It’s not every day a revolutionary little indie title comes along, but Edmund McMillen seems to do it with almost every release. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth released near the start of the current generation and has been improved, adapted and mimicked ever since.
The Binding of Isaac started life in flash game form way back in 2011 as an in-browser title for fans to play. While it had the same basic design as Rebirth, it was severely limited by its engine and monetization would be much harder. Edmund worked with developer Nicalis to flesh it out with tons of content, ideas, and concepts. It draws great inspiration from old school Legend of Zelda, childrens’ pictures and a wild imagination. To explain it simply, The Binding of Isaac is a twin-stick top-down roguelike game. However, explaining it simply won’t do it justice.
In The Binding of Isaac, you play the role of Isaac, a young boy who escapes into the basement of his home as his increasingly religious mother tries to sacrifice him. Make no mistakes, the Binding of Isaac is a dark game. This only really scratches the surface of how truly dark it goes. The story is inspired by biblical tales and Edmund’s religious upbringing. And it doesn’t shy away from controversy either: it wasn’t even allowed on iOS for some years due to its controversial content.
In this sense, The Binding Of Isaac is a very personal game. It talks about a personal relationship with religion and how it can bring people up from a bad situation, or how it can take advantage of an older woman with declining mental health. Edmund injects a bit of himself into his work and this is clear from every moment of The Binding Of Isaac. It’s an ugly game filled with a dark sense of humour and design. It doesn’t put up a front. It really lets you into the mind of the creator and this makes it a rather wonderful experience.
This carries through to the gameplay. The Binding of Isaac is fundamentally rather hopeless initially and you feel that. You are dropped into the basement and must explore, going room to room, killing monsters and finding secrets. You take a lot of damage from each hit and don’t have much health. You will probably die a lot whilst figuring the game out but this sense of progression is what makes it so addicting.
In The Binding of Isaac, your central attack is firing tears across the room. You are trapped in the basement with nothing but your tears to hold the monsters at bay. Luckily, the randomly generated levels of each run contain items that can affect the way you move forward. You must keep an eye on coins, hearts, keys, and bombs for general traversal but you can also pick up items that affect your skills. There are passive abilities like stronger attacks and the ability to fly, or active abilities like the ability to spawn flies or use pills – the latter of which are used to give you random effects. All of these ideas culminate to make each run feel different and unique. The right pickup could make your run, whilst the wrong one can end it. Learning which abilities and items are best for you is endlessly satisfying. This is barely scratching the surface of what items can do but staying here any longer would require a search through hundreds of item pages.
The act of scrolling through pages is something that The Binding of Isaac has managed to cultivate. Hundreds of pages of lore, AR secrets and item descriptions are poured over by diligent fans to find something new. Although it is now five years old, people are still finding new secrets. To do so, you have to do things like filling the bank – the place to store coins – up to a certain number, killing certain enemies and looking through specific web pages.
This is all helped by the esoteric nature of The Binding of Isaac. There are hidden bosses, secret areas and new things to unlock once you complete a successful run. But you will never feel like you’ve quite reached the end. There will always be a new item to find or another challenge run to complete. For the rather cheap price it sells for, it easily matches open-world RPGs in the sheer hours of gameplay you get out of it. This is helped by the fact that it takes just a few seconds to initiate a new run. The anger of failing is miniscule when you factor in how easy it is to get fighting again with an entirely new build.
It’s no surprise to see why The Binding of Isaac is so influential and talked about even to this day, on both Xbox One and other platforms. It is personal and unafraid of controversy, it has an artistic creativity and freedom of expression seldom seen in its peers, and it has just a fantastic price for the sheer amount of content on offer. Even if you don’t care to delve deeper into its story and lore, the engaging gameplay will keep you coming back for more.