Since its original release as a subversive flash game way back in 2011, The Binding of Isaac has ascended from a cult classic to a mainstream success. In the time since that release, all of the elements which made it subversive, from its dark themes to its biblical allusions, have been covered and analyzed by critics from numerous angles.
Theories about the meaning of the game’s obscure, sparse narrative have ranged from wild ad hoc hypotheses about Isaac’s family history to carefully built cases tracing themes across several earlier games made by designer Edmund McMillen. Regardless, it has seemingly all been said (until the upcoming Rebirth expansion brings new evidence, at least).
I see that sort of analysis as highly valuable, and I find myself largely in agreement with commenters who interpret The Binding of Isaac as a portrait of a particular type of upbringing, with all of the entailed positive (i.e. creative and skeptical) and negative (i.e. repressed and threatened) effects. Acknowledging that as trodden ground, however, I would like to discuss an aspect of the game which is often gestured toward, but seldom discussed at length: how the roguelike gameplay lends itself to the game’s homage and spiritual succession of the earliest Legend of Zelda games.
1986’s The Legend of Zelda:
The longest standing fans of The Legend of Zelda—those who have been playing since the first entry in the series—often find themselves in a strange love-hate relationship with the newer entries in the series. While a game like Skyward Sword looks and sounds satisfyingly like a Zelda game, it caters in every possible way to new, young players, from unending tutorial segments to an overbearing companion to minimal difficulty, entirely at the expense of experienced players. For a deeper look at Skyward Sword, see this analysis video.
For such very-long-term fans of the Legend of Zelda series, it seems that the core elements of the early titles, such as a sense of meaningful exploration, an emphasis on gameplay over story, and a significant level of difficulty, have been eschewed entirely in favor of linearity and accessibility. None of this is to say that the modern Zelda titles are all bad games; far from it, Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker are bold and interesting games, and Twilight Princess has daring and wonderful segments. I’m personally very fond of the characters, visual design, and gameplay mechanics of The Minish Cap. Rather, this is just to say that fans of the aforementioned core elements have had to look elsewhere to get their fix.
Game critic Tevis Thompson, after systematically criticizing the state of modern Legend of Zelda games, alleges that Demon’s Souls comes nearer to a presentation of the original Zelda formula in three dimensions than the series itself ever has. Meanwhile, back in two dimensions, I would argue that The Binding of Isaac is a worthy candidate for consideration as a spiritual successor to those early titles.
The Binding of Isaac has always been a game with blatant references to and inspirations from the earliest Zelda games. In the above screenshots, one sees the visual similarity of a so-called ‘crawl space’ in Rebirth and an item room from The Legend of Zelda. The title of the younger game is deliberately structured to resemble the title of the older game. Isaac’s animation when picking up an item is reminiscent of Link doing the same. Everything about moving through the game—the cardinal-direction-only attacks, the scrolling room transitions, the locked rooms, the enemy and obstacle set-ups, etc.—is evident in any gameplay video of The Legend of Zelda; here is one selected at random, for reference. Fans of Isaac who played its original incarnation will also recognize the bar at the top of the Zelda screen as being almost identical to the information display in flash Isaac. Many of the items, enemies, and hazards in Isaac are also specific allusions to Zelda items, enemies, and hazards (note the way the boomerang is used in the linked video).
But those overt references are not what makes the game a worthy descendant of Zelda. What makes the game a worthy descendant is the implementation of its gameplay and mechanics. How does one implement the sense of discovery and surprise from The Legend of Zelda in the modern world of instant access to game information? How does one force the player to learn the mechanics and gain skill, as opposed to having them memorize the sequence of tasks in the game? The answer to both questions was randomization, a key attribute of Isaac‘s other biggest influence, a 2008 game called Spelunky (which, like Isaac, has since had an acclaimed and excellent HD remake that is definitely worth playing).
2014’s The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth:
By randomizing everything from the items to the consumable drops to the enemies to the rooms to the bosses to much more, McMillen’s design made it almost statistically impossible for two non-seeded runs to be identical. Add to this elements like the predictable-but-not-infallibly-so secret rooms, the totally unpredictable crawl spaces, and the discernible-but-subtle tinted rocks; the result is a game that encourages literally leaving no stone unturned, and which rewards attentive play and situational awareness.
But crucially, the result is also a game where the map may hold unspeakable challenges at inopportune times, or may provide an unexpected bounty when it is needed most. These are situations which make for a tense and interesting game to play, and these are the attributes of the exploration in The Legend of Zelda which made that game such a massive success in its day. Such forays into the unknown can only be aided by the addition of further floor variants, floors, room types, rooms, items, transformations, mechanics, enemies, and bosses, all of which will be provided by the Afterbirth DLC to be released on the 30th of this month.
But how do you simulate the stakes of a besieged world like the original Hyrule? How do you make it seem as inhospitable and threatening? Well, part of the answer to these questions comes from the aesthetic and thematic choices in the design of the game; a frightened child fleeing his homicidal mother through an arguably even more homicidal gauntlet of monstrosities (set to an undulating, ambient soundtrack with industrial samples) is a scenario most would call tense. But these aural assets are only how the game evokes tension. The way that the game instills tension in the player is, again, through its gameplay.
With the help of the Nicalis team (and before that, Florian Himsl), Edmund McMillen made his game difficult, and he brought in permadeath. These attributes, again present in Spelunky, round out the key elements of the roguelike genre so much in vogue at present. Aside from providing an obvious satisfaction at finally improving and defeating all of the challenges set before you, these attributes make each run (or at least runs without good early item drops) tangibly nerve-wracking when one’s health pool runs low.
The world threatens you with failure, and this is psychologically effective. This is why a successful run as The Lost feels so triumphant, because of the constant proximity to failure. And the balance tweaks to this character which are scheduled to accompany the expansion’s release will maintain this propensity for triumph while removing much tedium.
Perhaps the single most important design decision, however, was the way that Isaac’s attacking capabilities were handled. In the essay about Zelda linked above, Thompson laments at one point the gratuitousness of recent Legend of Zelda titles’ item bloat. When such a complaint can be valid about a game with fewer than 30 items at its most excessive, how can it possibly be the case that the literal hundreds of items in Rebirth do not introduce the same problems?
The answer comes down once more to implementation. For all of its incredible variation, Isaac has essentially two offensive abilities (or three if you count bombs). He has his tears, and he acquires an active item. The genius of the huge number of items in The Binding of Isaac is that they meaningfully develop and build upon this core gameplay, rather than adding new tools at every turn. McMillen is no stranger to this game design philosophy, and his prior success, a game he made with Tommy Refenes called Super Meat Boy, employs an even more pure example wherein the core gameplay is completely unchanged from the start of the game to above 100% completion (with the exception of character unlocks).
Isaac and Isaac’s tears grow stronger, or gain additional utility, or offer defensive capabilities, or change shape, but there are just a select few rare items (e.g. Mom’s Knife) that can actually change the tool that is being used. Rather than feeling like the recent Zelda-series staple of checklist items allowing the completion of simple puzzle tasks, the items acquired in Isaac improve and upgrade your arsenal, which nevertheless relies on your skill for success.
This is not to say that The Binding of Isaac is by any means a perfect example of the early Zelda formula. After all, the epic scale of the Zelda games, communicated as much by their plot (however sparing) as by their overworld navigation, is not remotely communicated by the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Binding of Isaac, which operates more like a series of Zelda dungeons than a Zelda game in its entirety. This is more in keeping with Isaac‘s tone. Likewise, the darker themes of the game, however crassly presented at times, make Isaac into something more cerebral than Zelda ever was. For more information on those themes, this recent, highly personal interview with McMillen delves deeply into the origin of some the game’s themes and imagery.
When one hears that the next Legend of Zelda title (for the Wii U console) will be an open-world game with no restrictive pathing, and boldly (if tentatively) titled just The Legend of Zelda, a fan of the series like myself can not help but get some hopes up. But in the meantime, and whether that title delivers, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth will provide me with hundreds more hours of excitement, challenge, and frustration, befitting of its regal forebears.
Bound and Determined: