The Binding of Isaac: Mastering Your Luck

Isaac is a young kid with a wild imagination. The opening animation to Binding of Isaac presents the dark story of a religious, crazed mother out to sacrifice her child, shown through crude drawings by Isaac himself. It catapults the player into a fantasy world that can be disturbing yet funny, full of grotesque monsters and a multitude of strange hidden treasures. Story and style aside, the Binding of Isaac becomes more of an engrossing exercise in resource management than twitch shooter. While playing the game, it first comes down to luck, and secondly is how the player deals with that luck. The choices could doom them or save his pathetic, little life.

The Binding of Issac is an unlikely shooter from the minds of Edmund McMillen, of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame, and Florian Himsl. It incorporates the concept of the roguelike, or dungeon crawler, for its structure. Some of the main conceits of a roguelike is that when the player dies, they die for good. No saves, forcing them to start the game over. Another is the random, procedurally generated dungeons. The replayablility comes from never knowing exactly what you’re going to be handed next. This is where some of the joy and, sometimes, frustration of The Binding of Isaac comes in.

Now, I have very limited experience with roguelikes myself. They are an oddity to me. Games on the outskirts of my gaming knowledge. I have tried to play a few, but usually get stuck on the basic ACII interfaces or basic tiled graphics and sometimes high learning curves. The extent of my expertise with roguelikes is that I know of them, and I know a little of how their design functions. There is perma-death, but with each death comes new opportunities with randomly generated levels. The Binding of Isaac does this with a gameplay design that feels a little more accessible. To be able to move freely through each room and line up active shooting gives the game a sense of motion and excitement.

There is considerable skill involved in the game with the real-time shooting and moving. However, the player’s victory can merely come down to pure luck of the draw. The different permutations of dungeons and room and loot drops can either severely hurt a player, or make the game so much easier. From the treasure rooms that can hold any selection of the hundred items, to the pills, whose effects are never consistent from one playthrough to the next and hold no significant markings to help identify what they will do. It’s always a gamble on if you will be lucky enough to get a item drop to actually help you along your path. There is even a special room containing a slot machine and shuffling cup (or skull) game. You could come out of there with great items, or absolutely nothing.

Ah! The choices...

This is where the crazed genius really shines through, however. At first, the Binding of Isaac seems like a tricky Zelda-esque shooter with a Metroid style maze of dungeons, but the real strategy comes from managing your luck. You start to think, is it worth your hearts, or your items, or bombs or keys to go on through the next room? Do I need to see what items are in the shop, or can I push forward? Should I use this bomb to get those hearts, or should I try and find the secret room? Will I get more bombs later? What in God’s name will this pill do to me?!

It’s a deeper strategy than you even think you are employing. The quick use items need to be used at precisely the corrects moments, or they are wasted.  You should how many rooms it takes to recharge a off-hand item, and if the one you just found will work better for you, and if it will work well with the upgrades you currently have equipped. Some of the items you pick up can be detrimental to how you like to play. Take the chocolate milk “upgrade” for example. Instead of holding down the shoot buttons so tears automatically plop out one at a time out, the chocolate milk lets you charge tears. So for someone like myself, who prefers to hold down the buttons, that item sort of sucks. I have to be either tapping away or running around holding the button for just the right amount of time.

The one and only time I refuse chocolate milk.

Experimentation and trying your luck is just another part of the game. Whenever I get a pill that has the “???” as the description, I just instinctually gulp it down, hoping for the best. Any new item I haven’t seen before, I take, and haphazardly use it to see its effects. Experimentation with the, admittedly, unique and clever items is half the fun. A run could go a completely different direction because you sacrificed two hearts for something, like the powerful Brimstone upgrade, even though you had no idea what it was just from looking at the vague icon. When you try your luck and it works out, the run can become incredibly satisfying.

The layout of the dungeons are equally as harrowing. With each new game the placement of rooms is shuffled and rearranged into a completely new maze. Then, with each new placement, the rooms themselves become a mystery. You could easily walk into a room with nothing but a coin, then march into a room that completely obliterates your health. The choice of trying to find the shop or the secret room soon becomes affected by your courage in tempting fate with the rooms on the way. Even if you do happen to find the shop, it could be occupied by one of the mini-bosses, Greed, who is just out to take your coins. Finding an item like the compass is extremely helpful in meandering your way through danger and deciding whether to throw caution to the wind.

No matter what items you pick up, or which rooms you stumble across, this is a game that can take risk vs. reward and shove it in your face. The Binding of Isaac has the ability to leave you distraught with how cruel the random drops can be, or jovial with streaks of good fortune. But even with all the luck in the world, or the Lucky Foot, it still comes down to a player choice on how far they wish to push that luck.

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