Thoughts on The Binding of Isaac

Even though The Binding of Isaac is not a retro game, I tend to think of at least the original game as one, since it shares many of its sensibilities.  However, the game has evolved into a new form over the years, and I wanted to talk about this as it relates to my view on gaming.

The Binding of Isaac was originally released in 2011, and while I didn’t get a copy of it during its early days when it started growing in popularity among the early YouTube Let’s Play sensations, I did have it by the time it hit its peak of popularity.  While many were first discovering the game and struggling through it to even its first ending, I was closing in on completely beating the game with 100% achievements.  Soon afterward, an expansion, Wrath of the Lamb, was released and I managed to again 100% the game.

The game itself is basically a love letter to the original Zelda game in design — its design matches quite closely the layout of Zelda‘s dungeons, and even the Caves levels of Isaac have a segment of its music that echoes the dungeon music in the NES classic.  While Zelda was straightforward with its dungeons with a single (well, two, if you count the second quest) path to the bosses and predictable items found within, Isaac borrows from the classic roguelike game design to randomize the layout of every floor including enemies and drops, randomizes the items you find, and even picks from a certail pool of bosses a boss to represent each floor.  And those items, enemies, and floors definitely would not have been featured in the then-kid friendly Zelda thanks to Nintendo of America’s policies at the time.  Blood, nightmarish designs, references to religion and satanism and paganism, and many other things that Nintendo of America would have just said “no thanks” to.  (Oddly enough, the designer of Isaac had difficulty putting the game on modern Nintendo consoles for the same reason.  Guess things still haven’t changed that much, even if you do have a few “mature” titles for Nintendo platforms.)

However, the all-out positive part of Isaac was its gameplay.  Not to say it was perfect — in fact, it was not at all perfect.  The game sacrificed a lot to work within its framework, which was the ubiquitous Web-friendly Flash container all the rage even in 2011.  (Fortunately, things are finally changing for the better, and game designers for the web are using HTML5 instead, a much better and straightforward method than dealing with a messy, buggy, insecure container.)  There were many game bugs, limitations of Flash, and the whole thing ran slowly even on decent computers, and topped out at 30 frames per second even on the best computers.

But it was the combination of the simplicity and effectiveness of the controls and the design of the game that made the original Isaac shine brightly.  Every level was very difficult, but difficult in a very direct way that made nearly everything absolutely fair so the players never (well, rarely — there were a few rooms that were a pain, but these were very rare indeed) felt like they were fighting the game itself trying to intentionally be vicious.  And oddly enough, I think that the reason for this may be that Isaac was a Flash game.

It is a sadly forgotten idea that limitations can bring out the best in something.  Early gaming was full of limitations — tiny amounts of RAM, extremely slow (compared to today, of course) processors, hardware that limited what you could do — but programmers of the time made it work by looking at what was possible, and making a game that took complete advantage of what was there.  The original Isaac, despite all of the things that it didn’t have, would have been a more complex, overdesigned game that threw the kitchen sink at the player, and suffered greatly for it.

And this is what happened in 2014 with The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

Rebirth was supposed to be simple: a reprogramming of the original game with a few extra items and things thrown in for good measure, using a custom engine that allowed a designer to do whatever he wanted with the game.  Sadly, this was the problem, as Rebirth started to include things in the game that were scaled back for the original game, such as rooms with a lot more things in them like the large rooms, which is completely unfair when you need to know where an enemy is, particularly a teleporting enemy or one that might cause problems not knowing where he’s going or about to do, such as charging; enemies with more random attack patterns, which unbalanced the idea of the original game having order within chaos and prevents cheap damage; and worst of all, bullet hell, an idea so atrocious and dumb that I cringe whenever I see it implemented in any game (it is an idea that derived from vertical shooters, which fill the screen with bullets and require you to dodge nearly pixel-perfectly while just holding fire and blindly hitting the boss, something that foregoes actual skill for simple, pain-in-the-ass robotic precision, which doesn’t belong in a game).  It also featured nearly too many added items and changing basic game mechanics, which removed the ability to “game” the original Isaac to give you a better chance at victory if you knew what you were doing, something that rewarded skill and insight in the face of randomness, versus Rebirth‘s pure randomness where you get things by sheer brute force and luck, which again makes you feel lost and out of control in an already out of control game.  The feeling of the original game was lost.

Despite all of this, Rebirth still had some saving graces, and it was doable with a little reliance on luck and some brute force, and I ended up beating 100% of the game — eventually.  Then, soon afterwards, its first expansion hit, Afterbirth.  Afterbirth ramped up the unfairness and randomness to insane levels, adding a ton of situations where damage was simply unavoidable unless you were exremely lucky or extremely overpowered (which meant you were extremely lucky).  Fortunately, there was a balance to this; many things were changed, some characters were given unlockable starting items to help them along (the biggest was with the one-hit-and-you-die character with no health and no way to get any health, which was given an unlockable item that allowed you to take a single hit in each room, vastly improving his chances), and even though the game was extremely rough in many spots, I still managed to 100% the game yet again.

And then, a few days ago, Afterbirth+ (Afterbirth Plus) was released, another Isaac: Rebirth expansion that promised to be a smaller update with the huge prospect of having modding tools available that allowed for a user with enough coding skill to make massive changes to the game.  While the prospect of yet another expansion with even more stuff was daunting, the modding tools is what truly excited me, as I imagined being able to make enormous changes to the base game and thought that it would be possible to create a game very reminiscent of the original Isaac in terms of game balance and fairness, and maybe plow my way through the actual game content to get back to 100% achievements.

Wrong.  On both counts.

Afterbirth+ contains the most unbalanced, unfair, garbage things ever, and while we are being promised a rebalancing on a few things, I fear that the amount that it has been tilted will never be enough.  Regular Afterbirth was bad enough; this was just… nightmarish.  And to add insult to injury, the modding tools are severely hobbled, not even allowing anything beyond very rudimentary manipulation of the game.  Major code hooks that would have allowed one to change existing behavior are nonexistent, and would require rewriting everything from scratch trying to emulate the desired behavior instead of simply modifying existing behavior.  Again, this is something that may be fixed in the future, but the idea that this was promised from day one (supposedly, you were able to make completely new games using the Isaac engine — so much for that) and we don’t even have a fraction of the abillity to make this happen is a huge blow and a possible indication that much of it wasn’t possible in the first place.

If I could play only the original Isaac, I would.  Unfortunately, I do not use Windows any more, and the original Isaac running already slowly in Flash that already runs slow on my underpowered computer (that runs Rebirth and its expansions just fine, thank you) running even slower under Wine makes playing the original Isaac game a poor experience.  I would rather have the original game completely, 100% faithfully done in the new engine, something that I hoped would be possible with Afterbirth+‘s modding.

This is where modern gaming fails.  Designers are given too much of a good thing, and don’t know where to draw the line, where to place limits.  They take a good, core idea and throw every single idea at it until it barely resembles the old idea, and the core game crumbles underneath a metric ton of story, cutscenes, bad gameplay, and poorly implemented controls.  It is interesting that Isaac effectively shows the progression from simple game implemented with limitations by a talented programmer to make something magical, to a game bloated with bad ideas implemented by lazy developers that basically ruins a game.

The Binding of Isaac and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth can be found on Steam.