My History with The Binding of Isaac

Binding of Isaac Repentance Header

The Binding of Isaac has been a constant presence in my life since I was 15 years old. So this year, with the release of a third DLC coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the original title, I think it’s appropriate to talk about it.

With gruesome and morbid art style, unforgiving mechanics, and endless hours of fun, it has brought back the Rogue-like genre into the spotlight for critics and fans alike. 

What is The Binding of Isaac?

The game’s history starts in 2011 with Edward McMillen and Florian Himsl working together in a game jam for a week. Thus, creating a prototype for what would become The Binding of Isaac.

Edward McMillen was already famous among the indie gaming community, thanks to Super Meat Boy. From its Steam page, we can expect a “randomly generated action RPG shooter with heavy Rogue-like elements.” 

Taking solid references from the original Legend of Zelda, the game began as a Flash game with a single DLC called The Wrath of the Lamb. This version had obvious limitations due to the game’s engine.

The remake version, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, was released on November 4th, 2014. With currently 3 DLCs in its repertoire, the number of items, enemies, and overall content available allows for endless replayability potential.

To avoid going insane while writing, I’ll refer to the title as Isaac or BoI

Screenshot from Binding of Isaac's character selection
I started a new save file. My latest runs haven’t been the greatest.

Whether you play with a controller or keyboard, you always start with a randomly generated floor on every run. As I’ve mentioned before, BoI takes a lot of inspiration from the original Zelda.

A clean save file will start with Isaac, the main protagonist, as the only character unlocked. Each floor gets randomly generated, providing a high replayability value combined with the item’s synergies and paths available.

However, if you’re trying to hop into Binding of Isaac for the first time, you are in for an ugly wake-up call. 

What I Enjoy about the Game

Back in 2012, I was in high school with plenty of time to learn the game mechanics and go through countless runs until I was able to beat Mom without breaking a sweat.

I can even remember some summer vacations where I brought my laptop to the cabin and went through some runs as everyone else was chilling in the lake. Mostly because I’ve never liked the beach, but my obsession with Isaac was unmeasurable. 

I can pinpoint several things that I enjoy until this day about Isaac. I loved the sense of accomplishment whenever I had a successful run. How much knowledge you’re required to hold in your head about items and trinkets, with or without wiki at hand. The entire completionist aspect of the game tickles my brain in ways few games manage to do so. 

Screenshot from Bethany picking up an item inside a Treasure Room
I can bet many Isaac fans recognize an item’s effects at a single glance.

After some years without touching the game once, I decided to purchase the newest DLC and start playing again.

My muscle memory kicked in within the first few runs in Normal mode, and I defeated Mom with some trouble. However, once you start unlocking new content and enemies, the difficulty curve gets steep.

It’s even worse when you dive into Hardmode, which got some exciting tweaks with Repentance. I cannot bring myself to start playing again with less conventional characters (looking at you, Blue Baby).

Now I am a “responsible adult”, I don’t have much time to complete my new save file as before.

Of all the unlockable characters added with the DLCs, Bethany has been one of my favourites alongside Apollyon. Hopefully, I’ll get to test the tainted characters one day, which frankly look insane in terms of game mechanics.

Screenshot of Bethany at the starting floor
My girl Bethany. Her gimmick comes from her bound active item and charging it with soul/black hearts.

About Isaac’s Distinctive Aesthetic

McMillen’s religious upbringing has already been extensively discussed in many interviews as a determining factor in the game’s aesthetics.

The satanic/biblical references alongside the twisted animations are not the most offensive thing you may have seen in a video game. However, when I first started playing the Flash version, I was utterly shocked and morbidly fascinated by it.

Expect flies, crying babies, worms, and lots of poop. My goodness, so much poop. 

The graphic updates from the Flash era are one of the most beautiful makeovers I’ve seen in a long time. With Repentance, they’ve tweaked the animations even further.

Each enemy has a distinct design which you can check out in your save file’s Bestiary, alongside a nice breakdown of how many you’ve killed and the number of death tolls of each monster.

Going back to the original Binding of Isaac feels like a fever dream, especially considering how I logged over 120 hours back in the day.

Screenshot from my save file's Bestiary
These idiots have killed me four times. Shame.

Some Drawbacks

With something that I hold dear to my heart, I cannot set aside its drawbacks just for the sake of avoiding the subject.

The game may be one of the most accessible Rogue-like games available today. But its difficulty curve can be off-putting for new players of the genre.

This is the point of Rogue-likes, I am aware of that. I just want to place it as a warning for those who despise repetition and grind.

Some items have bugs that, to this day, are still pending fixes. And, at some point, the game doesn’t feel like a test of skill, but instead, you start to look into the luck-based aspect of it.

For many players, part of the magic when playing Isaac is to test whether you can find the right items to “break the run” and have an easy win. But to achieve that single victory, how many unfair losses and restarts do you need to go through? 

Screenshot from a battle at a Angel Room
Sometimes you have lucky runs. Other times you die at the first floor.

With each DLC, I’ve personally found that the new enemies’ attack patterns have gotten even more erratic to add variety. Hardmode itself got a rework to step up its difficulty.

Of course, not everyone is so happy with McMillen’s decisions.

One of the most infamous examples of this was Delirium, one of the final bosses added in Afterbirth that caused outrage due to its unfair attacks and overall tedious battle.

Another point of contempt for a long time was his reluctance to add a full multiplayer mode to the game, a situation that recently changed with Repentance.

The release of Afterbirth+ and how Repentance came to reality has its own drama as well. However, I’m not interested in delving into it right now. In the end, you can never leave everyone happy. 

My Final Thoughts

I tend to stay on the margin and mostly lurk around. However, McMillen seems to keep himself very engaged with his fans. The commitment to its creation and its surrounding community has brought us exciting stories.

My personal favourite must be the ARG quest to unlock the Keeper for Afterbirth. Nowadays, his current project involves a Kickstarter campaign for his multiplayer card game based on The Binding of Isaac.

By the time I’m writing this, he has motivated the community with different challenges to unlock new content. Even by offering bathwater as part of the incentives to reach new milestones.

Considering the bugs, nerfs, and patches, The Binding of Isaac is still a testament to love, passion, and pure dedication from its creator and community. So I’m sticking with that.

If you’re looking for a challenge and have some time to burn, I’d say grab this game, whether you decide to wait for a Steam Sale or support McMillen at its full price.

Screenshot with Womb's boss It Lives!
A final (spoiler?) screenshot from my Bethany run. I also defeated Mega Satan AND Delirium in this run.

If you liked this content, check out other reviews in my portfolio. I sometimes write articles about other topics too.