Al at Decade’s End: My Top of 2011 – The Binding of Isaac

Welcome to the end of the decade; the end of the 2010s; Al at Decade’s End. This is a miniseries where I celebrate the past ten years in video games, starting by talking about my favourite games from each year, and ending with the end-of-year extravaganza for 2019! The games I talk about here might not necessarily be the best of the decade, but they sure left the best impressions on me for one reason or another. And so, without any more delay, we begin our look at 2011!

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There are games that I’ve played that I will say are my favourites, and then there are games that I’ve played that I would say have completely changed my life. You would think these are the same, but they’re really not. One prime example of this is World of Warcraft. Deciding to play this game would change my life forever. It changed how I looked at video games, it changed how I socialized, and I not only met some of my closest friends through WoW, but also grew much closer to others through the MMORPG as well. Despite all of this, WoW is not even close to being one of my favourites. In fact, I’ve all but stopped playing it in favour of Final Fantasy XIV. That’s a story for another time. My best of 2011 is one that changed my life nearly as much as WoW did: The Binding of Isaac.

When I first discovered The Binding of Isaac I was actually turned off by the game almost entirely. It had a high difficulty, something I wasn’t a fan of in 2011, and it had permadeath, a mechanic I absolutely despised. What drew me to the game, however, was the fun and unique art style, and the dungeon-crawling gameplay reminiscent of OG The Legend of Zelda. It also didn’t hurt that it was on sale all the time and was constantly given away in indie game bundles. So, upon a friend’s emphatic recommendation that I play it, I decided to pick it up from an indie game bundle and gave it a shot. What would follow was one of the most loving addictions to a video game I would ever have, with me eventually pouring nearly 250 hours into the game between the original release and the remake, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

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Developed by Edmund McMillen of Super Meat Boy fame, The Binding of Isaac is what you’d call a roguelite dungeon-crawler. A game where you explore randomly generated dungeons with randomly generated enemies and item upgrades, with the caveat that you have to start over from the beginning when you die with a completely new layout. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any sense of progression in Isaac, actually it’s on the contrary. Every item and character you unlocked would be carried over to subsequent runs through the game. Characters are picked before you start your runs, each with different starting stats and items, and item unlocks are added to the pool of random items you can find.

The more you play the game, the more cool stuff you can find. The items you find in Isaac aren’t just flat powerups; they have the potential to completely alter your playstyle for the rest of the run. For example, your basic attack is a projectile that travels a certain distance and speed, but if you pick up the Ipecac item your projectile turns into a slow-moving poisonous explosive that fires in an arc. The items that you get can also synergize with one another. For example, if you pick up the Dr. Fetus item while already using Ipecac your lobbed explosive will turn into an actual bomb with a poison effect, fired along a straight line, while also rendering you immune to explosive damage. So not only can you fire endless bombs at your enemies and poison them, but you’re immune from hurting yourself. These interactions are what addicted me to the game, encouraging me to keep experimenting with different item combinations and putting me into that infamous “just one more run” mentality.

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The Binding of Isaac is not only the game that made me fall in love with the roguelite genre, but it’s also the game that introduced me to brutal difficulty in games, while also making me crave more brutally hard games. This game helped open my mind to trying more amazing games that I might not of had a mind to try otherwise, such as Dark Souls and Dead Cells. It also helped drive home a number of important lessons for me, such as the importance of adaptability and perseverance. When I say this game changed my life, I meant it. At this point in time I don’t recommend that anyone play the original release of Isaac due to a number of issues tied to how the game was made. I would instead recommend people to try the 2014 remake subtitled Rebirth, which runs much better than the original and has so much more content to offer.

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