Not all gaming platforms were created equal. No, we’re not talking about hardware power, which seems to be a sensitive topic among console and PC gamers. We are talking about the games that seem like they were specifically made for a gaming platform only. For example, top-down real-time strategy games and multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games are meant for PC. FPS games are better played on Xbox One than on PS4 due to its controller, which features an analog stick as its d-pad. The Nintendo DS and 3DS are great for classic turn-based RPGs, thanks to the dual screens that allow better menu navigation. And then there are endless runners, which seem like they were heaven-sent for mobiles.
Action games with auto-running characters were around before mobile gaming became an acceptable category of gaming. One of the most easily recognized in the ‘90s were the PlayStation games Pepsiman and Crash Bandicoot (which is still popular to this day). You could say endless runners evolved from those games. Canabalt is seen by many as the one that popularized the modern endless runner genre in mobiles. But what exactly makes endless runners staples in today’s mobile gaming scene? Here are 4 reasons.
1. Controls aren’t complicated
Some games make you feel like a 10- button controller isn’t enough to cover all input. Even with a custom controller with two or more extra buttons that can be custom-mapped feels inadequate when playing action-RPGs and FPS games. On the other hand, some games feature so little controls that a one-button controller would suffice. Endless runners, which feature auto-running characters, belong in the latter category.
There are usually two types of endless runners: 1) endless runners where your character runs toward the top edge of your smartphone, with the environment zooming past you vertically, and 2) endless runners where your character runs from the left side of the screen to the right on a horizontal plane. Though they are basically the same, there are certain differences that set them apart. The former requires you to typically use touchscreen swipes to control your character’s actions: Swipe left or right to move to the left or right side of the screen to avoid obstacles. Swipe upward to perform a jump and swipe downward to do a slide. Some endless runners don’t even feature jumping or sliding actions, making the controls even easier that they already are. And let’s not forget those where controls are based on your smartphone’s gyroscope. Those are made for lazy people who want to play games with little to no effort.
The latter type of endless runners usually feature only jumping and sliding controls, also usually accomplished by swiping upward or downward on your smartphone’s screen. But there are many where all you have to do is gently tap on the screen to perform a jump. That’s it. Just tap until your thumbs go numb. Speaking of tapping, in endless runners where the playable character is flying or hovering mid-air, controls are a bit different. Instead of swiping upward or downward to avoid obstacles, you repeatedly tap on the screen to control your character’s balance (see: Flappy Bird and its numerous clones).
Because of the simplicity of controls, endless runners (both types) are perfectly playable using only one hand: the thumb is for input while the other four fingers team up with your sweaty palm to keep the screen steady. (Nintendo’s Super Mario Run was actually advertised as a game you can play using one hand only.) This makes endless runners perfect for casual gaming, especially when commuting. You can even play while in the middle of class or work, though we don’t recommend that course of action. Bottom line is, playing an endless runner is easier than texting.
2. It’s easy to jump back into the game
Like many non-RPG mobile games, endless runners don’t usually come with a well-developed story. Most don’t even tell you why your character is running in the first place. Though there are some whose premise can be easily picked up even without a single line of explanation. Take the hit endless runner game Temple Run as an example. If you saw the Harrison Ford starred movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, you probably got the premise of the game as soon as your character comes out running for dear life from inside a temple with dozens of angry monkeys right on your tail.
Because of the lack of a narrative to follow, it’s easy to boot up an endless runner, play for a few minutes, pause while you attend to adult responsibilities, and then return to it as soon you’re free again without missing a beat. You don’t have to remember what you’re supposed to be doing next, like in an RPG with lots of quests. You don’t have to remember where you last left your targets, like in an FPS. You don’t have to remember what move you’re supposed to do prior to your break, like in a puzzle game. Just jump back into the game and pick up where you left off pronto. But to ensure that you don’t get off to a bad start upon resuming your game, make sure you don’t pause just when your character is about to dodge an obstacle. Chances are, your reflexes won’t be fast enough to avoid it right after a pause.
3. There’s no end-game scenario
Typically, the goal in an endless runner is to simply see how far you can run in its procedurally generated world. Just run, run, and then run some more until your character either goes literally face to face with an obstacle, which differs depending on the game’s theme, or falls into a pit where darkness and disappointment awaits. There are usually no finish lines that you need to cross or clock that you need to beat. But there are a few games like Spider-Man Unlimited, one of the better comic book superhero-based mobile games around, which features set goals for each level. Like collecting certain items as you run along or beat bosses at the end of the level. These kinds of endless runners are few in number, though.
There are also those where, aside from the total distance covered, your high score is also affected by items collected on the way. Like coins and special items placed close to obstacles, as if forcing you to choose between your character’s life and more points at the end. Many are prone to going for the latter, usually out of reflex. As the genre name obviously says, endless runners have no end. They feature no stories to complete nor a finite number of levels to go through before the credits roll (unless it has a story mode). There’s no sense of accomplishment. To some, this may seem shallow. But for casuals, passing up the time doesn’t get any better than this (napping aside, of course).
4. Offers a lot of replay value
Yes, endless runners feature an extremely repetitive gameplay. The length of each play-through, which can last from just five seconds to five minutes, depending on your reflexes, is what gives endless runners replay value. They’re made for quick gaming sessions. Furthermore, endless runners have that “just one more” vibe, which causes players to go through the game again and again in order to beat their own high score or because they screwed up and want to redeem themselves. That’s more fun compared to grinding in RPGs where repeatedly defeating monsters in hopes of a rare equipment drop is boring as hell.
Another notorious reason why endless runners can be addicting is due to difficulty. Some are frustratingly difficult that players find it hard to get off the game unless they conquer whatever keeps on slapping them with a Game Over screen, like Swing Copters 2, whose developer pretty much tells you that it’s not for the short-tempered. Some endless runners are simply too fun to play, regardless of their difficulty or gameplay depth. Arguably one of the most enjoyable is Minion Rush, which features the pill-shaped, yellow henchmen that Gru employs in the animated movie Despicable Me. Just hearing those Minions speak their gibberish language would be enough to get you through long rides back home (as a non-driver, naturally).
Notable endless runners
Due to the nature of the gameplay of endless runners, it can be hard for developers to think of a concept that would make their endless runner different from the rest. Here are 4 of the more notable ones that you can play right now.
In a genre full of clones and copycats, how can developers create something that will stand out? Well, they can start by making a distinct art style or theme. After all, consumers first see the visuals before the gameplay or other elements that require them to play the game first. Alto’s Adventure is one such game, featuring a simple geometric-like art style that’s pleasing to the eyes, courtesy of the color hues. In Alto’s Adventure, you play as an auto-moving snowboarder who races down endless icy mountains. The game only has one control, which is for jumping. However, you can also tap your smartphone’s screen to perform tricks while mid-air. Your primary goal is to travel as far as you can and collect coins to boost your score. Performing tricks also gives you points. Certain goals can also be met while you snowboard along dangerous paths, like picking up llamas that ran away from home.
LOST IN HARMONY
Lost in Harmony is, technically, not an endless runner because its levels have an end point. But aside from that, it plays out like an endless runner where you swipe up, down, left, or right to avoid obstacles appearing in front of you. You also collect Stardusts in the game, which are effectively coins similar to other endless runners. However, what sets Lost in Harmony apart and what makes it truly notable is the rhythm game element included in the gameplay. See, aside from avoiding obstacles, you are also required to tap or, in some cases, tap-and-hold icons that appear on the screen, which are synchronized to whatever music is playing. Speaking of music, Lost in Harmony is arguably one of the best-sounding mobile games out there, with the default music in its two game modes ranging from upbeat to tear-shedding.
What do you get if you cross an endless runner featuring a character that moves on the ground with an endless runner like Flappy Bird? Well, you get Jetpack Joyride, Halfbrick Studios’ other popular mobile game (Fruit Ninja is the other, in case you don’t know). In Jetpack Joyride, the main character automatically runs from the left side of the screen to the right. You have no control over his speed. But instead of having a simple jump action, he uses a jetpack, hence the title, to avoid incoming obstacles like lasers. Controlling the backpack requires you to repeatedly tap your smartphone’s screen, which can be really tricky. The goal is to travel as far as you can without running face-first into obstacles. The farther you go, the more difficult it is to navigate around obstacles. Thankfully, you can collect special vehicles, like a plane that spits cash, to make your journey a little bit easier.
Let’s end this article with a second look into the game credited with pioneering the genre on mobiles. Canabalt HD is a remastered version of the original game. If you also play on PS4, then you would know that having an “HD” in the title automatically translates to visual enhancements. But despite the graphical touch-up, Canabalt HD is virtually the same game as the 2009 release, with the same James Bond-like character in an industrial setting. Your character is automatically running from left to right in a procedurally generated world. You mainly jump from buildings to buildings, running from whoever or whatever is pursuing you. Failing to jump across another building will mean death. Additionally, boxes are littered along the way which, upon contact, will slow down your character, making it more difficult to jump from a crumbling building. Like many endless runners these days, Canabalt HD only features a single button, which is for jumping. If you need a little bit of history lesson on endless runners, you should definitely check out this game.