I kind of hate liking The Binding of Isaac as much as I do. Everything about its aesthetic falls into this unbearably edgy form of dark comedy. Where Zelda has Link breaking open pots, Isaac is stuck sifting through piles of poop as he fights against evil. There are even several allusions to internet memes like rage comics. Nothing about this should work for me.
But with hundreds and hundreds of hours played, I cannot deny this is one of my favorites. Everything about its gameplay design makes it easy to just pick up when I have a little bit of free time, and the cycle tends to suck me into several subsequent attempts. This is as addictive as video games come.
While designed to look like a Legend of Zelda game, Binding of Isaac plays more like a twin-stick shooter. You control Isaac, a poor child attempting to escape his abusive mother. After making his way into the basement, he has to fight his way through enemies by shooting them with his tears. Each floor has a treasure room and a boss fight, both of which give power-ups.
Binding of Isaac excels through the sheer volume of its content. With the latest expansion, there are over 400 items which change Isaac’s stats. These vary from simple stat boosts to total changes in gameplay. One makes Isaac spew a torrent of blood, piercing objects and killing most enemies within seconds. Another turns his tears into remote controlled missiles. With its semi-roguelike nature, every playthrough is different. Part of what makes this special is how these various items can synergize, and particularly poor combinations can make things impossible – there’s nothing quite like having exploding tears which boomerang their way back to Isaac any time he misses.
Part of the fun is how this game slowly evolves. In the beginning, there are only six levels, culminating in a fight against Mom. As you keep playing, more and more stages unlock with various paths – a full playthrough ends up being twelve stages, with most floors being larger than the last. These levels also have distinct variations which can randomly pop up. While a few bosses are always set, most floors have dozens of options, and they each offer a fun fight (except The Bloat, of course). With each playthrough lasting between a few minutes if you’re unlucky to around 40 if you manage everything, Isaac is short enough to give multiple fulfilling attempts in the same sitting.
The game is also loaded with alternate characters with their own specialties and handicaps. There are also several challenges which give specific loadouts; some are silly while others are as challenging as the game can get. All of these features come with the additional incentive that successful completion unlocks a new item. There’s always something more to do.
The Binding of Isaac borders on infinite variability. Plenty of games can claim the same. What makes this game in particular special is how simple yet challenging it can be. Anyone can pick this game up with ease, as the gameplay simply consists of moving and firing. But like any good shooter, getting down enemy patterns is the key to success, and Isaac is loaded with hundreds of fun enemies to master. Or you might just end up with a combination which kills even the final boss in ten seconds – either option is fun.