November 10, 2015 | by Ryan
The Evolution of Isaac

Back in September of 2011, Edmund McMillen, the creator of Super Meat Boy, released a game some of you might have heard of called The Binding of Isaac. At first, it didn’t feel like a whole lot of people took notice. Even now, the concept of a randomized roguelike based on the original Legend of Zelda about a boy being chased into a ghoulish basement by his crazed religious mother seems a little weird. But somehow, the simplistic coded-in-Flash Isaac took off. Maybe it was because of the game’s inclusion in the newly debuted Humble Bundle later that November, which is where I first caught wind of it. I fell in love with the game almost immediately.

It’s hard to say what about Isaac appealed to me so much. Knowing me, the primary draw had to have been the sick concept and gruesome visual design – I distinctly remember being kinda grossed out when I played it for the first time, and that’s exactly what I wanted to happen. I was pleasantly surprised by the game’s ability to effectively convey things like severed body parts and mutilated horrors and whatever other vile elements Isaac spits up through such simple graphics. The soundtrack was a similar kind of pull – simple, yet incredibly effective.

“Simple yet effective” is a creed that applied to Issac’s gameplay too. Move ‘n shoot in four directions, collect items, die, rinse, repeat. It was and still is uncomplicated and severely addicting by virtue of how fast and easy to learn the whole thing is. But just because it’s easy to learn never meant Isaac was easy to master – even after all this time and all these iterations and all my achievements, I still think I’m a pretty poor player overall. The combination of brutal difficulty and fun gameplay leads to the worst case of “just one more run” syndrome ever devised.

2015-11-10_00003“Yeah mom, I’ll be down in a minute; I have to kill mom in this game.”

Getting obsessed with Isaac in 2011 meant I was the perfect passenger on the hype train for the game’s first major expansion, Wrath of the Lamb, which unleashed itself in May of 2012. I remember sitting at my computer waiting for it to unlock at midnight, only to realize it wouldn’t be “released” until the next afternoon. Wrath of the Lamb was a big deal, both figuratively and literally – by more than doubling the amount of content in Isaac, it provided more gameplay to us players who had almost totally milked the base game dry.

With Wrath of the Lamb, the first bit of what I’ll refer to as “item craze” made itself apparent, which is to say that obsession of finding all the items in the game and seeing what kind of cool gameplay combos they made. For example, discovering the right combination of items for poison bomb tears, or how many different kinds of fly-based items you can stick on your character at once. Sure, that was in the original Isaac too, but Wrath brought enough new items to the table to actually make so many combos viable. It wasn’t perfect though; some items ended up being completely broken, and some combos cancelled other items out, but it was the “item craze” that really paved the way for Rebirth.

2014-11-04_00002Let’s be honest…a red circle of death is pretty cool.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth came out almost a year ago today, but the lead-up lasted for around a year in itself. The crux of the hype came from better graphics, a non-Flash engine, a new soundtrack, and, of course, a ton of new items and enemies. It was hard to go for long without seeing some kind of tease from McMillen’s blog about some new item and how cool it looks when you’re using it with this other item. Almost every question he received wasn’t about whether the plot would change, or if there would be new gameplay modes, but rather “what does X do when you use it with Y?” or “will there be an item that lets you do Z?”

I was skeptical about Rebirth at first. Did Isaac really need another version? Thankfully, the answer was yes. Rebirth managed to put my fears to bed by improving on the original Isaac in pretty much every way, even if it didn’t bring a whole lot new to the gameplay table aside from some new challenges and the addition of a timer and better interface. As far as I’m concerned, Rebirth was the high-water mark for Isaac – which brings us to Afterbirth.

2014-11-05_00002Rebirth was so good because it gave us this boss art.

In case you couldn’t guess, I preordered Afterbirth almost as soon as I could. Even though I still hadn’t unlocked everything there was to find in Rebirth, the promise of more content was all I needed. In retrospect, I probably should have been a little more discerning.

I never thought I’d say DLC could make a game worse, but in some places, Afterbirth actually detracts from the near-perfect experience of Rebirth. Unnecessary voice acting from the game’s narrator now accompanies every usable item, with delivery ranging from inoffensive to downright unintentionally hilarious (“TELEPILLZZZZZZ”). The soundtrack is now randomly supplemented with bizarre pseudo-metal butt-rock guitar riffs, and the boss music seems to have been replaced entirely. New “button rooms” require players to time their movements in order to press buttons to open doors, which really just feels like a shallow, challengeless addition to slow down attempted speed-runs. The new “Greed Mode” feels obtuse and unintuitive at first, which compromises the inherent simplicity at Isaac’s core. Bigger isn’t always better.

Good things about Afterbirth are, of course, the new bosses, items, and floor types, and the addition of a daily challenge run, which includes, of all things, a global leaderboard based on an almost incomprehensibly calculated score that has something to do with how fast you play, how many items you get, etc. It’s this daily challenge and score mode, also present in the main game, that really cinches Afterbirth as the final stage in Isaac’s long evolution, for better or worse.

2015-10-30_00002Speaking of worse, “more trollfaces” was the last thing I wanted.

With Afterbirth, whatever story or plot was behind Isaac has officially been pushed to the wayside. Isaac has become totally enveloped in its own gameplay, developing a complete dependency on pushing players towards high scores and showing off whatever endless combination of items the game generates. This emphasis on gameplay was obviously always there, but the additions of Afterbirth bring it to its logical conclusion. It’s no longer the story of Isaac and his mother, it’s the story of Isaac and his high scores, Isaac and his speed runs, and Isaac and his Twitch emote.

And that’s the thing about Afterbirth – with all these new additions to an already near endless vein of content and the imposed sense of self-competitiveness Afterbirth brings to the forefront, Isaac is now more or less the perfect streaming game. It plays fast and has enough of an “oh, look at this!” factor in its near-infinite randomly generated content to keep fans of the game occupied and entertained watching it even when they aren’t playing it. Unless the next iteration of Isaac integrates a login for Twitch streaming, it couldn’t be any more perfect.

6152590_watch-deadmau5-live-from-twitchcon-live_5f26c2b6_mThanks to TwitchCon, Isaac is now implicitly a part of this culture.

But even as a joke, I can’t really see Isaac getting another expansion, or at least one that’s justified. With the additions provided by Afterbirth, there’s nothing that could be added gameplay-wise that wouldn’t feel clunky or gimmicky, aside from possibly online multiplayer. After four years, Isaac has more or less hit a zenith and reached its most superior version; assuming you aren’t a die-hard fan of the original Isaac or think that Rebirth was perfectly fine like me.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s one last expansion to Isaac a year or so from now – it would be too hard to just give up on this indie cash cow. But until then, Afterbirth is what we’ve got, and is assumedly, the definitive and canon version of Isaac. So what this all boils down to, I’m not really sure, but I do know one thing: despite my criticisms, I’m too addicted to give up on the basement any time soon. Where Isaac goes from here is anyone’s guess, but I’ll be there waiting with my bible in hand.

Editor, writer, and a non-stop consumer of games, movies, and music. Also the resident Texan, a general mischief maker, and a lover of all things atrocious.

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