Binding is 10 years old. Aside from the parts that are 45 years old. And also aside from you, the player (I don’t know how old you are).
It’s a slick modern update of the top-down dungeon crawlers people played on mainframes and PLATO systems in the 70s. The classic “roguelike” (as such games were called) consists of an ASCII text world (with your character generally represented by an @), in which you explore dungeons, buy spells, and whack kobolds. They’re one of the oldest game genres and remain influential today – games as varied as Legend of Zelda and Ultima and Diablo could be considered postmodern roguelikes.
The genre’s appeal? Randomness. Early computers had limited data storage and it was actually easier to generate random worlds on the fly using BSP trees than it was to store level data. This also made the games heavily replayable – no two runs of Dungeon or Hack would ever play out the same way – and as Skinner’s 1950s work on operant conditioning demonstrates, randomness itself is addictive. What loot will the next monster spawn? Kill it and find out. Every single fight becomes like Christmas.
Binding is an ugly, degenerate roguelike at heart. You control Isaac, your mother has been commanded by God to sacrifice you, and so you hide from her in the basements beneath your house, which are full of monsters, weapons, health, and other items. If you play well, you gain power, uncover secrets, and perhaps turn the tables on your mom. If you play badly, your cat inherits your loot.
The game is both shallow and deep. While the gameplay loop is simple enough to describe in a sentence – keys open doors, bombs blow up obstacles, killing a boss lets you descend to the next level of the dungeon – the game has hundreds of different items, and it takes a while to learn what they all do. I recommend playing Binding with the Wiki open in another window so you can easily reference the thing you’re about to pick up. It’s often not the case that a pickup will be an unalloyed good – a lot of them have stings in the tail, such increasing your damage while reducing your bullet speed, or giving you extra firepower in exchange for one of your hearts. The game’s loot is also complex in how it interacts with itself. For example, the Cricket’s Body increases your weapon’s rate-of-fire, but this becomes useless if you also have Brimstone equipped, which replaces your weapon with a charge-up beam. A lot of stuff in Binding is situationally good, helping you in only one kind of fight.
Binding is unforgiving. A single wrong choice (such as wasting your last key on the wrong door) can cripple your run. Want to save? You can’t. Want to back out of a losing boss fight? You can’t. You generally don’t know what’s behind the next door – it could be six coins and a heart, or a mini-boss that will stomp your duodenum into the afterlife. This is a 2010 game designed with a 1980 mindset: the player must be abused so that he’ll become a man.
The game’s randomness can make it frustrating as well as interesting. It’s easy to get “RNG screwed” – if you only get useless and unhelpful items from the first couple of floors, soon you’ll be fighting high-level bosses using your starting weapon, which isn’t fun. And certain items seem pretty overpowered. The Unicorn’s Horn can be abused to insta-win every boss fight in the early game, except for Gurdy and Mom. But that’s also part of the appeal, in a weird way. No matter how dire things look, at any moment you might get a god-tier loot drop.
The art style is cute and gross – very “kawaii-gore”. The sound effects are downright disgusting. I don’t know how long the developer spent recording the gurgles and splutters of dying bronchitis patients but hopefully he wiped down the microphone afterwards. The monsters are revolting slimeballs that look like the internal organs evolution mercifully doesn’t allow us to see. Binding has a mid-2000s flash quality (I was overwhelmed by nostalgia by the sight of the Newgrounds logo), and the art assets were clearly designed with an eye towards modding, allowing users to extend the game with their own monsters and items. This is another strength of the roguelikes, which were so basic and minimalistic that it was very easy to spin off a fork of one and turn it into whatever you wanted.
The game draws inspiration from the Biblical tale of Abraham’s “akedah” (or binding) of his son for sacrifice. It seems to be the answer to the question “what did Isaac think of this? And suppose he resisted – what would have happened?” Although religious issues inform the game’s content somewhat, Binding mostly uses Judeo-Christian imagery the same way Hideoki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion does – as a repository of cool and interesting stuff.
The Binding of Isaac is probably one of those games you either play for five minutes or five years, with little middle ground. It’s definitely challenging and “deep”. There’s no shortage of stuff to do, or ways to do it. It’s an overall nice throwback to classic gaming, and Kryptonite for people who save-scum through every game.