Some reflections ahead of Patrick's upcoming playthrough(s)

Hi I'm dudeglove, and I have a confession to make. It's not one I'm particularly proud of...

and 17 friends at least too
and 17 friends at least too

...but yes, that is 385 hours on that clock. It's my most- played game on Steam next to Team Fortress 2, although the amount of time I've spent on TF2 is negligible given shitty connections, waiting for maps to load/updates etc. Basically I don't think I've played a game quite so much in, well, ever. It even beats my Dark Souls time (console + PC combined), but I tend to obsessively look up stupid videos and crappy gifs about that game rather than actually play it.


For those who have absolutely no idea what the hell I'm talking about, The Binding of Isaac is a 4-way twin stick top down shooter with quasi-randomly generated (or "rogue-like") levels, the plot of which revolves around a naked child escaping from his abusive mother through a trapdoor into the basement where he defeats various ghastly enemies by shooting his own tears at them. Basically imagine if you took Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called It", laced it with references to Catholicism, and gave it a cartoony aesthetic and the same basic controls and gameplay as Smash TV, you'd end up with Binding of Isaac.

Initially it was a joke, but the more I think about it, there are actually a few parallels with Pelzer's book. Also fuck the Duke of Flies.
Initially it was a joke, but the more I think about it, there are actually a few parallels with Pelzer's book. Also fuck the Duke of Flies.

I don't think I've even spent that much time on any of the Final Fantasies (although also contestable because I vividly remember maxing out the clock on quite a few of them, which is at approximately the 255 hour mark). The thing is this: most of those 300 hours or so of Isaac? I barely remember any of them. Before the Wrath of the Lamb DLC emerged (and in my opinion, severely unbalanced the game, but more on that later), I had already spent about 150 hours on the damn thing, pretty much clearing the pre-DLC version of the game.

I took a hiatus after about 250 hours of playing, around about when I finally managed what I thought was "enough". By that I mean I had unlocked almost every item and character e.g. getting the D6 for Isaac via beating The Chest with Blue Baby is potentially the hardest, most final-est challenge the game can throw at you, with the exception of two achievements, which were beating The Womb and Sheol without getting hit once.

Astute readers may have noticed the "Platinum God!" achievement in the first image above. And yes, your subsequent internet deduction is correct: I did eventually resort to using Cheat Engine (the current tables out there are pretty solid, but be warned about using infinite item power excessively, it will crash the game) so that I could freeze the HP, as the Womb and Sheol achievements are just plain bullshit seeing as there are enemies whose attacks shoot through solid surfaces or they rush straight at you the moment you walk into a new room, or both. Outside of that, everything else in the game was done through legit means and occasionally looking up the wiki wondering what bullshit item from the DLC I'd just picked up did (again, more on that later).

With all that in mind, you're probably wondering what the actual appeal of Isaac is? Well, like a lot of games, it makes skillful use of Skinner box techniques, and completing the game "once" doesn't reward you with the full ending or anything even close to that. Each time you run through to killing Mom, more stuff gets added to the game - both in terms of items and new areas - even if you die on the way there. The main things that generate unlocks are:

  • beating certain bosses/Mom to open up deeper levels
  • using certain items enough times e.g. using several Tarot cards will unlock the "Deck of Cards" item, or collecting enough coins or using enough bombs on rocks
  • using certain characters to beat the game.
  • completing special challenges

Hell even dying enough times, or not picking up enough items results in unlocks. If you lump in the DLC, there are about 200 collectibles and six characters to unlock altogether, but it doesn't end there. Interestingly, and I thought this was a bit of a dick move on the game's part (but in hindsight made total sense), after your fourth or fifth successful run, the game immediately switches it up to hard mode, where enemies take more hits and move faster. By that point you're already "used" to the game, so mixing things up helps keeps you in a good spot for the next five playthroughs (at which point you start to encounter the "real" final bosses, such as battling your way through to Mom's Heart, Satan and... somebody else).

The real joy of this game for me lay in the fact that Isaac is one of the best time wasters out there. The reason I don't remember most of those 300 hours or so of Binding of Isaac is because I usually had the game windowed while watching GB quicklooks on the other side of my screen, or listened to podcasts or anything other than the game. After the first twenty hours or so, with no offense to Baranowsky (who did Super Meat Boy's excellent soundtrack as well), I switched off all audio. I'd entered that odd situation of wanting to watch and do two things at once, and Binding of Isaac was the right amount of distraction, but not distracting enough. It's a great game to play if you don't want to play what might be considered a proper "game". Its beauty lies in its initial simplicity and, well, all the random number generators determining the drops.

But where does it all go wrong?

The Wrath of the Lamb DLC, basically, which I was at first more than hyped for even though the weird-ass trailer didn't really resemble the game in any meaningful way.

The most dramatic changes brought in by WotL were:

  • New enemies/bosses
  • New level layouts
  • New items

Now straight off the bat, a lot of the new enemies felt like leftovers from the cutting room floor, both in terms of visuals and general AI behavior. To use fancy-pants design terminology, a lot of designs didn't "read" as well from a distance or at a glance. By that I mean their appearance was vague or indistinct in comparison to most of the other solid enemy designs. In terms of AI, some enemies, specifically the leaper-spider-head things, have borked jumping distances and for reasons I could never nail down in those 100 hours of Isaac DLC wanderings, their attacks always felt completely untelegraphed or unfair, which is exacerbated by the second point, while the "new" bosses were closer to remixed versions of existing bosses, and just had a few more deathbeams attached to them.

The new level layouts randomly give existing ones a "darker" version e.g. "the Basement" becomes "the Cellar", with the notable difference being cobwebs scattered everywhere that slow you (AND ONLY YOU) down, and with certain newer enemies (such as aforementioned shithead leapers) more likely to appear. Prior to the DLC, environmental hazards like spikes or fires affected both you and the enemy to the same degree, but not with cobwebs. At least Spelunky's cobwebs have the good grace to disappear after wading through them more than once. This goes against the previously established ethic Isaac had about various hazards. Worse still is that, not only are your shots affected by cobwebs, but also if you're flying, you still get slowed down which I really had to call bullshit on. Levels also now come in different versions, such as a "big" variant, or an "XL variant" (which has two bosses and ultimately counts as doing all of the basement/caverns/etc in one go.) or a "cursed" version, wherein the metroidvania worldmap is removed from the player HUD (but, really, if you have a pen and paper at hand, it's still easy to sketch out if you even need to).

Finally the new items added in a number of partially passive collectibles called "trinkets" which, much like some of the new regular items were either quite useless, or completely overpowered. The main difference is you can only hold onto one at a time (unless you pick up another item that increases trinket space). A relatively easy exploit is using the "bloody penny" in an arcade room, where you'll always find a blood bank machine and two things to waste coins on (both of which generate hearts/coins/bombs/keys). Using the blood bank machine hits you for half a heart of damage, but in return gives you some money. With the bloody penny equipped, any money you pick up has a chance to generate half-hearts to restore your health. With that money, you can then gamble on the machines to get a chance at even more hearts, until either the blood bank explodes, or the gambling devices explode/disappear as well. Regardless, by that point, even if you're not playing as Cain or have collected the luck foot, you will have accumulated so many hearts/coins/bombs/keys anyway that you're set for the rest of the game.

Now I'm not an Internet crazy person, I certainly know some people who could qualify, but I almost want to accuse the Isaac makers of fucking with the random number generators in the DLC specifically so that the new items would appear more often. When I said before that the new items were overpowered or useless, it's mostly because I was seeing them so goddamn frequently. The number of times I got the technology 2 + freeze effect combo in that time was suspicious at best, and the novelty wore off after the first couple of instances, because every enemy is stopped dead in its tracks by it. By the same token, I learned to avoid picking up the new Ipecac tear power-up (which looks too damn similar to the Chemical Burn power up - and one that's actually useful), because it just plain fucks up your shots by turning them into hard-to-aim lobbed explosives.

As a result, the DLC seemingly did two things at once - it made the game needlessly and unjustly frustrating, while at the same time trivialized the experience with a lot of the new items. Of course, you still needed to earn those items through the usual means mentioned above, but somewhere along the line it became less fun to do so, as the process had become watered down.

So where do we go from here?

Prattling on any more about Isaac will result in this post ending up as some sort of strategy guide, although I'm happy to give Klepek and anyone else whose read this far and is interested in playing some beginner's tips, which are:

  • There's always a secret room per level accessed by bombing the center of a wall. Secret rooms usually connect to 3 or even 4 rooms and usually contain coins, other times an item or a vending machine/beggar. If you are low on keys, but high on bombs, try bombing rooms adjacent to item rooms or shops in order to get access without having to spend keys.
  • Keys should be saved for item rooms first, shops second.
  • Tears have odd but very specific physics on them. You can't exactly "curve" or "aim" your shots per se (although some powerups can), but moving in a certain direction and firing at the right time allows you to get out of some hairy situations where you might need to take cover.
  • Be on the lookout for oddly-colored blocks. Bombing them usually drops soul hearts, or bombs, or coins, sometimes even a chest.
  • Bombs can be moved by your tears.
  • Most items have a cool down period that get recharged after a certain number of enemy encounters. Bear this in mind if you want to use something that lets you fly for the duration of one room, like for avoiding acid attacks on a floor during a boss fight for instance.

And most importantly

  • Play it without the DLC first.

If it gets you hooked, give the WotL DLC a try. Good luck with Binding of Isaac, Patrick!