A Brief History of Endless Runners

The advent of Super Mario Run has brought fresh attention to the Endless Runner genre. A genre many of us non-mobile gamers had never heard of before our favorite Italian plumber decided to join the fad. So just what makes an Endless Runner, and just where did they originate? Let us journey through gaming history to see if Endless Runners are a unique snowflake or just a new spin on a retro gaming favorite.

Endless runners are largely defined by what is considered to be the first of its kind. A game called Canabalt. Released in 2009 the game was designed to feel fast paced in the way a racing game does. This is accomplished by removing your ability to control the speed and direction of your character. Instead you only have one button. One control option. Jumping.

When you start the game your character leaps out of an office building window, grabs onto a neighboring building, pulls itself up, and begins to run. Your job is to tell the character to jump over various obstacles. Some of the obstacles come in the form of air gaps between buildings. Missing one of these leads to an instant game over. Other obstacles include crates and office chairs. While these won’t kill you they will slow you down. Other objects such as the bombs, that drop at random, will lead to your death upon collision. As you progress the speed and difficulty increase until you slip up and fail. Key to the formula is the lack of any ending other than death and procedurally generated levels.

The success of this formula led to many variants which have each spiced it up in unique ways. Examples of these games are Fotonica, Sonic Dash, and Flappy bird. These clones and spin-offs are what have solidified Canabalt’s position as the first Endless Runner game. But was there something similar before it? Enter Nom.

Nom is a platforming game released by Korean developer Gamevil in 2003. Nom is similar to Canabalt in many ways. Primary among these is that the character constantly runs forward without player intervention and that the only control allows you to jump. As in Canabalt and other Endless Runners you must avoid obstacles as you progress through the game. Unlike endless runners Nom is divided into courses. These courses are split into three sections. Each section occupies a different orientation of your smart phone screen. This is where Nom’s uniqueness shines through. As you progress to each part you need to rotate your phone to gain a new perspective. While not something we find in our typical Endless Runner formula it seems to be something Endless Runners borrow from.

By now you are probably thinking, but wait this formula sounds like something I played as a kid. You would be right to think that. Going back as far as 1981 with Scramble we have some of the first emerging Endless Runner style games. Scramble is often cited as the forerunner of all Endless Runner games. Like Canabalt the game does not end until you die. It gets progressively more difficult as you play through each loop. Each loop consists of six sections. Each section has its own terrain theme. At the end of each of these loops you are confronted with an enemy base that you must destroy in order to move on. To make things more difficult you must destroy and collect fuel tanks to increase the amount of time you can play. Running out of fuel results in instant death.

But what happens if we look a little further back? Are there other less known games that exemplify this formula? In fact yes there are.

Night Driver was released in 1976 as an arcade game. The game was more or less a night time driving simulator. The key difference between this game and Endless Runners is that you can control the speed of your character via a gas pedal. In most other ways the formula is quite static. The game loops infinitely growing more difficult as time passes. You must avoid objects to stay alive. Like Scramble your time is artificially limited, but in this case you must earn points to gain more time instead of finding fuel.

I think it is safe to say that Endless Runners are more retro than we give them credit for. Their lineage flows back to the dawn of video game history. While some may spurn these games and think Endless Runners as a new fad I say relax and enjoy one. There may be more nostalgia to be had than you realize at first blush.

Know of an older game that I missed? Have a favorite game that fits the mold? Annoyed that i am comparing new genres to retro favorites? Let me know in the comment section below. I am eager to see how your opinion stacks up to mine.