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May 15, 2018 7:59 PM   Subscribe

The past, present and future of The Binding of Isaac [Polygon] “Originally designed in Flash, The Binding of Isaac has since been updated and released on around a dozen platforms, with millions of copies sold. The basic premise: A boy named Isaac is locked in the basement of his home by his mother. There, he must survive an unending wave of horrors that are probably just representations of his own psychosis. The core gameplay, though, is fairly traditional. Really it’s just a shooter with original Zelda DNA mixed in. [...] Almost all of the reviews listed are from people who have played for more than 100 hours. When The Binding of Isaac grabs you, it does so without mercy.” [YouTube][Trailer][Interview w/Edmund McMillen]

• The Hidden Depths of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth [Gumbino]
“We all have games that we’ve been unable to put down. They’re addictive, and often you don’t even notice how addictive they are until the sun is rising, the birds are chirping, and you just need one more go. It’s what you think about while you’re working, and why you curse every red light on your drive home. Your friends may even stage an intervention, if you have any left. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is one of those games. But it doesn’t start out that way. You see, Rebirth is a disturbing game. Beyond disturbing. [...] There are butt monsters, fetuses, and dismembered parts of a cat corpse (collectibles)! Worse than that, the simple controls often feel ponderous, and you’ll scream at your monitor every time you die. And you will die – a lot.”
• Dungeon of dicks: The Binding Of Isaac’s most hateful enemies [Rock Paper Shotgun]
“The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth (plus Afterbirth add-ons) is very much my jam right now. It’s been in my life for a while, but December (and now January) was when I fully committed to it. By which I mean ‘it took over almost my entire life.’ I’ve seen so much, I’ve killed so much, and I’ve been killed by so much. I have a degree of skill at the game I never believed possible (and which, clearly, pales into insignificance against that of longer-term players), but even so, there are certain enemies that always, always give me grief, even as I am able to face down far great horrors. I say enemies. I mean dicks. Absolute, total dicks who have humiliatingly cost me victory on more occasions than I could ever admit to. These are those dicks.”
• The Binding of Isaac was Supposed to Fail [Kotaku]
“When he released The Binding of Isaac, Edmund McMillen thought that no-one would like it – but that was okay. The title – which has now sold over 5 million units – was created as a reaction to the mainstream success of his previous game, Super Meat Boy, which propelled the indie hero into the spotlight. In McMillen’s own words, following that hit, he wanted to make a ‘fuck you’ project. “A lot of people don't realise that I made like 30 games before Super Meat Boy,” McMillen says. “All my industry peers were becoming hugely successful. It was like: ‘If I want a future, I have to do this and do it right and do it to the best of my abilities'. It was time to get serious and do something before the bubble popped. That was Super Meat Boy." “Afterwards I wanted to go back and prove that I don't need to chase the dollar again, that I don't need to make another blockbuster indie game – which is funny at this point. I wanted to make something that was the opposite of that. I wanted to make a really risky, weird and abrasive game that would push people away from it.” “I wanted to do a 'fuck you' project, just to say I'm still independent.””
• Bum-bo want coin, Brett want Bum-bo [Destructoid] [YouTube][Trailer]
“We've known about Edmund McMillan and James Id's The Legend of Bum-bo for a good long while now, but we've never actually known much about it. Bum-bo is a companion in The Binding of Isaac, and this game has been billed as a prequel to Isaac's macabre downward journey. Also, it's some sort of hybrid randomly-generated, spell-casting, match-4, turn-based puzzle RPG. It's a lot to process, especially from the limited teases we've seen. However, the developers have given us a much more substantial look today. Embedded above is the first gameplay trailer for The Legend of Bum-bo. Seeing it in action, the systems start to make sense. It seems as if the match-4 mechanics energize Bumbo's different attacks, which he then uses to target enemies. There's also a certain novelty to seeing the Isaac aesthetic translated to a 3D cardboard-like look. Anyone who watched closely probably noticed a very familiar leg toward the end of the trailer.”
posted by Fizz (54 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Full disclosure: I'm favouriting my own post. Because this is in my top 5 video games of all time. It's something I play when I'm in a good mood. Or when I want to be in a good mood. It's also something I play when I'm mentally or emotionally drained. It's a safe place. It feels good to be here. It lets me just enter a world that is familiar and I can play it without really thinking too deeply about it and yet it still keeps me engage. It's like it says in one of the quotes I pulled from the article up above, when this game grabs you, it doesn't let go, it sucks you in.
posted by Fizz at 8:03 PM on May 15 [12 favorites]


This is also a good excuse for me to plug one of my favourite streamers: Northernlion. He has hundreds upon hundreds of YouTube videos where he just runs through the entire game. If you're looking for a really cool chill stream, you should definitely check out Northernlion.

I mention him because even when I'm not in the mood to play a video game, I find myself enjoying watching Northernlion get through a run. There's something beautiful about watching him play so effortlessly. He's so good he'll intentionally pick up items and look for synergies that make his game more difficult or more absurd and ridiculous.

Sorry I'm gushing so much about this game, with this post and these comments, but it's really my favourite and I hope you'll excuse me. I'm not trying to sell anyone on the game, I just love it that much. It just satifies an itch in my brain. I'll stop now. Cheers.
posted by Fizz at 8:09 PM on May 15 [10 favorites]


It's a good game, certainly. All of the above is true and I've sunk quite a few hours into it myself. The challenge modes are particularly fun to me and the mix and match nature of the powerups is, bar none, the best flavor-never-gets-old aspect that I've ever seen. My cousin loves the Greed mode in the newest expansion and, while it's not my favorite mode, I can't really argue with him that it's a great concept.

That said, I know folks who won't touch it at all due to the oddity of the premise and 'plot' insofar as it's an abused child as the main character and their tears are the weapon they use to fight through what could be seen as a psychotic break and/or their own suicide and the aftermath of the same.

So, yes, good game but potentially triggering for those that can't or don't want to look past the child abuse, mental illness, suicide, or lots and lots of poop (literally) that flows along with every room of this brilliantly created and storyboarded game.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:14 PM on May 15 [9 favorites]


That said, I know folks who won't touch it at all due to the oddity of the premise and 'plot' insofar as it's an abused child as the main character and their tears are the weapon
Good point Roland, I got a bit overly excited and I should have noted that particular aspect of the game can be troubling and upsetting. It's not something I've had issues with, but I can see how that would impact some people in ways that cause distress.
posted by Fizz at 8:20 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, although the game's been in my Steam account for years, I've never played it, for the reasons RolandOfEd gave. The theme is such an utter turn-off for me.
posted by JHarris at 8:21 PM on May 15 [9 favorites]


No worries, I can (mostly) take it or leave it but it does squick me out a bit from time to time all the same. Thanks for the post, it's interesting to see more information on things, espically this:

“Afterwards I wanted to go back and prove that I don't need to chase the dollar again, that I don't need to make another blockbuster indie game – which is funny at this point. I wanted to make something that was the opposite of that. I wanted to make a really risky, weird and abrasive game that would push people away from it.” “I wanted to do a 'fuck you' project, just to say I'm still independent.””

... because that sounds exactly right. Artistic choice and all that. I may not applaud his choice, nor can I really complain overmuch, but that does make a lot of sense with regards to why BoI is how it is.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:23 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


It is slightly unnerving how over time you start to tune out the thematic elements. I've been playing... a long time now. I have it uninstalled right now but for quite awhile I had this sort of ongoing habit, like oh, come home from work, play a run, then dinner. The addictive part is just how many combinations there are of things, how much you can gain skill but every run still feels a little different. But Afterbirth Plus was actually the point where I gave it up, for now. I love Northernlion's Let's Plays, but I kind of feel like players like that have in many ways ruined the game for anybody who doesn't intend to make it their whole life. The item variety has gotten to the point where the selection of "overpowered" items seems to have gotten smaller and smaller, and every expansion, the enemies and bosses get harder.

This has struck me as intended not for me--even as a person who's done hundreds of hours of playing--but for the person who has been playing daily, probably more than one run a day, nonstop, since roughly when the original was released in 2011. I'm not even going to get the chance to unlock a chunk of the items because I'm not good enough to win all the routes on hard mode on all the characters based on skill, and I don't have time to just luck into that many completely overpowered runs. They're working aggressively to keep it challenging for the people who're completely obsessed, but man, if I install it again, it'll only be with the first two expansions.

But I still watch NL playing it. Not every day anymore, but most days. And I've been doing that for like five years now. Crazy.
posted by Sequence at 8:37 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]


I love Northernlion's Let's Plays, but I kind of feel like players like that have in many ways ruined the game for anybody who doesn't intend to make it their whole life.

Hehe, funny you say this. I found that I became more confident in my ability to play this game after I watched a number of his videos and I've learned quite a bit about the game.

He hasn't taken away the shine or the fun for me just yet, but I could see how that might happen. He is very much about the numbers and yet he's also about chaos and finding ways to break the game in unique ways (which I appreciate quite a bit). He is willing to make the game worse for himself for the sake of entertainment. I like that it makes things unpredictable and kind of fucked up. It keeps me coming back (which I am sure is the point).
posted by Fizz at 8:47 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


He is very much about the numbers and yet he's also about chaos and finding ways to break the game in unique ways

Not trying to derail my own post, but I wonder. Is this the curse of getting too good at a game. I've never really been good at video-games. I enjoy them, I beat some of them, and I move on to something else that distracts me.

But I think Binding of Isaac is one of the first games that I've really sunk hundreds upon hundreds of hours into. And I'm finding myself thinking more and more about numbers, stats, and how I can "game" the game. It's not yet become a curse, but I wonder...
posted by Fizz at 8:55 PM on May 15


Binding of Isaac is probably my favorite skinner box of a game. It's a testament to McMillen's game design chops that his stuff is fun despite the horrible gross-out aesthetics he seems to love. For reals though, I can't recommend any of his stuff to anybody due to just how awful I find the non-gameplay parts of almost everything he works on.
posted by Television Name at 8:55 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Like JHarris, I too have had this in my steam library forever. The theme also bothers me, and, had I gotten past the intro, I suspect the gameplay might be something I find triggering.
However, when I recently decided to give it a go anyway, I discovered that for some unholy reason the game neither allows you to remap the movement keys (forcing WASD - I loathe WASD, even as I recognize I'm the only person who does), nor does it support using a controller (instead telling you to google some piece of third party software!). No Isaac for me.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:03 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Fizz, if it's not too much trouble, could you put together a curated NL playlist? "Hundreds upon hundreds of videos" induces more of a "ughhhhhhh" than an "oh boy!" reaction for me until I actually get into something!

I played a lot of BoI up through Rebirth but then put it down in favor of Nuclear Throne, which I find better designed: less "swingy" in terms of how builds can end up feeling worthless or completely overpowered; less spoiler-y; less downtime spent traversing big maps and no rewards for grinding like BoI has (thinking in particular of when you combine some kind of "trade blood for money" mechanic with a shop or slot machine here). Very broadly speaking Binding of Isaac : Nuclear Throne :: NetHack : Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

NT is also much less gross. I did get to the point where I could see past the thematic elements and just enjoy BoI as a game with abstract objects moving around on the screen but I never stopped being embarrassed to play it in front of my girlfriend. NT doesn't have that problem.
posted by valrus at 9:05 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


However, when I recently decided to give it a go anyway, I discovered that for some unholy reason the game neither allows you to remap the movement keys (forcing WASD - I loathe WASD, even as I recognize I'm the only person who does), nor does it support using a controller (instead telling you to google some piece of third party software!).

I didn't play the original, which was a lot rougher in a lot of ways, but--Rebirth does not have this problem. I play exclusively with a controller, but I'm pretty sure you can also remap the keys however you like. Not that anybody should want to pick it up if they don't care for the thematic stuff, but if you're thinking about it and you hate WASD--I also hate WASD and the newer, better-constructed version of the game has options and also a lot of general improvements in graphics and mechanics and everything else.
posted by Sequence at 9:15 PM on May 15


I love Super Meat Boy; I'd probably like this, too. But Nicalis grosses me out, which is unfortunate, because I really like most of their developers.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 9:25 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Man, I remember hearing so much about this game, and how it was such a big deal, but then I actually tried it and I found the aesthetic (which a friend once described as "edgy teenage atheist trying to copy The Oatmeal") and the clunky-feeling basic controls to be really off-putting. Like, the basic gameplay just felt kind of… bad.

Then I discovered (and, more recently, rediscovered) Enter the Gungeon, and it was literally everything I wished Binding of Isaac had been in the first place.

This is by no means meant to indicate that Isaac is necessarily a bad game! If anything, based on the number of friends of mine who came out of the woodwork to agree with me on Facebook that they didn't actually enjoy Isaac, it is meant to indicate that it's also fine to have not liked it.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:26 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]


My TBoI fever has mostly passed these days but I regularly have friends who do double-takes at my Steam history when they see that I've spent well over a thousand hours on this game. And I'm fully in agreement with those who feel weird about recommending it because yeah, thematically it can be troubling, even apart from McMillen's particular style of presentation. Weirdly I think the troubling themes are part of why it works for me. Not the poop I mean (necessarily) but the weird cuisinart bloody mess of religion and abuse and guilt and suicidal ideation -- yeah that's basically my childhood right there. Drop that mess on top of a bunch of surprisingly well-tuned roguelike and Zelda-ish mechanics and I guess you have a recipe for obsession. For me it became kind of my go-to Zen game, to play while I was thinking about things (or just as often, trying not to think about things).

So yeah there's a lot going on in this game. If it's not anyone's particular cup of tea, I get that completely. And if it is anyone's particular cup of tea, I get that completely too, and also I'm sorry, but hey at least we have TBoI.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 9:26 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Fizz, if it's not too much trouble, could you put together a curated NL playlist? "Hundreds upon hundreds of videos" induces more of a "ughhhhhhh" than an "oh boy!" reaction for me until I actually get into something!

I feel you. I actually started here. And it's Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth which is BoI with its first expansion. It's weird, Northernlion is someone you'll start to warm up to after you watch through about 3 or 4 of his videos. Part of the appeal (at least for me) is how natural and conversational he is as he talks his way through a run. He'll talk about the game in really detailed ways and make references that I do not understand but you pick up his lingo, his own Binding of Isaac language.

And the more you watch, the more comfortable you become with him as a kind of guide on this journey through the game. He's not perfect and he likes certain synergies that I absolutely hate, but it's a joy to watch him play. He'll also randomly go on rants about sandwiches. And he's Canadian, so as a fellow Canadian, I feel a bond with him.

The latest expansion was just released last week and he started a new series as he unlocks some new characters and items. It's not a bad place to just jump in.
posted by Fizz at 9:29 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I love Northernlion's Let's Plays, but I kind of feel like players like that have in many ways ruined the game for anybody who doesn't intend to make it their whole life.

As someone who's played it (on and off) since the original Flash version, this is my fundamental problem with the game. It has magnificent core gameplay, it's thematically kind of brilliant, and there's endless variety in the items.

But the problem is this: Every time there's a new version or expansion pack released, the number of items in the game becomes more and more unmanageable. It gets to a point where you have to use a cheatsheet to keep track of what you're about to pick up.

Why a cheatsheet? Because the effects of most items are permanent, and many of them make the game an enormous pain in the ass to play. This would be ok if the games were short, but a good run can last over an hour. Picking up a bad item 20 minutes in can ruin the rest of the run -- but you won't die for another 15, being forced to optimally scum/grind the game the whole way, which isn't a lot of fun. Unless you have the foresight to start over, which is another kind of scumming.

It's definitely worth giving a try, though, especially since the original problems to the game (sluggish Flash, no controller support) no longer apply with Rebirth. Playing the original with a keyboard aggravated my wrists like nothing else.
posted by neckro23 at 9:29 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


also I should note that even though I am not particularly a fan of this particular game, I am still super fond of Fizz's thoughtful and well-put-together video game FPPs
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:32 PM on May 15 [8 favorites]


Oh good golly, this game. I played a fair bit of the original release but never really got at all good at it; when Rebirth came along, I jumped back in and it started to click and then I had a real go of it for a while, playing a lot for a few months and moving past "I will never beat this game" through "holy cow I beat the boss!" on to "oh wait, I beat the ACTUAL boss" and on through to "let's see, which character/win combinations still need doing", and it was a degree of progress I didn't really expect to make. And still I stop way, way short of the really proficient, serious players.

It's a testament to what a solid design and what a good game loop it has that I stuck with it like that despite it being a game I didn't feel "good" at for a long time by a guy who famously made another game, Super Meat Boy, that I also gave up on because I never felt like I was any good at it. And I think the difference is Isaac is a little forgiving, moment to moment, at least right up until the toughest bits; you can be a little sloppy a couple seconds at a time in Isaac and still be making forward progress in a playthrough. Whereas Super Meat Boy was all about getting that one clean run through a level, and a billion instant restarts/retries when it didn't go right. And I think with SMB the constant resets just sort of burnt me out and reinforced my bad twitch discipline, where Isaac is more slowburn, more recoverable in its nuttiness.

The flip side of course is if you can manage to not-fuck-up once inside of five minutes you'll probably clear a Super Meat Boy level; in Isaac you have to not fuck up too much for 40-60 minutes straight or that whole run is wasted.

But also the combinatoric nature of Isaac makes those repeated playthroughs a lot more interesting; SMB you get what you get and that's what you're up against, every time. Isaac you can get strong builds, weird builds, interestingly-bad builds.

It's a very good game. Under a very weird skin, and I 100% understand people bouncing off the thematics for being a mix of scatalogical and profane and traumatic. But the game underneath is really very strong, stronger than a mild aversion on that front once you get the game loop to click. I'm not a fan of grossout-for-grossout's-sake games, and yet I heartily endorse Isaac.

Really, I sometimes wish—and I wonder if I've said this on MetaFilter before, even—that there were an alternate universe version of Isaac that swapped in a dada scifi/fantasy theme and made all the enemies strange aliens and all the items bizarro xenotech, so that the game structure could live inside a more aesthetically accessible wrapper and more people could find their way to playing it. But I don't know if McMillen would ever have been interested in developing that.
posted by cortex at 9:40 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]


I wonder if "being raised as a complete agnostic" is part of why I never responded much to BoI. I just don't have any connection with "God-obsessed parent". I'm curious as to the religious history of people who it's grabbed.

Not that "an arena shooter where you can only shoot in the four cardinal directions, also your enemies are literally poop" doesn't have a lot of other reasons to bounce off of it; I've seen a lot of McMillen's pre-Isaac games and bounced off of them due to his general love of gross-out humor. But the religion is definitely part of the package.
posted by egypturnash at 10:15 PM on May 15


BTW, someone above mentioned Enter the Gungeon, I haven't played it yet but it looks good. What I like personally, though, is Nuclear Throne, in which you play a post-apocalyptic mutant (one of a selection, including winners like a plant person and a walking fish) wandering the radioactive deserts shooting tons of grubs and goofy monsters. Games are short, quite random (character advancement has you choosing an option from randomly selected choices ala Downwell), and have this charming goofy nuclear-Western aesthetic. Checking Wikipedia, it's got a 10/10 on Steam and is over two years old.
posted by JHarris at 10:42 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I grew up kind of churchy but honestly I have zero interest in the theme in any direction. If it was a unicorn rainbow laser instead of a brimstone laser, that'd be fine. Every now and then I find it novel that it leads me to look up the name of some weird disease--hey, look, people can actually cry blood--but it's all way more edgelord stuff than genuine exploration of religious themes. There's not much in it I'd call genuinely offensive unless you're particularly devout; there is stuff that can be genuinely triggering if you're sensitive to references to child abuse and animal death in particular and there's a bunch that's more garden-variety gross. Your character can, for example, visually end up a demon with a papal mitre, but there's no real message there other than "you can fly and you get more of a more useful type of health drop."

I think the thing that's made me keep this up over other roguelites was the early learning curve. It was very easy to get into and start playing and pick up as you go, with a fair amount of pausing for wiki-searching. The very late game gets much harder if you want to unlock literally everything, but the progression was very satisfying in a way I haven't gotten out of some of the others in the same sphere.
posted by Sequence at 10:48 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Oh hey! I picked this up for the Switch early in that console's life, played it for half a dozen or so hours, then dropped off it in favor of other shinier and newer games. I never knew that an enormous amount of expansion content has been released for free since then. That's giving me the urge to go back and explore it some more.

The gameplay is stellar and contains multitudes. But yeah, it's not a game that I simply want to spend a lot of time in; those games that have something magically entrancing and zen-like about them, exploratory and mysterious and inviting. Those games for me are Breath of the Wild, Stardew Valley, Dark Souls, Skyrim, and the like. Binding of Isaac is a wallow in muck and poop and trauma, as others have said. More than that, it almost feels vicariously shameful or wrong to play it (maybe this is even intended; an example of themes of shame and guilt being imparted onto the player?) Because it seems like a game that has a lot of legitimately serious, bleak, and troubling stuff going on that should be approached with some level of seriousness, but it feels afraid to confront that stuff head-on and instead wraps it in a faux-cute irony and South Park (or Oatmeal, as mentioned above) purile jokeyness that feels the opposite of risky/brave/uncompromising, and instead feels like a game that skirts around, but never directly confronts the subject matter it wants to address, and thereby does a disservice to it.

But again, that's an impression based on half a dozen hours or so. There's no way I've seen more than, like, 5% of the content in this game.

I bounced off it, too, because most of the game's systems and mechanics were completely opaque to me. I couldn't figure out what to do with cards and pills? Most of them seemed to have no effect or I couldn't figure out how to trigger them, and I had no clue how to find out. Do people just keep playing until they figure stuff out? With hundreds of items that would take a looong time. Or do you consult a wiki every time you get an item you don't understand? That doesn't seem fun.
posted by naju at 3:07 AM on May 16


Also I was googling the booster pack content just now, and saw people talking about (spoilers?) killing angels to gain the seven seals, and forming keys to Mega Satan, and holy hell is this even the same game I played?
posted by naju at 3:16 AM on May 16


If we're recommending Isaac-like games without the gross theming, don't miss Monolith. It's a sci-fi themed take on the formula with a faster pace. Enemies are more aggressive and the number of projectiles can approach "bullet hell" levels, but in turn you can aim freely, move quickly, and apply a wonderful-feeling dash. Monolith lacks some of Isaac's more addicting hooks: the progression systems are less opaque/ornate, and item synergy isn't quite as large a factor, which leads to runs feeling a bit more flat. Whether that's a good thing is up to you; Isaac can be a bit of a time-consuming monster if it grabs you hard. Monolith also has a lovely color palette, which sounds like a weird thing to bring up, but it's such a striking look.
posted by skymt at 3:37 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


I never got into this; the art style is a turn-off for me. Though I did watch a couple Northern Lion videos back in the day (his enthusiasm is good, at least) which gave me a really nice flavour for what the game was about. And the dude was really up front about how much luck plays into whether you'll succeed or not.

The concern others have of how runs can diverge so dramatically based on pick-ups is pretty interesting: I'd probably groove on that after a while. Once you get good enough at base mechanics, it's enjoyable to be challenged in different ways.

BUT --- In games like Dark Souls which are much more deterministic, you'd try different builds; dex, str, faith, etc. Your challenge is your choice. You can pick what experience you have.

Here, you don't get to pick the build, it just happens based on drops; along with the levels just happening. It's improv: here's your mystery meat, see what it tastes like!

And that's a thing I think some people groove on. But me, I don't want to have to rely on RNGesus too much for whether I can win a game. I'm not about the shuffle solitaire. I choose deductive logic puzzles instead.

So that's probably why things like this, Spelunky, Nethack, etc -- where skill is A factor but not THE factor -- don't appeal so much, to me that is.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:07 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Most of them seemed to have no effect or I couldn't figure out how to trigger them, and I had no clue how to find out.

It's the sort of game where I think some people just do genuinely have a great memory for that stuff, but like, I never did hit a point where I didn't have to look up on the wiki for a lot of things. Like once you've looked up the cards once or twice you're probably good, but I still can't tell you what Pandora's Box does on most floors. (Because it isn't the same thing.)

But me, I don't want to have to rely on RNGesus too much for whether I can win a game.

I mean, if you're someone who's good enough at stuff to be playing things like Dark Souls, you're probably capable in Rebirth of hitting a point where you can win even the "bad" runs, which I think is true of most of the better roguelites. If your dodging is sufficiently on point, that run may take twice as long as normal, but it's still doable. I, on the other hand, am not that good. But the bit about not really getting to pick what kind of run you have--you do get to pick your character, but yeah, aside from that, you basically roll with what it sends you. It doesn't really determine whether the game is winnable except on some of the worst challenge runs, but it can definitely be less fun to the point where I, who do not care about my win streak, will totally restart if I don't get anything useful on the first two floors. This is where that seemed to get harder with the last expansion, which made me a bit sad.
posted by Sequence at 5:24 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


I didn't care enough for the shootiness to get over the unpleasant theme and unpleasant creator, but it's easy to see how the design can really suck people in.
posted by inconstant at 6:05 AM on May 16


I couldn't figure out what to do with cards and pills? Most of them seemed to have no effect or I couldn't figure out how to trigger them, and I had no clue how to find out. Do people just keep playing until they figure stuff out?

Basically. You can for sure find some nice glossaries that list all the items and what they do.

But for me, that removes the joy. One thing I love is picking up an item like fire tears and seeing what happens when I grab another item a floor down that adds electricity into the mix.

I appreciate the weird synergies even when they make my run more difficult or impossible. But I get that this isn't for everyone.
posted by Fizz at 6:38 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


JHarris: "What I like personally, though, is Nuclear Throne, in which you play a post-apocalyptic mutant (one of a selection, including winners like a plant person and a walking fish) wandering the radioactive deserts shooting tons of grubs and goofy monsters."

valrus: "I played a lot of BoI up through Rebirth but then put it down in favor of Nuclear Throne, which I find better designed"

Very yes. Nuclear Throne is amazing, addictive, hard as hell (but the fun kind of roguelike difficult, at least until you unlock Hard mode, which is just stupidly difficult), easy to play in short bursts, has a great soundtrack, and is deserving of an FPP all on its own.
posted by namewithoutwords at 7:11 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


More than that, it almost feels vicariously shameful or wrong to play it (maybe this is even intended; an example of themes of shame and guilt being imparted onto the player?) Because it seems like a game that has a lot of legitimately serious, bleak, and troubling stuff going on that should be approached with some level of seriousness, but it feels afraid to confront that stuff head-on and instead wraps it in a faux-cute irony and South Park (or Oatmeal, as mentioned above) purile jokeyness that feels the opposite of risky/brave/uncompromising, and instead feels like a game that skirts around, but never directly confronts the subject matter it wants to address, and thereby does a disservice to it.

I think there's a great deal of intentionality to the conflict between the seriousness of the framing themes (childhood trauma and parental neglect/abuse, religious obsession and ritual, mental illness, body horror, isolation) and the gonzo scatological puerility of the detail-to-detail execution, yeah. This isn't Ed McMillen trying to write a straight-faced essay in an adult voice about childhood trauma and fears; this is Ed McMillen processing all that stuff through the lens of a little kid's worldview. Everything is misunderstood symbols and cues, meanings misapprehended and overloaded, thoughtless parental mutterings taken as holy gospel, parsed endlessly; everything is weird, everything is confusing, nothing is explained. A world of too much new information and not enough context, mishearings and misapprehensions growing to monstrous proportion like the monsters under the bed and in the closet. And everything is poop and Mom and the constant changes in one's own daily-unfamiliar body.

I think it is serious in its intentional goofiness about serious matter, in other words. McMillen knew he was making, and meant to make, a gross off-putting game, but I don't think it's empty or irresponsible in that complicated theming.
posted by cortex at 7:31 AM on May 16 [9 favorites]


(Which is mostly to push back against the South Park/Oatmeal comparisons; I don't think McMillen is lazily or conservatively declining to take the themes seriously; I think he's attacking the subject pretty aggressively indeed but just never intended to do so in a po faced manner. It doesn't have an overall feeling of "ha ha poop and abortion, geddit" to me, essentially.)
posted by cortex at 7:34 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


Yeah, as a non-gamer and drive-by observer (a friend who has sunk probably over 100 hours into this game was really stoked to show it to me) I found this to be too damned disturbing to engage, particularly the endgame scene that played out. The child abuse, panic, despair, and death sequence is really awful if you think about it even briefly. And as an observer there's no opportunity to tune that out and get into the gameplay.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:47 AM on May 16


I originally disliked the game. Couldn't stand the edgy highshcool "dead baby joke" feel to the art design and plot. I came around to ti eventually because it was just a really fun game. Still am not crazy about the aesthetics, too toilety at times, but it actually makes sense in the context of the game. I think the Rebirth also ditched the ugly flash art style for something a little better.

I've never even beaten the final boss(es) but I've beaten mom a couple times. I never got sucked into the game like some folks do, but it's a testament to the game that so many have and still continue to play the game an unhealthy amount.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:01 AM on May 16


Binding of Isaac is one of those games I can appreciate only when I don't play. The mechanics focused old school concept is fantastic. The art direction and plot (such as it is) are an instant turnoff. I bought it on a Steam sale and I think I spent ten minutes playing before I quit and never played again.
posted by sotonohito at 10:03 AM on May 16


I think it is serious in its intentional goofiness about serious matter, in other words. McMillen knew he was making, and meant to make, a gross off-putting game, but I don't think it's empty or irresponsible in that complicated theming.

This is good to hear! Glad I seem to be misjudging the game. Kinda makes me want to dive in for more upsetting fun times.
posted by naju at 1:04 PM on May 16


It's good! But also understandable if you bounce off again. I'll defend my sense of the intentionality of the theming but it is still a hell of an aesthetic, so, heh.

To another thing you said, btw:

I couldn't figure out what to do with cards and pills? Most of them seemed to have no effect or I couldn't figure out how to trigger them, and I had no clue how to find out. Do people just keep playing until they figure stuff out? With hundreds of items that would take a looong time. Or do you consult a wiki every time you get an item you don't understand? That doesn't seem fun.

The pills are pure chance/mystery; you just have to eat one to find out what it does, they're randomized each playthrough. Which is a pretty old-school roguelike move to make, very purist in that sense; potions and scrolls in e.g. Nethack are similarly mysterious and randomized (though in Nethack and some other RLs there are tricks to identifying at least a subset of those through luck and investigation). The closest Isaac has to hinting on potions is getting something that grants Better Pills, which still doesn't tell you what they do but does make chomping on 'em a better gamble. That, and there's only a few pill types instantiated in each playthrough (six, maybe?) so you can figure out which ones at least you're working with after eating some. Find a good one, you know to eat it again; find a bad one, you know not to. You have to track that manually though, either remembering or writing it down.

But playing through the game a lot means at least getting familiar with the possibilities of random pills, which means you can at least throw some error bars on a given situation—how bad would a bad outcome be, and how necessary would a good outcome be, and should I bother? So there's at least some process there.

Cards are consistent, though, if still fairly opaque; some are simple, some are more complicated, and not every card will actually have an obvious or observable effect depending on the context. I had memorized some of the more common useful ones when I was playing regularly, and would sometimes wiki the rest.

Which was the same for items in general: no way at all I was or am ever gonna memorize 200+ different items. But some are more common than others, and so both (a) easier to remember after a while and (b) more likely to be what you run into. So the rarer stuff is wiki material for me a lot of the time but the share of items that actually need looking up goes down with playthroughs. Still very useful to go there for a reference sometimes, but to some extent that ends up only being when I'm in a precarious spot in a game that is otherwise lookin' real good. If I'm off to a bad start, I'm down for anything the game can throw at me.
posted by cortex at 1:15 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


It was linked above in passing but just in case someone is interested, this is the Ultimate Isaac Cheat Sheet - Platnium God
posted by Fizz at 1:22 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


If I'm off to a bad start, I'm down for anything the game can throw at me.

This is one aspect of the game that consistently surprises me. I'll often get some bad pills that reduce my speed or my tears early on in the game, and it can feel like the cards are stacked against you, but two levels down you might all of a sudden find yourself with a synergy that completely upends the game and you're now a beast.

I rarely scum/reset because even when I die as a result of a bad set of pickups, I'm learning something new about the game or discovering a new enemy that I've never battled. But this kind of chaos can definitely be a turn off for some people, so I get why it's not for everyone.
posted by Fizz at 1:48 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


dammit i just bought it again on the Switch
posted by cortex at 2:00 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


Ultimate Isaac Cheat Sheet - Platnium God

Well this is pretty awesome. I imagine I'll have it bookmarked on my phone to access easily while I'm playing.

Great post and thread, I always appreciate when a somewhat neglected game in my library gets a reappraisal and I get excited about it all over again.
posted by naju at 2:05 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


dammit i just bought it again on the Switch

Cortex, I bought this on Steam, PS Vita, and Switch.

It finally clicked on the Switch and that's where I've been spending hundreds of hours of my life.
posted by Fizz at 2:31 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


I had the Vita version from PS Plus but had never played it. Installed now, will give it a try on the basis of all this!

(Had room after uninstalling Don't Starve, since I've now bought that one for Switch because it's got Shipwrecked. Damn you, stupid proprietary Vita memory that forces me to make these hard choices.)
posted by asperity at 2:54 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


This discussion has gone on for a long time without noting that Issac will be a character in upcoming fighting game Blade Strangers, along with other notable Nicalis-published indie game heroes like Quote and Curly Brace from Cave Story and Gunvolt from Azure Striker Gunvolt.

This promises to be... very weird.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 3:01 PM on May 16


Well there went a few hours. First game in a while I was rusty as hell and ended somewhere around the fourth stage, but the next one came together well, I got my dodge feel back, and took Mom down. Decided to muss with challenges a bit while the game difficulty hasn't gone through the roof yet, got through Pitch Black (boy that one's a bit tedious to kick it off with), and then got most of the way through High Brow. Found my bedroom on the sixth floor, and, not remembering exactly what would happen, bombed the rug and jumped down the orifice, whereupon I was down in Utero 1 instead of just killing Mom and grabbing my trophy. It wasn't a great build and I didn't last long in the red.

But I did see some new-to-me items that must have come with Afterbirth+, that was neat (if also most just confusing), and came across some old "oh yeah, THAT'S how that one works" half-remembered items.

It's good to be back, though my neck doesn't think so after hunkering on the couch like that.
posted by cortex at 6:17 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: Well there went a few hours.
posted by Fizz at 7:48 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


I just want to say I've been playing this game for a while and I have all the completion marks for Isaac, Magdalene, Cain, Judas, Eve and Lilith. I've also done a winning streak of five in a row using different characters which unlocks a thing.

I haven't unlocked The Lost yet!

I'll share with you a strategy for Lilith in greed mode, which is a bit of fun. Use box of friends as soon as it is charged and don't leave the arena, or the friends you spawn will disappear. You should end up with four followers for the bossfights. Don't pick up the coins, because there may be a Jera rune behind the devil door, which means double the coins. Always buy the follower pickups, particular the cube of meat, which will turn into super meat boy after using box of friends three times.

Items like the habit, sack of sacks, trickle charge, and the various batteries can be used to charge your box of friends so you end up with an endless chain of friends.

Also when you play greed mode, make certain to enter the last floor with a full charge, and if you haven't maxxed out the donation box, don't spend all your coins in the shop.

Love this game. It bugs the hell out of my mates that I play this on a high performance gaming rig more than anything else. It runs just as well on my old laptop heh.
posted by adept256 at 1:29 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


> Fizz:
"He is willing to make the game worse for himself for the sake of entertainment ZANE."

FTFY.


valrus: "Fizz, if it's not too much trouble, could you put together a curated NL playlist?"

This is quite difficult to do. Mind you, the Northernlion database has over 3,000 videos logged and it's only growing from there. I'd take Fizz' suggestion and just pick a random episode and just go from there.

HOWEVER I would recommend to start on ep. 359. Why? Mostly because he's starting a new savefile from scratch, but with the amassed experience of all the previous versions of the game (vanilla, WoTL, Rebirth, Afterbirth, Afterbirth+)


neckro23: "It gets to a point where you have to use a cheatsheet to keep track of what you're about to pick up."

Perhaps the same could be said of all religions Nethack.

Truth be told, yes, it *is* a massive roguelite with hundreds of items and it's not reasonable to expect a new player to know/remember them all. I believe that the game is best experienced incrementally, as in, enjoy the vanilla game first and purchase/play the DLC when and only when you know the base game inside out. Otherwise it's a massive infodump and not really conducive to a sense of pride and accomplishment.
posted by andycyca at 10:38 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Wait, why is Nicalis gross? In addition to that fighting game they're releasing a Puzzle Fighter knockoff and I have...a real need and desire for something like that on the Switch.
posted by thecaddy at 8:08 AM on May 18


Been awhile since I touched BoI, been waiting to see if the modders of Antibirth put out an update before I get into it. I might just cave and play it anyway, just recall hearing about some balance/bug stuff but good things otherwise.
posted by whorl at 2:21 PM on May 18


Yeah, so, I'm back in deep. Been cranking through, back and forth between runs on Normal (winning some of the time) and Challenges (succeeding some of the time) and have gotten a bunch of the basics unlocked, opened up Cathedral and Sheol, got the easier-reach characters unlocked.

What I forget about when I'm not actively playing is just how often there's a potent, thrilling sense of "I...can't believe I pulled that off" to the weird builds and bad decisions sometimes. Plenty of them end in death because it was a weird/bad setup, but when the weird stuff pulls through, dang. This game.

Two runs from the last two days that stand out in my mind:

1. I got an attack fly, which slowly orbits your character at a couple body width's distance, and damages any enemies it's hovering over. Handy way to damage stuff that you can't get a good shot at, but tricky because it slowly rotates so you have to keep changing position to target a stationary enemy.

And then I got camo shorts (or something like that, was new to me) which...make you invisible to non-boss enemies when you enter a room, until you shoot. By itself, that'd mean giving you a second to breath and asses before the tears start flying. With the attack fly, it can mean...you just stay invisible. If you're willing to take the time to kill stuff just by repositioning to put your attack fly over it.

I also found a meat cube, which orbits very close to your body and will damage enemies it touches and also block projectiles. Mostly useful for the projectile thing because attacking something by standing riiiiiight next to it is very fiddly and prone to go badly.

But then I found another new-to-me item: duct tape. Picked it up because my policy is pretty much always pick something up if I've never seen it before, and damn the consequences. And it turns out that what duct tape does is...freeze your orbiting stuff in place.

So now I was an invisible guy with an attack fly and a meat cube both locked in place between 1 o'clock and 2 o'clock.

This worked great for dealing with tricky enemies, so long as I could get down and to the left of them a bit. Just slowly bleed 'em out with my attack fly while not getting attacked. For easy stuff, or stuff that moved around fast, and for bosses where the invisibility didn't work, just engage like normal with tear projectiles.

This kept working all the way up to Mom's Heart, where...it continued to work, because I had a meat cube frozen in place. Other than dealing with the little eyes-and-baddies distractions Mom's Heart throws at you, the whole plan was just to stand down and to the left and let the attack fly do the work while the meat cube blocked all the projectiles. It was brilliant. Stupid and brilliant.

It also ended poorly when Mom's Heart got to the final attack strategy of firing a fourplex of unblockable blood jets out. Meat cube no help there. Also I only had one heart container at that point. So blood jets come out, and I die immediately, inches from a win.

Except. I only had one heart container because I picked up the Dead Cat, which grants you nine lives but reduces you to one heart for each one. If you die, you just respawn outside the room you died in, with one fewer life left.

I'd burnt through four of those before I got to Mom's Heart; I was a little bit frazzled and trapped in a "don't blow this!" loop and so lost two or three more to the blood jets before I stopped and took a breath and resolved to just be smart and step out of the safe-until-it's-deadly lower-left position a bit before blood jet time and finish the fight off the old fashioned way with tears. And it worked. Still stupid, still brilliant.
posted by cortex at 2:25 PM on May 20 [3 favorites]


2. Pulling back from the edge of undeath with Eve.

The most interesting thing about Eve is that she goes into beast mode (or, rather, demon mode I suppose) when she gets down to one red heart of life left. Her stats all go way up, suddenly she's faster and does more damage etc. She stays in this state until she gets back to more than one red heart of health.

At the start of the run she has only two heart containers so it's not unlikely in the first couple stages to end up hulking out after taking a hit or two, clearing the room you're in out with your new superpowers, and then finding some health and reverting to normal Eve again. The normal, conservative way to think about this is a last-ditch power she gets to use in emergencies.

But...you can also just decide to stay in demon mode forever. It's easy, just...only ever have one heart! Which is (a) a pretty bad idea since you're very close to death and (b) pretty easy to accomplish if you're feeling lucky. Visit a secret Satan room if one appears after a boss fight, and trade one of your two heart containers for an item, et voila, you'll never have more than one red heart and you'll never leave demon mode.

Which, at that point, you really need some blue hearts. Because blue hearts don't count for demon mode! On the flip side, they're also temporary so you really need to stop taking much damage, and you need to find whatever blue hearts you can. Common red hearts are useless now unless you find one of the few items that can recycle them. I didn't, which meant the only thing I could do with all that health laying around was process it through a blood-donation machine, which never really came up in this playthrough.

So, that's the basic plan: make a deal with the devil, get down to one heart, stay demonic, find blue hearts to stave off the unrecoverable damage you're bound to take sometimes. If you get in real trouble, you've always got that one red heart container to fall back on, so you can take a half-heart hit once and then pick up some health and keep squeaking by a little that way.

I did get lucky with one item, a book that when you activate it gives you another blue heart. The book takes six or seven charges to activate, which means clearing six or seven rooms full of enemies, so the implication is that to get ahead of the game you need to manage to not take damage more than once every several rooms. I did an okay job of it, but it's a tightwire.

But you can also find blue hearts by e.g. bombing blue campfires, or blowing up some kinds of rocks and skulls and hell nodules, and I found a couple extra batteries that let me do another book charge right away.

This is good because it gave me a little bit of extra breathing room after I accidentally stepped on another deal with the devil item and got rid of my one remaining heart container. Good news: definitely don't have to worry about reverting from demon form! Bad news: literally all of my health is temporary, and if I ever run out of blue hearts I'm just dead for real. Arguably I am already dead at this point, but the game doesn't end so that's more of a theological question than anything.

At one point around stage six, I found myself blundering a bit and down to half a blue heart, and had pretty much concluded that my game was about to end. I was doing a lot of damage and moving fast, but didn't have great range or fire rate, and boy is a half a heart a hard position to keep breathing steady through.

But I came back. I have no good story about the comeback, I just moved well and shot well and did a good job of prioritizing moving to safe position over killing things quickly, and I got the good side of the coin on a couple of those coinflip situations where you might or might not squeak past a fast-moving enemy. But I made it. Got back up to about six blue hearts in reserve, got to Mom's Heart, did a real clean job and beat her with four blue hearts left.

And then the devil room opened up, and I went in and went down to Sheol. And got to Satan himself without too much incident, and took all three stages out nearly flawlessly, finishing off his final goat hooves stompathon with a Lemon Party pill I'd been carrying around for like two stages just in case. Game, set, match for perma-demon Eve.
posted by cortex at 2:46 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


cortex: "But...you can also just decide to stay in demon mode forever. It's easy, just...only ever have one heart!"

***********************
* GAME SPOILERS AHEAD *
***********************

You'll see that many playstyles and strategies revolve around having only one or zero red hearts. Advantages?
  1. You don't take red heart damage, meaning your chance of getting Devil Rooms never goes down until you're dead.
  2. Both normal- and Boss-challenge rooms are always available to you (Normal ones are open only if you're "at max HP" and Boss ones are open only if you have less than 1 or less red hearts)
  3. As you mentioned, the Whore of Babylon transformation is always active if you have no red hearts. Perma stat boost!
  4. If you have no red hearts, the Polaroid's effect (a few seconds of protection from all damage) activates every time you take damage
  5. The Dark Prince's Crown effect is another stat boost that works when you have exactly one red heart.

*********************
* GAME SPOILERS END *
*********************

cortex: "Bad news: literally all of my health is temporary"

As you play more and more, you'll see that this is almost always true. Yes, there are health pickups and soul/demon hearts, but this is a game where your HP is more often than not at risk. This is why, when you see more advanced players they tend to favor damage and tear rate over health.

Health tends to be overrated on TBoI. If you have good DPS and/or combination of items, health becomes irrelevant. For example, Brimstone + Tammy's head becomes "Press Space to Win!"
posted by andycyca at 4:24 PM on May 20


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