At one point, I claimed this game to be one of my top 10 games of all time. Since, I’ve reconsidered that claim. But after jumping in recently after a long break I’d probably keep the game if I ever decided to redo/edit that original list.
The flash indie roguelike Binding of Isaac was already a great game, and the remade and improved Rebirth made it into one of the greatest video games of all time. Especially within the realm of modern video games.
This game is a prime example of excellent game design. The foundation is isometric, zelda-like dungeons, and four direction movement and shooting. It’s basic, and most importantly it can be built upon. The developers (Edmund McMillen and the team Nicalis) built a mansion of items, all of which have positive or negative effects, and some of which interact in interesting ways–such as transforming Isaac into a powerful dead cat. Or giving him projectiles that dominate every room with planet sized tears.
In The Binding of Isaac players take control of a sad little boy named Isaac. He shoots enemies with his tears as he tries to escape from his tyrannical mother, who has regular conversations with god. God told her to kill Isaac, so he must escape through a bedroom trapdoor leading to the basement: a basement that tunnels straight into hell. Enemies range from biblical figures, to flies, to piles of shit, and you must kill them all by crying at them.
Yes, this is all very dark. But because of Edmund McMillen’s charming and crude artstyle, a glint of humor lends itself to the narritive saving it from being just another edgy, overly cynical video game. Although McMillen has said his life experiences with religion were negative, inspiring a lot of his ideas regarding the creation of Binding of Isaac, you never feel as though you are beat over the head with preachy, philosophical, or anti-religious notions. I spent my early hours with this game laughing at some of the items, like the “lunch” item which is clearly a can of dog food. But soon enough, you grow to completely ignore the theme because you are just that compelled by the gameplay.
The dog food adds a heart to your lifebar, which like Zelda is how the game communicates players’ remaining life. Two hits deplete a heart. Some attainable items take away from this lifebar, while others provide temporary hearts that vanish entirely once depleted. There are pills which act like potions in any other roguelike in that they are unidentified every run and every color coordinates to a specific function coordinated to that specific run. There are also tarot cards that function as abilities, equipable items that add or detract to Isaac’s performance, and other items that can change the way Isaac shoots his tears, or the way he moves around, or the way he uses bombs.
Bombs and keys both litter dungeon floors, as well as coins, and they are all quite useful as means to win a game. Coins can be spent in a variety of ways. Mostly in shops, which have to be unlocked by keys. Keys also unlock treasure rooms, of which there are at least 1 on every floor (until you get into the final floors of the dungeon). It’s extremely important to find these treasure rooms to gain upgrades that will increase the likelihood of winning a game. However you often get games where keys are not prevalent enough to take advantage of every treasure room. Rarely have I seen a run where I have enough keys to open both treasure rooms and stores, so I always find the treasure room before I check out a store.
Inside the store there is a donation bank, and this thing is quite important. As you donate coins, you unlock items that can show up in future runs. The game has a genious amount of unlockables keeping the game fresh and interesting as you continuously replay it. The game adds enemies, bosses, items, and even subsequent levels as you successfully finish runs. A list of challenge runs is also available for players to run through. These offer important practice while also offering the opportunity for players to unlock more items once they successfully complete a challenge run. Players can even unlock playable characters by fulfilling specific objectives, such as finishing two floors without picking up a heart item. Each playable character possesses different stats than Isaac. Some of them are purposely challenging to use, while others are overpowered. It’s often nice to pick the overpowered characters after suffering a string of losses.
The game is difficult. I have personally spent hundreds of hours across multiple platforms and I still lose more often than I win. One factor that makes the game difficult is the items themselves. They are never identified to the player once found, and even when they are attained, their function is not discernable. For players starting Isaac for the first time, I recommend this cheat sheet because many of the items will be bad and you will want to avoid them. Of course, many players find that learning items’ function themselves adds to the fun of the game, so feel free to avoid using platinumgod if you believe yourself to be one. Just get ready for some losses!
The enemies, the bosses, the traps: these are all difficult too. Once you learn how to properly dispatch and avoid everything, then you can get screwed over by the items your run generates. Sometimes I’ll find myself in a run with no bombs or keys. Other times I’ll be overflowing with health pickups but I won’t get any DPS items. Once in awhile, though, there’s that run that makes you a god. A lot of times I hit replay after a death because I’m in search for that kind of run. Other times, I want to see the kind of goofy shit this game generates. Like when an item turned my tears into bombs, which is an item from the game’s first expansion, Afterbirth.
Afterbirth adds a new mode called Greed Mode. The floors here are predetermined. Instead of a dungeon, you get a few boss rooms, and then a rush of enemies before you can descend to the next floor. There are stores and treasure rooms. The last boss is super greed, and beating him is something I have yet to do. He is quite challenging.
Afterbirth also includes a variety of new items. There are bags which often spawn helpful consumables. Some pre-existing items have changed, or their locations change. There are new enemies and bosses, and new playable characters. The music is different in certain cases, and some levels even receive special variants that can randomly occur. It’s a well done expansion that is well worth the money, but for the new player I actually recommend plaything Rebirth without Afterbirth. At least for a while. You’ll want to learn the game at its most basic. Afterbirth really adds some complexity, and it’s certainly more appreciated when the player has experienced vanilla Rebirth to see all the changes and improvements. It’s almost like exploring a band for the first time–you want to start at their first album and work toward their most recent release so you can experience and appreciate the growth.
This game will make you scream in laughter and frustration. It’s absolutely addicting–I’ve purchased it multiple times, and I’ve lost entire days to its grasp. It’s on new 3DS, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Vita, and WiiU. For the asking price of $15 you actually cannot beat the kind of playtime you will get from this game. If you put enough time into it, you can actually become skillful enough to win despite the crappy items you find. There are YouTube and Twitch channels practically devoted to Binding of Isaac alone, and I’ve seen them do so plenty of times.
What? You want a ranking? What? How does it compare to other roguelikes? WHAT?
RANKING THE ROGUE
1. Nuclear Throne
2. Enter the Gungeon
4. Pixel Dungeon
For some reason I thought I had more of these on here.
The answer should be obvious by now. The Binding of Isaac had a strong hand in cultivating the indie market as we know it today, especially in regards to the rougelike/roguelite genres. I’ve spoken to people who have dumped more time into this game that I view as possible for me, and yet I’ve already dumped more time in this game than I have any one game that doesn’t feature multiplayer. I’m still playing it, and I have a long way to go before I’ve seen every item, enemy, and boss. This game is simply legendary.
1. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
2. Nuclear Throne
3. Enter the Gungeon
5. Pixel Dungeon
Should I rank Afterbirth as a separate entity? Honestly, I haven’t played enough Afterbirth to say. And I haven’t even purchased Afterbirth+ yet, which is yet another expansion. So, I’m going to keep playing, and then I’ll return for more.
Sorry Nuclear Throne. I know I said I wouldn’t be able to dethrone you for a while but I had no idea I was going to review the fucking king of the genre.