REVIEW: “The Binding of Isaac”

Battling boom-flies. Screenshot by Tai Goodman.

Has something been everywhere and caught your eye, but you paid it no attention? In the entertainment industry, advertisement is key. Whether it’s on a magazine or a large screen in Times Square, advertising is crucial to marketing your product, but it never guarantees purchases. Thus, you’ve seen or heard of “The Binding of Isaac,” but you looked it over. Little did you know, because of the overlooking, it’s one of the most iconic roguelike games of all time but gets the status of a cult classic that earned many sequels. For those that played the original, they were greeted to an addictive trip down below the crust. 

Poor Isaac didn’t deserve what he got. His overzealously religious mother was contacted by God to sacrifice him in order to prove her dedication to her faith, symbolizing the actual biblical tale of the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham. With no other choice, he scurries into the basement, which he soon finds out wasn’t an escape route—it’s a den of disgusting critters and beasts. Well, Isaac made his choice, so all you can do is spelunk deeper. 

“The Binding of Isaac” is simple at heart because it originally started as a webpage game on Newgrounds. However, it feels bigger than that and subverts its low expectations. 

You begin in one room with doors leading to more rooms. Isaac starts armed with his teardrops, which acts like a ranged weapon, and has a deployable bomb. Isaac is also able to pick up coins, keys, and special items.  

Like most roguelites, “The Binding of Isaac” is about going through rooms, beating a boss, and proceeding to the next level. Die, and you start completely over, and this will happen a lot because enemies will beat you like a rented mule. A successful run is around 25 minutes, so it’s only a long game if you make it one. However, beating it once doesn’t mean you’re done. “The Binding of Isaac” has replayability. 

This is due to the randomly generated levels. Sometimes, rooms are occupied with monsters, and you fight them in a bullet-hell style. Other rooms might have nothing, a vendor, a challenging mini-boss, or loot. Loot is what engages you to keep playing. Things that Isaac picks up affect his stats, like his firerate, agility, health, etc. They also change Isaac’s appearance in a cosmetic way, which is a goofy challenge—trying to make Isaac look like a dumpster-diver worthy of being arrested by the fashion police. 

The game is drawn in a cartoony style that makes it seem whimsical. Don’t let this facade fool you; this game is kind of gross. While there is blood, there are also things like huge piles of fecal matter or urine to replace your tears. Combined with the design, this somehow works because it gives off a childish tone. It would lose its magic if it looked realistic. The monsters are utterly deformed, whether it’s a body-less being with a large gaping maw or a demonic floating jumble of lesser-monsters. You’ll want them dead more because they made you scream, “What the heck is that thing?!” 

Boss fights are definitely memorable due to their repulsiveness combined with attack strategies. For example, Larry Jr. is two separate worm-like beasts that gradually block you in with piles of feces, and the Duke of Flies is a fly-spitting, wart-covered abomination. Yuck. 

Going back to simplicity, “The Binding of Isaac” is easy to learn. Mostly, you control Isaac with “WASD” and shoot with the arrow keys. Unfortunately, that’s as far as this advantage goes. Saying this game is simple is an understatement, and it doesn’t strive far from its origins on Newgrounds.  

The music tracks are catchy the first few times, then they get slightly annoying. Room variation is not exactly vast; they look similar, and when it’s time to fight, it’s just a game of moving around projectiles and holding the arrow keys down. You get what you pay for, after all, as “The Binding of Isaac” costs $5.  

Although, a redeeming quality of its origins are the video game references. Picking up a pill and seeing “Pills here!” appear will make any “Left 4 Dead” fan smile, and any “Bomberman” fans will love the Wrath mini-boss. It shows that this is a game made by gamers who know and appreciate the industry and audience. 

In the end, “The Binding of Isaac” is a landmark in the roguelike genre. What started small has spiraled into success, earning a DLC, a remaster, and two sequels, “Repentance” and “Afterbirth,” which carry the same formula with better taste. It goes to show that you should never judge a book by its cover, because you might find a memorable title. 

Tai Goodman is a Writing and Communication major at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College from Tifton, Georgia who works as a Staff Writer at The Stallion. Their dream is to become either an author, a screenplay writer, or a film director, and their hobbies are writing books, and playing old video-games. Winner of 2nd place for "Best Entertainment Story" at the Athens GCPA Conference 2023.

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