It's Ugly But You'll Want to See It All
The Binding of Isaac has at least three hooks: its unique gameplay, its procedural generation which encourages repeated playthroughs, and its very distinctive aesthetic with a sinister sense of humour. Altogether it makes an astonishing package, which everybody should give a go for the laughably low price that is being asked. It's not perfect, but it has serious staying power, and provides a memorable experience, making this small downloadable best-in-class. You take control of Isaac, a small boy running through the basement and below after his mother, in a fit of psychotic bad parenting, threw him down there among the rubbish and creatures who hide from the light. It's not the usual set-up for a game, and this isn't the usual sort of game.
The gameplay, as has been widely commented, is a mash between broadly three styles. Room by room it's a dual-joystick (or rather, dual-d-pad) shooter, where you clear a room of enemies before moving to the next one, in the manner of Smash TV, but with noticably loose and floaty controls. Level by level it takes its cues from the Legend of Zelda games, where the rooms are strung together with bombs and keys giving you access to rooms and often-hidden prizes, along with bosses guarding the exit and mini-bosses standing between you and powerful upgrades. The overarching structure, though, is pure roguelike: everything is procedurally generated, meaning that no two dungeons is the same, and the gifts the Random Number God bestows on you radically changes the way you play. There is also permadeath, and a few perverse enemies and situations which will make you suspect that the game designer hates you and wants to make you suffer, just like is demanded by any roguelike. This substantial difficulty is tempered greatly by each playthrough being rather short, lasting between 30 minutes and an hour – unless, of course, you get killed earlier. The only aspect of the meta-game which isn't roguelike (but which is like Zelda) is the lack of a levelling mechanic, its place being taken with the assortment of powerful items you collect as you go deeper.A noteworthy thing about playing the game is that the game tells you almost nothing about itself. The only guidance you see are the controls written on the floor of the first room of the first level, and when you get a power-up you receive a short hint as to its function, but that is literally all the help you will get. This is another way in which the meta-game is roguelike, with exploration and trial-and-error being a major part of your gameplay, as you try to discover what the items you've picked up actually do. You might find guides to the game – the wiki page serves as one – but I encourage you not to. There is a substantial thrill to piecing together the game world, which nicely mirrors the uncertainty of Isaac's situation. This game rewards replays, with a series of interesting unlocks, imaginative achievements, and the gambler's thrill of pitting yourself against the Random Number God.
As for the aesthetic: this is a game where the look and feel is centred on childhood shame. As strange and remarkable a claim as that is, you can't be in any doubt after scratching the surface of this experience: it can be seen in the power-ups, the between-level cutscenes, and a number of small touches, like when Isaac is is one touch away from dying he leaves a small trail of urine when entering a new room. There's also fear and frustration, but shame is the most important spice in this stew. Isaac shoots enemies with his tears (which is silly) but as you pick up things of your mother's in the basement you now find yourself, wearing her lipstick and other discarded items, those tears become more powerful (which quickly becomes unsettling). Isaac's sordid state is presented with biting humour, the type of sinister laughs you get from dead baby jokes (of which there are many in the game). And this aesthetic gets pushed really quite far. I've never seen anything like it. It's really worth it to come at it cold, so you get that thrill of discovery and don't blunt the very strong impression it can make.The colours are flat planes of brown and gray, with strong outlines. It's by the same guy who did the visuals for Super Meat Boy, and it has the same bold and heavily-outlined style, except it's self-consciously ugly rather than bright and cheerful as that game.It actually reminds me of the look of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but with a much more muted palette. When I first saw screenshots, I thought it simply looked bad. However, having played it a bit, the excellent animation does help to liven it up, with smart use of bright colours as highlights, and the sordid colours certainly creates the desired effect. After all, Isaac is around in the long-neglected and lightless basement levels he is imprisoned in. Its considerable bleakness might put you off, and many of the enemies are genuinely unsettling, but not every game needs to be Super Mario World, after all, and The Binding of Isaac lords over its niche domain of grotesque cartoonishness. It helps that the music and sound is fantastic - also by the same guy from Super Meat Boy (and Canabalt), and it's at least as good, which says a lot.
There is still more to be said about the game, including its frequent homages to video gaming history (like the Pokémon-style screens when you enter a boss-fight), all of which adds to its twisted charm. The only complaint I have is that there are a few technical issues, especially with frequent dips in the frame-rate when there are many enemies on screen. This might be addressed in a future patch (there already is one out which fixes a movement glitch), and it's little more than an annoyance. Also, despite the rather overexcited things some people might have, this game isn't a statement about religion, or parenting, or anything else. The game is too short and irreverent to carry much of a message. This isn't some deep meditation on how people are motivated by shame and disgust - it's, after all, a $5 video game made in 120 days - but it is very memorable, and really worth seeing.