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Corduroy Turtle avatar 1:57 PM on 06.29.2012
Blood, Shit and Tears: The Binding of Isaac



I need a fucking key. Just one. Iíve been wandering through the horrible labyrinth battling nightmare fetus monsters for an hour so I think Iíve earned it. Iím covered in fecal matter and dried blood and all I really want right now is a single key. Itís a small request, really. I mean, Iíve cleared seven rooms on this floor alone but all that youíve bestowed upon me is 4 pennies and bomb. Can I melt down this copper and pour it into a key mold? No. Can I rig this bomb to blow the lock of the treasure room door? No. So give me a key. Right now. No, fucker, thatís a heart. I donít need a heart. I feel like Iím not accurately expressing how badly I would like for you to give me a key right now. Okay, okay, another penny. Ha ha ha. The jokeís on me, I get it. You know I want a key so you wonít give me one, is that how it is? Fuck it, Iíll fight the boss without your help.

Itís been a while, Cblog friends. I havenít been around much lately and I apologize for that. I had a lot of fun last year with the Buy it/Avoid it Report (a semi-regular collection of mini-reviews) but this year has been very different. I havenít been as inspired to write but Iíve also been distracted by another project, the Secret Moon Base podcast. Though knutaf, Occam and I have been on a recording hiatus for the last couple of weeks due to stuff, Iíve been having an absolute blast with it - far more than I anticipated. All our guests have been great the feedback so far has been lovely. Once we all get settled, I fully expect to hop back in the saddle and bust out more episodes. /plug

During our break, I have been completely absorbed by The Binding of Isaac, a top-down dungeon crawler rogue-like from Ed McMillen of Super Meat Boy fame. It came out on Steam sometime last year for like $5, which is a fucking steal. I instantly fell in love with it and was obsessed for a couple of weeks but eventually moved on to something else, as we gamers do. When the Wrath of the Lamb content expansion grew closer, I was drawn back into the depths of the basement like a mighty mammoth sinking into a tar pit. Except the tar pit was hours of extremely punishing bliss and the mammoth was me. Iím bad at metaphors.

So what makes it so addicting? Randomization, a key element in rogue-likes. The dungeon layouts, items, enemies and (most) bosses you encounter on each level are completely different every time you play. It keeps things exciting and, more importantly, makes the game nearly infinitely replayable. Over the last month I have put in nearly 50 hours into The Binding of Isaac, perched on the edge of my seat almost the entire time. Even after playing for this long, I still havenít seen everything. Kind of impressive, if you ask me.

There are hundreds of items to collect and equip, with a lot of their effects stacking on top of one another. This leads to some incredibly powerful combinations, as well as some completely absurd ones. Iíve transformed precious young Isaac into a relentless hell-demon commanding an army of flies and squirting acidic blood from his tear ducts. Iíve morphed him into a ghostly angel capable of firing laser beams from his eyes as he calls down lightning strikes at will. Of course Iíve also evolved into a lumpy, slow cyclops who spits chocolate milk and pees a lot. Itís a new adventure every time and rarely ever boring.

But it is frustrating. Sometimes infuriating. Since nearly everything in the game is random, it can often seem like fate just isnít on your side. Youíll come across a bunch of locked chests and treasure rooms, but have no keys to open them. You can walk into a room with a unsavory layout and get the shit beaten out of you by a gaggle of low level enemies. Occasionally youíll be forced to take on a tough boss with little more than a single heart. A lot of times, itís just not fair.



This brutal, unforgiving experience is compounded by the constant pressure of perma-death. With the exception of a few rare items that grant you a second chance, all deaths lead back to the start screen. One little maggot with a tricky attack pattern can be your demise. A simple misplaced bomb can cause a chain reaction leading to your death. A fly you failed to see buzzing up behind you can sap your last bit of health. Hindsight is 20/20 after a particularly stupid mistake. As you stare blankly at the game over screen, dark thoughts of quitting and playing something else may creep into your mind. But your redemption is only a quick character selection away. Next time will be different because, well, it has to be. As long as you treat each death as a learning experience and push forward, you will get better and you will be rewarded...eventually.

If Iím painting too grim a picture, donít worry. Feelings of extreme power and moments of triumph are common too, you just have to work for them. It helps to make intelligent use of your limited resources but of course luck has a lot to do with it too. However, with a little experimentation, you may discover that you have more control over this random world than you previously realized.

Take the bomb, for instance. Itís a weapon, sure. You can place it on the ground and damage enemies within its blast radius. It can also be used to blow up rocks that stand in Isaacís way or destroy slot machines after youíve had your fun with them. It can open a path to secret rooms if you happen to place it along certain walls. It can even create bridges to platforms that seem inaccessible by carefully aiming the debris of an adjacent rock. Point being, there are many uses for this one item that took me many hours to discover. Techniques that I use frequently now were only clear to me after a series of happy accidents.

Keys are also vital to your survival, theyíre just not as versatile. A key is your only ticket into shops and treasure rooms - two of the most common places to upgrade your arsenal. The random nature of the game can often make keys a rare commodity, as I explained in the intro. The game will tempt you with chests and locked barriers, but if you fuck up enough times (like me) youíll eventually train yourself to always keep at least one spare key in your inventory.

Thereís a lot more to talk about (item combinations, enemy strategies, curses, trinkets, etc.) but that may be an entirely different blog. For the time being, just know that I am deeply in love with The Binding of Isaac and I encourage you to try it out if you havenít yet. Itís definitely not for everyone but if youíre looking for a challenge and enjoy a dark, twisted sense of humor, itís brilliant.


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