

Canabalt quickly became popular with players, but it made an even bigger impact on game designers who immediately grasped the potential that it revealed. The next couple of years saw an explosion of similar games, each of which took Canabalt’s basic formula and expanded it in various directions. First these were called Canabalt clones, but before long it was clear that they formed a genre all their own and they were called endless runners. Many of them were hits in their own right.

Robot Unicorn Attack gave the player a double-jump and dash attack and traded the mysterious grayscale disaster for a Lisa Frank-inspired rainbow dreamscape backed by an Erasure song.

Temple Run evoked Indiana Jones, casting the player as a relic hunter escaping demonic monkeys by turning, sliding, and jumping their way past obstacles while steering to collect coins which could be spent on power-ups.

Jetpack Joyride swapped out running for a jet pack - hold the button to rise up, release to drop down. On top of that came a variety of vehicles, each of which had its own different one-button control scheme, and a series of semi-random missions to keep the gameplay fresh.

Even triple-A developers took notice, and the second Mirror’s Edge was a prequel that followed up the first-person parkour game by applying the simple controls and nonstop forward motion of an endless runner to predesigned levels.

One of my favorite things in games is watching a genre evolve as designers explore its possibility space. And Canabalt revealed a space that was ripe for growth. Each of these follow-ups pushed things further, incorporated more complexity, tied in more elements of other kinds of games.

Soon came BIT.TRIP RUNNER, which embraced the similarity to rhythm games by straight-up being one, placing the obstacles and collectibles in such a way that handling them properly would create music.

10000000 tied endless runner elements - the continuous stream of obstacles and opportunities you must react to quickly - to a mix of match-3 puzzle and RPG progression.

Race the Sun adapted the endless runner to 3D by moving it into the sky, having you glide over a low-poly landscape collecting power-ups and trying not to crash.

Even Nintendo finally brought things full circle with their first mobile action game: Super Mario Run, an auto-running Super Mario platformer with both predesigned levels and procedurally-generated modes.

There have been so many endless runners created in the past decade. But to me, Alto’s Adventure is the one that feels most like a descendant of Canabalt rather than an offshoot.

I think this is because, in its heart, Alto’s Adventure has the same priorities. It’s still a game of mechanical purity and evocative atmosphere. It still has a simple one-button control scheme - tap to jump, hold to do flips - while adding player-driven risk/reward trade-offs via the trick system and the optional rail-grinds. Variety comes not from giving you more abilities, but instead in creating more contexts in which to use them, through a wider range of environmental features and a mission system that tasks you with using those features to accomplish specific goals like jumping from ramps to grinds or evading the elders who occasionally pursue you. Completing these missions rewards you with new characters who have slightly different trade-offs such as a slower cruise speed but faster backflips. These changes recontextualize, rather than replace, the game’s core loop. The moment to moment gameplay is still about reacting in time to what’s in front of you, and everything that’s been added just enhances this central interaction. It’s an evolution that adds longevity without changing the focus. The game keeps you learning longer, and that means more opportunity for flow.

When I play Alto’s Adventure, I want to take it back in time. I want to show it to Adam Saltsman in September of 2009, right after he finished the original Flash version of Canabalt, just before he ported it to iOS and it blew up. I want to tell him that this is a game that will be on PC and all major consoles in eleven years and that it only exists because of him.

“Look at the doors you opened for us,” I want to say to him. “Look what we have because you showed us we could.”

“Imagine what we’ll have tomorrow.”