The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike-or-is-it/shooter/body-horror/religion-bating curio from Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl. It’s… different. It’s nasty. It’s funny. It’s lightning fast. It’s cruel. It’s a lot of things, in one small and very cheap package. But is it any good? In the name of finding out, Alec and Adam gathered to discuss mutant babies, shooting human waste products, dicing with the devil and laser eyeballs.
Alec: So, today’s topic of conversation is the inevitable collapse of Western society. But first we’d better talk about the Binding Of Isaac, the new game from professional sicko Edmund McMillen. Mr Smith, how much of Isaac have you played, would you say?
Adam: Steam says 15 hours, I reckon a couple on top of that. Enough to kill mom three times and die far too many times myself.
Alec: I reckon I’m somewhere similar, except I have failed to kill mom. I have been defeated by her twice, however, and unlocked two of three bonus characters.
Alec: Where do you stand on the ‘what is it?’ question?
Adam: It’s a tricky question. I still see people getting in a lather about the term roguelike being used to describe it but I do think it’s a helpful tag, given the randomness and the disposable nature of Isaacs.I try not to use hybrid terms but Zelda plus arcade plus roguelike works for me. Then there’s the aesthetics, which are an entirely different kettle of rotten fish.
Alec: I’m happy to call it an arcade roguelike, partly because it’s apt and partly it’s because purists get their knickers in a twist about that kind of thing. I’m certainly playing it with the compulsion and packrat mentality of a roguelike, but the recklessness and high speed of a coin-op shmup. And it’s amazing how well those two elements merge together. All I’d say is that it can be to the detriment of the grotesqueness and anger, which I sort of stop noticing because I’m all obsessed by finding power-ups.
Adam: Twisted knickers are very much a feature of the game. I particularly enjoy seeing the different Isaacs I construct. Any particularly horrible builds you’ve had?
Alec: well, I’ve been using Cain, one of the unlock characters who’s faster and hits harder but has lower health. So I’m dependent on the bosses rewarding me with health upgrades. sometimes they don’t, and I spend the game crawling around with half a heart left, knowing the next mistake is certain death.
Oh wait, you mean visually horrible, don’t you? I think having a cyborg laser eye, a cojoined twin on my head and a glass eye in the back of my skull while spraying piss everywhere was pretty memorable in all the wrong ways.
Adam: I’m favouring Cain as well. X-Ray glasses along with his eyepatch create something truly grotesque. Add the coathanger through the head and it’s an avatar fit to reduce me to tears, though a very handy one. Personally I enjoy the fact that sometimes I just don’t find bombs or health upgrades. Knowing I’m screwed doesn’t bother me, it makes me more determined to succeed.
Alec: There’s always a point where everything seems to start going my way, I’m upgraded up the wazoo and have tons of bombs and keys and it all starts feeling kind of easy. I am damned to die within moments of that thought.
Adam: Yes, it definitely has that roguelikey feeling were a moment of complacency or confidence can spell doom.
Alec: are you completionist in your approach, do you try to blitz through or approach it hyper-strategically?
Adam: I have to visit every room, there’s no question about it. And now that I’m better at finding secrets and conserving coins, I try to buy everything as well. It’s not even a case of trying to upgrade my character effectively, I just can’t stand not knowing if there was something new or awesome hidden away that I might miss. And I am still finding new things on most playthroughs.
Alec: yeah, same here. Mostly I’m hoping to find the homing weapon though. That makes life a lot easier. What really concerns me is how much time I spend shooting piles of shit. There’s almost never anything in them. Yet I shoot them all. So now I am the guy who compulsively attacks faeces for no good reason.
Where do you stand on the grotesqueness? Uncomfortable or amused?
Adam: A mixture. I actually find myself intrigued as to how each piece of equipment will degrade or wound the character. Sometimes I flinch slightly but I’ve mostly become numb to it. Mostly, it doesn’t feel comedic to me though so much as genuinely dark. But that’s probably becuase I’m oversensitive and not that amused by farting.
Alec: Oddly, the fart gags are the bit I like least. It’s too openly silly and crude, whereas there’s something vaguely allegorical or angry about most of the other mutations.
Adam: They seem out of place, which is a strange claim to make considering the rest of the game.
Alec: Alec: do you think the game’s trying to say anything, really? Or is it just one man plumbing the depths of his twisted imagination?
Adam: At its best, I think there is more than an attempt to disgust and amuse. The idea of an arcade game with a troubled, vulnerable protagonist is intriguing and there are moments where the horror of the scenario shines through. But on the whole, for every item or enemy that makes me nod in appreciation, there’s at least one other that seems to counter my high falutin ideas. Mom’s pad, for instance. Or the farting.
Alec: I guess it’s a consequence of there being so many gags and upgrades and visual tangents, the sheer quantity means some misfire. But I do agree. Conversely, one of the minor elements I really like is the bartering with Satan thing if you find the right hidden rooms. Sacrifice most of your permanent health but get a mega-upgrade. Is it worth it? Is it strategically wise? Probably not . But I can’t help myself.
Adam: The first time I saw one of those I accidentally killed myself without realising the way the bartering worked. I find them hard to resist but I don’t really think about whether it’s worthwhile – again, it’s a case of needing to own everything that’s available.
Alec: Presumably completing it didn’t dim your ardour to play again? I find it incredibly hard not to immediately click restart when I die. It’s definitely not a game where permadeath is massively harrowing, because it’s so fast and quick.
Adam: Dying feels almost like a taunt. I think it ties back into the visual design – seeing the character stripped back to basics, there’s an immediate compulsion to start over so you can see what he becomes. That compulsion didn’t go away when I killed the final boss for the first time because, although it was clearly the goal, I’d already discovered the parallel goal of simply creating a character. Which is odd because there’s actually very little choice in character building – it’s dependent so much on chance, but that doesn’t bother me particularly.
Alec: Yeah, you can’t alter the major upgrades, they just stack and stack so you have to go with it: but you always want to. I wonder what the limits are, visually. I suppose there’s only so much you can pick up in one playthrough, but if your luck was constantly in Isaac could be heaving with women’s clothes and external hearts and devil horns and roid rage and God knows what. I do find the grotesqueness more comic than horrible, for the most part. There’s a vaguely Ren and Stimpy vibe to it.
Adam: Yeah, I can see that. I should say as well that I do think the art is fantastically done. It looks very plain in screenshots but the detail, particularly on the enemies and player character, is top notch.
Alec: I’m really glad McMillen made this. I like Super Meat Boy, but I find the difficulty-posturing tiresome and without a sense of discovery. This is really him playing to his older, agent provacteur values but with the sense of polish and design smartness he must have acquired from doing SMB. I’m glad Team Meat is only one project for him, and there’s clearly going to be amazing, less commercial things coming from his more outré work with other collaborators.
Adam: I’ve already put more time into it than I ever did SMB and that’s precisely because I feel like it’s rewarding me rather than punishing me.
Alec: So then: the question of questions. Would you recommend The People purchase The Binding Of Isaac? Or is too acquired a taste?
Adam: I would heartily recommend it to anyone even vaguely interested in shooting shit or collecting gloriously demented things.
Alec: I think it’s the most successful transference of roguelikes’ core values to an anyone-can-play game I’ve ever seen. Even something relatively light like Dungeons of Dredmor would be quite opaque to the curious but inexperienced player, but I reckon most people will work this out and, more importantly, be intrigued by what they can do discover, incredibly quickly. And the ‘orribleness of the art stops it from feeling too lightweight. And the stupidly low price means you’re getting value for your pittance even if you only play it once. Hence: most people should buy it. Unless they are particularly weak of stomach or cannot abide people insulting their deity with pixels.
Adam: Yep, I said it in my WIT but it really does remind me of Spelunky in lots of good ways. Engaging, replayable and very hard to put down. It needs a My Little Pony reskin.
Alec: “You found a rainbow!”
The Binding of Isaac is out now.