John Teti joined me to chat for this weekend’s open thread. It turns out, we’re probably going to be playing the same game, The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth. John has played way more Isaac than me, though, so I wanted to hear what he had to say about this new remake and try to get some tips and tricks out of him. As usual, we’d love to hear what you’re playing this weekend down in the comments.
Matt Gerardi: What are you playing this weekend?
John Teti: I’ll be playing more of The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth, which I just got into last night.
MG: Yeah, I’ll be playing that one too. Your Isaac love is well documented. What have you thought about this remake so far?
JT: I’ve been disappointed in it, to be frank. This is only after one night of play, and I haven’t opened up all the later chapters yet. (I did complete a run by defeating Mom—or at least the first incarnation of Mom.) I’m withholding overall judgment. But the new soundtrack is a huge step down from Danny Baranowsky’s tunes for the original BOI. Baranowsky’s tracks throbbed with dread and excitement; the new tunes are more like ambient metal.
I also don’t care for the new pixelated look. The precision of pixel art is a weird fit for the messy, gross trappings of Isaac. I think that the original cartoony style, with its wild lines, imbued the characters and the scenery with more life. It felt more organic. At one point last night, I thought, “Maybe I’m just tired of the pixel-art style.” But later I concluded that this is just an uninspired execution of it. I felt like I was squinting all the time; it made my eyes hurt. Again, it might grow on me with time. One thing that gives me pause is that Edmund McMillen, the game’s developer has said, and I’m paraphrasing, “This is closer to the game I wanted to make all along, but I didn’t have the resources,” which sounds disturbingly like George Lucas to me. Artists don’t always recognize how limitations might have enhanced their art rather than detracting from it.
All that said, the game is full of new items, the procedurally generated dungeons are more elaborate, and there are a ton of other new additions and secrets. I’ll keep playing it. I spent so much time with the old one that I need to give this new iteration a proper chance.
MG: Well, that’s a shame. I guess we’ll wait for a full review to hear how your time with it pans out. *wink wink*
JT: Yeah, we’ll see.
MG: I played a bit of the original release but nowhere near as much as you. I don’t have much in the way of established strategy or game knowledge, which I think is key for these procedurally generated types of games. So I wanted to ask, do you have any tips for someone like me who’s just really getting into it?
JT: One comment I read a lot from people who are new to the game is that it can seem entirely dependent on luck—i.e., your success depends on getting good items. That’s true to a degree, but what I think newbies miss is that luck is one of your biggest enemies in the game. You can’t just take it as it comes, you have to fight it and manage it. What that means in practice is that you have to embrace uncertainty and then maximize your odds of survival within that uncertainty.
To do that, you have to notice patterns and really think through dilemmas as they arise. For instance, in each level, there’s an item room that contains some potentially helpful power-up or trinket. But in every stage except the first, that room requires a key, and keys can be hard to come by depending on how your run is going. Say you have one key, and you come across a treasure chest that requires a key. Do you go for the chest, which is unpredictable, or do you save it for the item room, which is closer to a sure thing?
The answer for me depends on the situation. If I’m in dire straits, I’ll go for the chest in the hope that, among its goodies, it will contain another key that I can then use on the item room. I’m taking high risk in the interest of greater reward. If I’m already in decent shape, though, I’ll probably play it safe and wait for the item room: a lower-risk approach that’s more likely to earn a reward. That’s a pretty simple case. To get good at Isaac, you have to learn to apply these sorts of mental calculations to every resource you have—bombs, keys, life, items.
One other tip that newbies miss is that you can continue exploring a level after you’ve killed a boss. After I defeat a boss, I usually look over the map and walk back through the stage to ensure that I’ve picked it clean. The post-boss quiet is a great time to take a deep breath and scrounge
MG: Yeah, I think my Spelunky experience helps me on that front. It’s a similar system of situational and risk assessment.
JT: Absolutely. Same deal. I mean, this is just general roguelike strategy, really. But because roguelikes are still a semi-obscure concept to the broader game-playing public and because Isaac looks sort of like Zelda, I think people don’t necessarily approach it the right way and then get frustrated, since the game is quite hard.
MG: What’s your opinion on using Internet resources for looking up item effects and things like that? Because holy shit, there are so many items.
JT: Yeah! So, you get these power-ups, tarot cards, trinkets, and other gewgaws, and it’s not always immediately evident what they do. That mystery is part of the fun at first. Getting an unfamiliar item is like opening a strange Christmas present and then playing with it to figure out what it does. It’s pleasurable to figure that out for yourself, and when I get something new, I don’t go straight to a wiki to find out what the deal is. But there are so many gidgets and gadgets to keep track of, more than ever in Rebirth. Once the initial novelty has passed, there’s no shame in consulting a wiki to figure out what the deal is with, say, the gigantic fly that now hovers around you. Hell, there’s no shame in using a wiki, period. Play the game how you want.
There’s still plenty of challenge and strategy even if you know exactly what everything does. The “what does this do?” mystery is a fun but ultimately minor component of the game.
MG: What’s your opinion on the overall blood and feces-centric aesthetic of the game? It’s ultimately not that big of a deal, but I do find it kind of tiring after a while.
JT: Honestly, after spending something like 200 hours on the original, it just faded into the fabric of the thing. I always liked the aesthetic, though. It’s playfully grotesque, and the character designs are expressive and energetic; the game invites you to get over your inhibitions and just play around in the virtual shit. Like I said, this doesn’t come across as compellingly in the pixelated style of Rebirth.
MG: Maybe I’ll grow to appreciate the poop. There’s even more poop this time around—actual sentient poop enemies. I think that’s enough poop talk. Did you have anything you wanted to say before we go?
JT: No, just that I hope I end up enjoying Rebirth more than I am now. We’ll see what happens when I unlock new chapters, new characters, etc. I’m at the beginning of a journey. Also, a reminder to PlayStation Plus members: Rebirth is free for you this month.
MG: And you can’t beat free a game, even if it is full of poop.