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Review: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Nov 11 // Nic Rowen
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (PC [reviewed], PS4, Vita)Developer: Nicalis Inc, Edmund McMillenPublisher: Nicalis, IncReleased: November 4, 2014MSRP:$14.99 Everything about Binding of Isaac is crazy and feels like it somehow shouldn't exist. But it does, and there is a kind of naughty thrill in that, like getting away with a rude joke at the dinner table. For those unfamiliar with the original, Isaac is a roguelike twin-stick shooter/dungeon crawler where you play as a small naked boy named Isaac, whose mother, believing she has heard the commanding voice of God, is trying to kill him. He desperately flees into the basement where he encounters deadly insects, mutated siblings, and every sort of grotesquery you could care to imagine. He fights them with his tears. Yup. Every run is a new experience, a single chance at heaven or hell. If you die, it's back to scratch. The game is deeply mysterious, featuring no fewer than 16 different ending, at least 8 unlockable alternate characters, 4 bonus levels, and literally hundreds of items to discover, unlock, and experiment with. It's a deep, dark rabbit hole and if you have any kind of completionist streak it will ruin your life (take it from me). Isaac may present itself in the familiar sheep's clothes of a Zelda clone, a fun romp through some old-school top-down action, but that's just the skin-suit pulled tight around the beast. At its heart, Isaac is its own twisted, beautiful monster. The most notable difference between Rebirth and the original Isaac is the shiny new engine and graphical overhaul. The original was made in Flash, giving the game a distinctly smooth and cartoony look, and with no shortage of technical problems to boot. Rebirth ditches Flash (and thankfully all of the bugs and glitches associated with it), dropping the smooth lines for a more detailed, SNES-era pixelated look. More importantly than the faux 16-bit trappings, the new engine allows for a smoother and more stable experience. Where the frame rate of the original would drop through floor like a bowling ball when too many shots or enemies got on the screen, that's no longer an issue. Rebirth runs at a flawless 60 FPS come hell or high water. With the smoother graphics come some gameplay changes. Rebirth is a much more shooty (to use my highly technical vocabulary) game than fans might be used to. The dependable frame rate allows for much more intense fights than the original ever dared to attempt, veering into bullet hell shmup territory on occasion. All of the new bosses introduced in Rebirth (and there are a lot of them) are much faster and aggressive than the old guard, and some of the returning enemies, particularly the final bosses, have been overhauled to be FAR more trigger happy than they used to be. I never thought I'd be happy to run into the likes of Loki or Peep, but I'll take them any day over the new recruits in Satan's army. Thankfully, bullet hell is a knife that cuts both ways. Rebirth does not shy away from crazy item combinations that completely break the game. At one point I had a fully upgraded rate of fire with floating anti-gravity tears mixed with ricocheting rubber cement and a boomerang effect. I would step into a room, hold down the fire button for about a second or two, let go, and watch the entire room be enveloped in tears and instantly eradicate everything. The game might have gotten more difficult, but there are also more items to help turn it around. Along with the other technical advancements, there is more variety in the shape and size of the dungeon chambers in Rebirth. Rooms are no longer limited to the single screen rectangular format they used to be. You will come across long hallways rigged with traps, huge arenas filled with enemies, big multi-screen affairs that will scroll along with Isaac's movement. These massive rooms have hosted some of the most intense moments I've had with Rebirth, the added space allowing for multiple mini-boss battles or elaborate traps. Rebirth includes a small, but delightful, two-player mode. At any time player two can join in as a tiny, floating ghost baby at the cost of one of player-one's heart containers. Ghost baby is definitely second fiddle, unable to plant bombs, walk through doors, or pick up items (no cheating and grabbing something from across a gap), but he will benefit from whatever kind of shot upgrade Isaac has collected. It won't become the new way to play Binding of Isaac any time soon, but having a wingman is loads more fun than it has any right to be. Rounding out the new additions are a few quality of life tweaks. Control pads are now supported on the PC version, and work perfectly fine if that's your preferred style. You can choose between “Normal” and “Hard” modes now, letting you somewhat regulate what brand of insanity you're looking for. Hard mode, of course, hides its own set of exclusive items and enemies, so anyone looking to collect all the goodies should prepare to suffer for the compulsion. Rebirth graciously now allows you to quit mid-way and return later, instead of holding you hostage to a good run. (“I'm going to be late but I have fully powered tears and twelve heart containers! I mean, the divorce rate around here is like 55%, so I can probably get another shot at being my brother's best man, right?”). It is potentially a life-saving addition for the truly possessed. Rebirth surfaces the randomized “seed” of each run, a small series of numbers you can input to generate the same map/item pick-ups. You can replay particularly great runs, near misses, or swap favorable map layouts with friends. This is a shockingly generous addition that seems to run counter to much of the game's otherwise unforgiving and hard-nose posture. It seems so out of place that the idea rankled me. I respect the purity of the one-chance, perma-death run. Watering it down with de facto do-overs cheapened the experience for me faster than fall of the Berlin Wall devalued the Soviet Ruble. As an addict of the first game, my favorite enhancement is also the least consequential, Rebirth is able to visually stack multiple items on Isaac with fewer conflicts than before. It may seem silly, but watching Isaac's strange transformation from a tiny naked boy to a pustulating, winged, blood trailing monster, or failed Siamese twin with a chemical burn, or lipstick wearing cyclops being followed around by the floating head of his dead cat, or whatever, is one of the greatest pleasures in the game to me. My heart always broke a tiny little bit when one item would overwrite another, or just not appear at all. I love just about everything about Rebirth and (if you couldn't already tell) I can't recommend the game enough. But I feel like I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the poop. There is a lot of poop in this game, a lot of tasteless dead baby jokes, gross out gags, and weird Christian imagery, all of which might rub some people the wrong way. Personally, I don't mind that stuff and I think the game earns some of it's nastiness (the very core of Isaac is a sad story of child abuse as seen through the eyes of the child experiencing it after all, it's going to be horrifying and juvenile), rather than just being gross for grossness sake. Still, it's going to be a deal breaker for some people. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is hands down the best version of Isaac. It improves upon the original, a fantastic game in its own right, in every conceivable way. If you haven't played Isaac yet, this is the version to get. If you are a fan of the original, these are so many new items, enemies, and experiences to be found in Rebirth that it feels far more like a sequel than a remake. Rebirth is an incredible experience that can't be missed. Descend into the basement, lock the trapdoor behind you, and don't look back.
Rebirth Review photo
The best game you'll ever play about washing poop out of a basement with your tears
In 2011, I lost a chunk of my life. An insidious tendril of addiction, despair, and obsession caught me by the ankle and dragged me into the The Binding of Isaac's darkened basement. I lost dozens of hours, whole days at a ti...

Wii U photo
Wii U

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth teased for Wii U

Smiley face
Oct 07
// Jordan Devore
Fans of The Binding of Isaac have long wanted the game on 3DS and while that'd be great to see one day, I'd be just as happy to to have it on Wii U. Which might actually happen! I know! Nicalis uploaded this video yesterday and that blip at the beginning sure is a Wii U overlay. There's also this Twitter exchange between designer Edmund McMillen and Nicalis' Tyrone Rodriguez. [Via GoNintendo]
Nicalis photo
Let's get down to business
After checking out The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth at PAX Prime, I spent a decent chunk of time with another upcoming Nicalis project, Castle in the Darkness. It's a challenging platform-adventure PC game that feels all too app...

Binding of Isaac photo
Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is everything I hoped it'd be

PS Vita owners especially are in for a treat
Sep 08
// Jordan Devore
One of my favorite parts of PAX Prime this year was an appointment with Nicalis. Not only was the meeting away from the crowded, noisy Washington State Convention Center, it was an opportunity to get sucked into The Binding o...
Binding of Isaac photo
Binding of Isaac

Co-op in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is looking good

A short Let's Play preview from the McMillens
Aug 19
// Jordan Devore
Here's Edmund and Danielle McMillen previewing cooperative play in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth including one of the game's twenty challenges, Head Trauma, in which you have tons of tears spraying all over the place but the...
Nicalis photo

Nicalis announces Castle in the Darkness for PC

Coming to Steam this summer
Aug 06
// Kyle MacGregor
Castle in the Darkness is leaping to Windows PC this summer, Nicalis announced today. The retro-style platformer draws inspiration from "the golden era of videogames," vaunting an expansive open-world and a "damning" difficulty curve. The story follows a kingdom's last remaining royal guard on a mission to save the land from a sorcerer and his evil army.
Binding of Isaac photo
Binding of Isaac

Replay runs, customize controls in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

PS Vita visuals won't be exactly on par
Jul 29
// Jordan Devore
I convinced myself long ago that The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was something I needed in my life, so every additional detail or feature we're told about in the lead up to release is just icing on top. This week, customizable ...

Another fair comparison: 1001 Spikes is better than Game of Thrones

Jul 05 // Jonathan Holmes
Death with a purpose Game of Thrones and 1001 Spikes are known for their surprise deaths. In Game of Thrones, these deaths usually manifest by witnessing one or more characters who were once pivotal to the larger narrative being maimed or murdered in a graphic and disturbing fashion. In 1001 Spikes, death usually pops up in the the form of a sharp object suddenly piercing into your flesh, resulting in an adorable and gruesome spray of blood-red pixels.  Both types of deaths work to send the message that no one is ever safe. That's all well and good, but that message in and of itself doesn't say anything particularly novel. The world is a hostile place filled with lethal problems. We're all going to die. No one is safe. Water is wet. Hamburgers are not actually made of ham. These are all truths, but telling the truth is not in itself very compelling. There needs to be a message beyond the gimmick, an idea behind the violence for it to hold any lasting emotional resonance.  Sadly, Game of Thrones doesn't manage to pull that off. Like so many other aspects of the show, its deaths are dressed up to appear sophisticated and meaningful but are really just softcore porn, in this case, of the gore-porn variety. After the shock and awe has passed, the drama continues, with no lessons learned or philosophies shared.  In 1001 Spikes, every death is a lesson. Every surprise stabbing is an opportunity for growth. Those who start the game with a feeling of dread and hopelessness may learn, through many hardships, that they are smarter, stronger, and more capable of survival than they would have ever thought possible. Game of Thrones is a largely nihilistic one-note tune, where even the survivors end up emotionally/ethically dead on the inside in no time flat. 1001 Spikes is a celebration of the negative space that death offers to our mortal experience, and how it shapes every moment of brilliance, inspiration, and virtual athleticism that brings life to its fullest.   Escape from the victim/victimizer/protector triangle You know what's hot in entertainment right now? Trauma and victimization. The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, 24, and of course Game of Thrones all chronicle the experiences of those in a constant state of fight-or-flight response. Our society is currently fascinated with witnessing what lies beneath society's veneer of civility and compassion. Why are we so obsessed with turning over the rocks of the human soul and seeing how gross the bugs are underneath? I'm guessing it's because we're living in the least safe time in human history. Everyone is spying on everyone. We can't go a month without hearing about another young man violently attacking a group of strangers. Drones are in our air space. Terrorists are in our news feed. Hackers are stealing our credit card information. Everyone is at everyone on Twitter/Facebook/Tinder and we're all thinking about how stupid, fat, and ugly everyone else is. When people are under threat, their minds naturally shift towards grouping everything around them into one of three categories: the victims, the victimizers, and the protectors. You see this all the time online. People take on victim posture in order to drum up sympathy and entitlement to attention and care, or abuse and threaten each other to give themselves the illusion of power and safety, or lash out at others that they deem to be victimizers, granting themselves entitlement to be as destructive and hostile as they want "for the greater good." This is exactly what we see happening in shows like Game of Thrones. Every character is moving around within this triangle, taking on victim, victimizer, or protector posture depending on what works best for them at the moment.  The question is, where does it get anyone? Either dead, angry, alone, or evil. Those are the only options for an endgame in the victim/victimizer/protector structure. There is no room for empathy in that triangle. There's no room for enlightenment. There's only room for conflict.  There is another way, though. There is a road out of the triangle's trap. There is the path of the victor. This is the path that 1001 Spikes presents us with. In 1001 Spikes, the environment is the victimizer, and Aban is the victim. In time, he learns to be the protector, actively fighting back against the forces working to render him powerless. That's not the end though. As any 1001 Spikes expert knows, truly mastering one of the game's levels doesn't feel like a fight. It feels like a conversation. The developer is communicating through their level design, and the player communicate back through their actions, and the back and forth gradually transforms from an angry screaming match to a beautiful duet. To get to know and love the developer through surviving, and eventually then thriving, the world of challenges that they created with you feels a lot like love. When you're able to elude every trap, make every jump, hit every note with pitch-perfect accuracy, you join with the developer in a way that the Spice Girls once sang about. That's not just surviving. That's living. That's living life right. A hunger that leads to improved nutrition Most of the aspects of Game of Thrones and 1001 Spikes affect us on an deep, guttural level. Human beings are suckers for the guttural. We spend so much time being self conscious, or worried about our futures, or obsessing about mistakes we made in the past that when something can help us turn off our brains for a while and grab us by the balls (or nipples, or whatever), it's intoxicating.  Game of Thrones grabs our balls in multiple ways. Sex, violence, taboos, mythologies, drama -- all things that capture our attention on primitive level. But what do they offer us for emotional/psychological sustenance? Sadly, not much. If you're lucky, the story may help you to conceptualize and gain insight into your own relationship problems. Through witnessing the ugliness on display in Game of Thrones, you may become more aware of the ugliness in your own life.  How is that fun? It's not, and it's also not why most people watch Game of Thrones. It's because it hooks them in a world of constant negative stimulus, constant emptiness and pain, and dangles a carrot in their faces promising that things might get better, that they might gain some emotional sustenance if they watch just one more episode. Stories like Game of Thrones (and certain videogames) are designed like sour candy. They start off sweet, with fun stuff like sex, intrigue, and power fantasy, but leave you hurting, with the sour taste of trauma and sorrow in your mouth. That sour leaves you hungry for an antidote to cancel out the sour, something like the sweet sex/power/intrigue that got you watching the show in the first place. So the cycle of sweetness, sourness continues, leaving the audience continually hungry and never truly fed. 1001 Spikes grabs you by these instincts as well, but it's all in the service of feeding you something real. 1001 Spikes and Game of Thrones both inspire a similar morbid curiosity for how bad things can possibly get next, but where Game of Thrones leaves you feeling like the world and everyone in it are horrible, 1001 Spikes inspires you to believe that you (and every one else) are capable of anything. Game of Thrones is a syrupy, acidic, sweet and sour soup made from anger, hopelessness, and nihilism. 1001 Spikes is a bitter but hearty broth that inspires patience, problem solving, and the knowledge that as long as you believe in yourself, anything is possible.  So if you've got some internalized victim/victimizer/protector issues that you'd like to work out externally, stay away from Game of Thrones. It will only work to reinforce that maladaptive power dynamic and leave you hollow inside. Instead, try 1001 Spikes. While it's not as easy to digest as a show that invites you to sit back and passively watch as the atrocities unfold before you, it's well worth the effort if you're at all interested in becoming a more psychologically well-aligned and resilient person. 
Game of Thrones photo
Ukampa > Westeros
Believe it or not, there once was a time when many, many people thought that Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was better than Advance Wars. Thankfully, those days are over now. According to my numbers, 89.6% of those who o...

Speed Runs photo
Speed Runs

Skyward Sword and 1001 Spikes speed runs will get your blood pumping

Glitch assisted or not, the athleticism shines through
Jun 28
// Jonathan Holmes
Skyward Sword and 1001 Spikes may not look like they have a lot in common, but they share a lot of the same design sensibilities. Both games are about exploring relatively small, densely packed areas that appear simple on th...
1001 Spikes photo
1001 Spikes

1001 Spikes leaps to Xbox One next week

Prepare to die. A lot.
Jun 07
// Kyle MacGregor
1001 Spikes is landing on Xbox One next week, publisher Nicalis recently announced. The insanely difficult platformer is already available on PlayStation 4, Vita, Steam, Nintendo 3DS, and Wii U, but Xbox One owners will ...
1001 Spikes photo
1001 Spikes

1001 Spikes knows how to do a launch trailer right

Plus footage of the 3DS version
Jun 03
// Jordan Devore
Ooh, this is looking good. In the lead up to 1001 Spikes, there's been plenty of footage shared but much of it appeared to be from the earlier levels. Now, with this launch trailer, we've got a proper preview of the misery t...
1001 Spikes photo
1001 Spikes

1001 Spikes also hitting Wii U, 3DS on June 3

May 30
// Jordan Devore
We heard the PS4, PS Vita, and Steam versions of 1001 Spikes were coming June 3. Which is great and all, but I know a number of us were going to hold out for the game on Wii U or 3DS -- no need to! Nicalis has confirmed those...

1001 Spikes comes to PS4, Vita, Steam on June 3

Go die
May 28
// Dale North
Nicalis' 1001 Spikes is a game I'm excited about but have somehow completely missed the chance to talk about. It's a particularly brutal action-platformer that also doubles as an outstanding Mario Bros. style party game. Ther...
Toribash on Steam photo
Toribash on Steam

Turn-based fighting game Toribash now available on Steam

Or maybe 'Toriflail,' as I would play it
May 20
// Darren Nakamura
Do you know Toribash? It has existed as a free-to-play game for a while now on Mac and PC, and it even came to WiiWare several years ago. The turn-based, muscle micromanagement fighter starring Vectorman's cousins may now ga...
1001 Spikes photo
1001 Spikes

1001 Spikes' multiplayer gets everyone in on the dying

Maybe someone won't die sometime
May 20
// Brett Makedonski
If you can be certain of one thing for the upcoming Aban Hawkins & the 1,001 Spikes, it's that dying is an inevitability -- an inevitability that will happen time and time again. This trailer shows some of the ways that ...
Cave Story Europe photo
Cave Story Europe

Cave Story explores European eShop this May, Australia someday

Nicalis confirms Nintendo 3DS release in PAL territories
Apr 20
// Kyle MacGregor
Cave Story makes its way to the Nintendo 3DS eShop in Europe on May 1, Nicalis recently revealed. The publisher also confirmed plans to bring the title to Australian shores at some point in time. Daisuke Amaya's mag...
1,001 Spikes photo
1,001 Spikes

Aban Hawkins goes Street Fighter, Castlevania and more

Who is El Testigo?!?!?!
Feb 15
// Jonathan Holmes
Aban Hawkins and the 1,001 Spikes is almost ready for release, with a total of 18 playable characters currently ready to go. We've already heard about Commander Video (Bit.Trip), Nyx (Nyx Quest), Thompson, Sugimoto, and...

Nicalis teases with Cave Story toys

Plastic stuff!
Dec 20
// Conrad Zimmerman
This ought to perk up the ears of Cave Story fans. The Twitter account for Nicalis recently posted the above image showing toys based on characters from the indie darling and asking if people would like to have a set of ...
Nicalis photo

Indie fighter Legend of Raven soaring to PS4, Xbox One

Nicalis piggybacks on PS Vita release with next-gen versions of doujin fighting game
Nov 07
// Kyle MacGregor
Legend of Raven is now fluttering over to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Nicalis has announced. A new trailer for the upcoming fighter reveals the PS4, Xbox One, and PS Vita versions will all employ lag-reducing GGPO netco...
Cave Story photo
Cave Story

Nicalis pondering physical release for Cave Story on 3DS

Currently gauging level of fan interest
Oct 29
// Kyle MacGregor
Nicalis is considering a physical release for Cave Story, it seems. The studio posed a question to fans yesterday, inquiring as to whether a corporeal copy of the Nintendo 3DS eShop version is something folks would be in...

HUGE: Download a full copy of NightSky right now

Oct 17 // Niero Desu
ABOUT NIGHTSKY Nominated as a IGF Seamus McNally Finalist, NightSky is an ambient action-puzzle game that offers a gameplay experience unlike any other cerebral challenges fill uniquely designed picturesque worlds. The player must maneuver a sphere by using realistic physics to advance; each of these worlds is broken into different areas. Check out for more great indie games. NightSky is an action-puzzle game that offers an ambient gameplay experience unlike any other cerebral challenges fill uniquely designed picturesque worlds. Each of these worlds is broken into different areas in which the player must maneuver a sphere by using realistic physics to advance. There are no enemies, no bosses, and no violence in NightSky. An intuitive experience is friendly for casual and mainstream gamers. NightSky also offers a formidable challenge for hardcore players, with an unlockable Master mode. The original soundtrack by experimental jazz musician Chris Schlarb will further heighten the surreal experience. GAME FEATURES 2D platform/puzzle-based gameplay Multiple difficulties with unique topography 11 massive levels, each with expansive areas to explore
Free game photo
Upgrade your account and get dibs our giveaways
Have you played NightSky yet? We've got Steam codes for all of our members right now, courtesy of our friends at Nicalis. Destructoid's Jonathan Holmes gave it an 8/10, calling NightSky a "physics-focused puzzle platfor...

Aban Hawkins photo
Aban Hawkins

Aban Hawkins and the 1,001 Spikes adds dead tempura

Thompson, Sugimoto, and Zombie join the fray
Oct 03
// Jonathan Holmes
Nintendo fans, remember how much you wanted to love Subspace Emissary? It's a crying shame. The slightly busted co-op, the sluggish, fudge-y platforming and generally uninteresting level design did a lot to mar Super Sma...
VVVVVV photo

Nicalis on VVVVVV PS Vita, platform preference, and more

From the smelly untouched stacks of PAX 2013
Sep 22
// Jonathan Holmes
Hidden away among all the other PAX announcements was word that the PC and 3DS classicVVVVVV is headed to the PS Vita. No price point or talk of potential new content has been put out yet, but from m...
Legend of Raven photo
Legend of Raven

Nicalis on Raven's jump to Vita, new color man and more

From the hidden PAX stacks
Sep 13
// Jonathan Holmes
In a hidden red room just outside of the main PAX show floor, many wonderous new videogames could be found. Nicalis was showing Aban Hawkins and the 1,001 Spikes, VVVVVV, and Legend of Raven (formerly known as Yatagarasu) on...
1001 Spikes photo
Our death-filled hands-on demo
Jonathan and Tony were able to play some Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes at PAX Prime 2013, including testing out guest characters in the new cooperative mode. The original release on Xbox 360 was tremendously fun in that...

VVVVVVita photo

VVVVVV is coming to the PlayStation VVVVVVita

I'd buy it again
Sep 01
// Chris Carter
One of my favorite games of this decade so far (funnily enough it arrived just at the start of the decade in 2010), VVVVVV, is coming to the PlayStation Vita, publisher Nicalis has announced. It doesn't sound like a...
Grinsia photo

Nicalis publishing Kemco RPG Grinsia on 3DS

Get the full scoop in Nintendo Force Magazine!
Aug 20
// Jonathan Holmes
[Update: Added new 3DS specific trailer!] Working for a magazine is different from writing for a blog in a lot of ways. Probably the biggest difference is reading the exclusive news from your publication at the same time the...
1001 Spikes photo
1001 Spikes

Play Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes with friends

Co-op support joins new multiplayer modes
Jul 11
// Jordan Devore
Well now, isn't that something? A handful of us here at Destructoid are pumped for Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes, a Nicalis-published revamp of the brutal Xbox Live Indie Games platformer. It's a blast to watch as tensio...
Nightsky Europe photo
Nightsky Europe

Nightsky 3DS is finally coming to Europe

Enjoy it!
Feb 13
// Chris Carter
Remember Nightsky? That pretty awesome game by Nicalis that hit the 3DS eShop last year? Well it looks like Europeans are finally getting the chance to experience this whimsical puzzler on February 21st, for €9.99. I can...
Binding of Isaac photo
Binding of Isaac

More new sprites unveiled for Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

McMillen reports recreation of original assets largely complete
Feb 09
// Conrad Zimmerman
Edmund McMillen has revealed a new sheet of sprites for the upcoming remake of his surprise hit game, The Binding of Isaac. In a post to his personal blog, McMillen accompanied the images with news that a large percentag...

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