By: Mike Chen
The original The Binding Of Isaac came out as a Flash game back in 2011 via Steam. Now, a remastered version entitled The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth is out for consoles. Featuring classic gameplay, procedurally generated levels and significantly more content than the original release, the game is great fun — if you don’t find its dark themes off-putting.
The Binding Of Isaac is a simple twin-stick shooter, with the left analog used for movement while the face buttons are assigned to attack directions. The trigger buttons are used for special items and activating power ups (which sometimes hurt rather than help). Movement is crisp and responsive, which is very necessary considering how dense some of the battles get. Using items is less about the controls and more about experimenting to see what buffs or limitations they present.
Developed by Super Meat Boy co-creator Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl, The Binding Of Isaac features cute characters in pixel form — at least they appear cute until you examine them further. Then you realize that they’re mutant fetuses, piles of feces and other pretty disturbing things. The audio doesn’t help, with Isaac’s baby cries when he gets hurt. As with much of the game, whether or not you can have this in your entertainment library depends on your stomach for these things.
The HUD is very Zelda-esque, and even features Super Nintendo-era pixelization between screens. Isaac’s music remains modern, though it’s stylized to mimic 16-bit chiptunes. In short, it’s very much a throwback game, though the content would have never passed censors back in the early 1990s.
At its core, The Binding Of Isaac is a procedurally generated throwback to The Legend Of Zelda. Gameplay takes place in random dungeons with a mix of enemies and familiar-looking environmental obstacles. Rooms connect and make use of keys and bombs, and the goal is to simply get to the level’s boss as indicated on your map. As you proceed through the game, various power-up items appear. You won’t know what they do until you actually activate them, and part of the game’s replayability comes from discovering and utilizing new items.
The game is meant to be finished in a single sitting, and when you’re dead, you’re dead. However, each item you discover unlocks it for the subsequent play session, so your access to power-ups becomes bigger and bigger, and since levels are randomly generated, you may find that previously difficult ones have become much shorter and easier. Thus, the “just one more try” factor becomes part of the appeal, as each attempt offers just a little bit more than the last.
Your enjoyment will vary based on what you think of the story. If it had light themes, this would be the perfect pick-up-and-go game for players of all ages. However, The Binding Of Isaac has all sorts of adult themes, from child abuse to addiction to religious fanaticism, illustrated through a combination of disturbing imagery and short cut scenes in between levels. As the game is essentially a metaphor for the nightmares of an abused child, its value really depends on if you want to approach such a topic, albeit from a dark humor perspective.
As for the Rebirth re-release, you’re getting both a technical and content expansion. Rooms can now stretch about four times more than the standard, new items and enemies, a new chapter, more playable characters and an upgrade to a 16-bit style of art compared to the original 8-bit style.
As a game, The Binding Of Isaac is a smart and creative throwback. However, the serious themes may be a bit much for some, despite the cute packaging. It’s not offensive, but it is difficult material, so know what you’re getting into before you hit the Buy button.