As I’m playing especially cartoony games, I like to exercise my imagination a little by conjuring up images of what the game would look like in the real world. Unfortunately, this tends to make every game significantly less child friendly. Ever wondered what comes out of a goomba when it’s splattered by a 300 pound plumber? It ain’t pretty. And I can’t think of anything more frightening than a crazed Blanca charging at me from down the street.
At least I couldn’t until I started playing The Binding of Isaac. Oh the horror; the things I imagine while playing this game can only be found in a small locked closet in the basement of Omelas.
Edmund McMillen, co-creator of Super Meat Boy, teamed up with Florian Himsl to bring us this nightmarish fever dream. Dripping with biblical lore, the game follows a small naked boy named Isaac as he goes deeper and deeper down the monster infested cellar of his home. Why is he naked? Because his mother was told by God that he needed to be removed from all things evil so he can atone for his sins. And why is he in the basement? Because he’s running away from his mentally-ill, zealot mother who was told by God to sacrifice Isaac to prove that she loved God above all else. Awesome.
So that’s your back story. As Isaac, you explore dungeons room by room, each one laid out like an old Bomberman map, shooting monsters and collecting power-ups to prepare yourself for the boss at the end of each floor. You may be asking what the weapon of choice is for a small naked boy traveling around in what I can only imagine the 9th circle of hell to look like. Tears. Your weapons are tears. And the more deformed a power-up makes Isaac the stronger and faster the tears get. Unless you get the pee upgrade, then you shoot nice solid droplets of the good ol’ number 1. You collect bombs and keys to slay groups of enemies, unlock secret doors, or open golden treasure chests that contain power-ups that are oh so vital to progressing through the game. While these power-ups are necessary, they are sometimes even more disturbing than the monsters you kill with them.
Each upgrade increases different stats or gives you abilities, and almost all of them change your appearance in some way and rarely is it pretty. Items like ‘the hangar’ or ‘the cat-o-nine tails’ appear thrust through Isaac’s head or as bloody lashes across his face. But the more painful an upgrade seems the more it’ll increase Isaac’s chances of survival. Things like ‘cancer,’ ‘stem-cells,’ and various dead cats all become useful against the headless, deformed creatures constantly trying to kill you. How else are you going to beat the bosses, for which the developers have personified abnormalities such as pin worm, cleft lips, fistulas, and thumb spiders?
But the hardest part of the game is that you have to complete every level in a single playthrough. If you die once you have to start all over. Luckily the gauntlet isn’t too long, five to ten floors coming to a total of about 50-75 rooms, many of which you don’t even have to enter. It will test you though, since each playthrough is randomly generated, the rooms, drops, and bosses are always different which makes having to do it over and over again hardly a bad thing. Until you beat it the first time, that is.
When you beat the final boss once, you unlock the first ending titled ‘Epilogue.’ Then when you run through it again, you get another ending, and another, and another. In total there are thirteen endings, all of which work together to explain what the game is really about. I won’t spoil anything for you here, but it’s fairly disturbing.
My only problem with this, which is incidentally the only fault I see with the game, is that finishing everything comes down to mind numbing grinding. Sure, as you keep beating and replaying the game you unlock different characters, special areas, power-ups, and bosses, but you’re just rinsing and repeating. That’s a no-no for any game in my book. Luckily the game doesn’t beat you over the head with it so it’s not that big a flaw, and it’s definitely not enough to keep me from playing it.
Despite the grotesque visuals and the sometimes stomach churning noises that come from the game, The Binding of Isaac is a great success. It’s a fun game you can pick up whenever you have a half hour to kill and still be able to accomplish a substantial amount. Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl have managed to revive an old playing style that should not have been forgotten and I thank them for it. Now I just need to make sure I have no food in my stomach before starting my next attempt at Isaac.
Realistic fan art credited to Lee Pfenninger