Version tested: PC
The Binding of Isaac takes liberties as it modernises the Bible story of the same name, but the gist remains: God is a total control freak.
Our hero, Isaac, is just an awkward kid who wants to play Game Boy in peace. One day, his mom gets a message from her Lord that He'd like her to turn off the TV and kill her son, as a gesture of her appreciation for Him. (Jeez, the ego on This Guy.) Mom grabs a steak knife, happy to oblige the request. That's when Isaac spots a trap door into the basement and takes the plunge. It's godless down there, but at least he'll live.
For a while, anyway. The game's subterranean world is populated by a parade of horrors, like ravenous maggots that lunge at Isaac with teeth bared and incontinent golems who scald him with hot urine. It all would be too grotesque if Binding weren't co-designed by Edmund McMillen, whose cartoony art style turned a skinless lump of sinew into an adorable gaming icon with last year's Super Meat Boy. So yes, the floors are strewn with blood and faeces; damn if they aren't the cutest blood and faeces you've ever seen, though.
Your quest is to descend through six or more increasingly difficult dungeons (although it's not clear what fate awaits you at the end). The terrain is laid out like the original Legend of Zelda on the NES: you explore one monster-filled, trap-laden room at a time, and each room takes up the entire screen.
Indeed, the natural first impression of Binding is that it's practically a Zelda clone. The health meter is a chain of heart icons. Your offensive options are made up of a standard attack and a special weapon. You collect coins to buy things (or gamble), bombs to wreak general mayhem, and keys to open doors or treasure chests.
Still, maybe Nintendo Legal should hold off before they draft that cease-and-desist letter. Did I mention that Isaac attacks enemies by blinking his tears at them? Link never did that. And come to think of it, I don't recall that Link ever gobbled down unlabelled prescription medication, or tattooed "666" on his forehead to boost his damage stats, or pacified enemies by smothering them in his mother's bra, either.
Sounds depraved, but Isaac is desperate. He'll take any edge he can get, because when that heart meter hits zero, that's it. There are no wussy continues or save points in Binding. You have to complete the game from start to finish in one shot. It takes about an hour if you succeed, and if you don't, back to the beginning.
That's when the real twist of Binding reveals itself. You hit "Replay" and suddenly, everything's different. The game never plays the same way twice, generating itself anew for every playthrough. So McMillen and co-creator Florian Himsl didn't design the dungeons per se. Rather, they crafted the general guidelines within which the computer designs the dungeons, at random, every time you start a new game.
Game-design wonks call it procedural generation or "roguelike" design, and it has been used most famously in the longstanding cult hit NetHack, plus more recent games like Desktop Dungeons and Spelunky. Binding, however, is the most accessible exploration of the roguelike idea that I've seen.
From the baseline of the simple Zelda template, each visit to The Binding of Isaac develops organically into a distinctive experience. The game possesses a huge array of weapons, power-ups, monsters, mini-bosses, treasures, and traps. Even if you conquer all of the dungeons on a given playthrough, you'll only see a fraction of the possibilities.
Of course, it's easy to lard your game with options if sheer quantity is the goal, but McMillen and Himsl have been more discriminating than that. Their philosophy seems to be that a new idea only gets tossed into the random generator if it's fun.
And man, is this game ever fun. Binding is a bottomless toy chest. Even after playing for ten hours or so - and by the way, those hours are liable to melt away once the game infects you with One More Time Syndrome - I was still encountering delightful little surprises. An immortality-granting cat! A hovering sidekick! Literally explosive diarrohea! Every inch of the thing is infused with McMillen's twisted sense of humor, a cross between Ren & Stimpy and the Necronomicon.
Isaac doesn't move with quite the fluidity and grace of Meat Boy. And, annoyingly, there is no built-in gamepad support. (The settings menu tells you to Google for a homely piece of software called JoyToKey if you want to use a handheld controller rather than the keyboard, which I did.) Still, there's nothing clumsy about Binding. It has studied the masters of the 8-bit console era. It knows how to dance.
Given the ever-changing terrain, memorisation won't help you much in your struggle to escape Mom/God's wrath. Instead, improvisation is the key. You have to sense what the game is giving you and adjust your tactics based on your best guess of an unpredictable future. And even then, you face the reality that random chance doesn't always play fair. That lack of fairness gets at the core of Binding's greatness.
It's significant that McMillen and Himsl placed God at the centre of their premise, and that they took a Shigeru Miyamoto work as their model. At its heart, Binding is about re-conceiving the role of the creator.
The world of Zelda is crafted to be assiduously fair. Every puzzle has a solution, and there is one key for every locked door - no more, no less. The most difficult fights reap the greatest rewards. And we, the players, know this. On some level, we're conscious of the unseen creator, Shigeru Miyamoto (et al.), who intelligently designed this world as the best of all possible worlds.
Each time you play Binding, you merely get one of the possible worlds. Sometimes you'll find a key for that locked door, and sometimes you won't. Maybe you'll end up with more keys than doors. You could fight a gruelling battle only to win a couple of coins or some useless trinket - not the precious life force you so desperately need. "That's not fair," you'll fume. Yet nobody ever said it would be.
Unlike Zelda, there is no guiding hand of justice. The creator of this world is a laissez-faire type. As a result, there's more of a sense that the game is happening to you right now. When you battle through a tricky dungeon and defeat a giant worm boss with your spider-venom tears and suicide-bomber jacket, there's nothing preconceived about it. You weren't designed to follow that particular path.
Instead, Binding goes like this: A world comes into being, you fight to failure or success, and that world vanishes, never to be conjured the same way again. That uncaring spontaneity heightens the exhilaration of the present moment.
I don't mean to imply that the Zelda framework is inherently inferior. It's just different. And you could say that any roguelike game makes the creator a more distant force, which is true. But Binding's use of the ultra-traditional Zelda template makes the contrast more vivid and exciting.
Binding is not the game I would have expected Edmund McMillen to create in the wake of Super Meat Boy. That was a painstaking, pixel-perfect work - some seriously Old Testament, Miyamoto-esque stuff. In other words, he was a total control freak.
With Binding, McMillen and Himsl created the rules of the world and then set it in motion. Yet this game is nearly as much fun as Super Meat Boy, and more profound. It proves that there's more than one way to make a masterpiece.
9 / 10