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Best of the rest of 2014: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth may be my most-played game in 2015

Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. This year we've decided to run a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.

I'm not shocked that The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth didn't make our staff-wide Games of the Year list for 2014. I don't think many of my colleagues at Polygon played it. And as much as I think they made a horrible mistake with that choice, I can't entirely blame them.

See, The Binding of Isaac is a game that kind of requires history and context to really get it.

History lesson

The original The Binding of Isaac released back in 2011 as a side project for developed Edmund McMillen. As part of Team Meat, McMillen had just come off of the surprise hit Super Meat Boy; The Binding of Isaac was intended to be a minor side project, a break before whatever Team Meat chose to do next. McMillen has stated in many interviews that he wasn't even sure anyone would want to play this weird little game.

As it turns out, a lot of people wanted to play it.

The Binding of Isaac wasn't an instant success, but it built a passionate, dedicated cult following over the course of years. It eventually hit over one million sales — a number that may seem merely okay for a triple-A game but was absurd and unexpected for such a small, personal title.

It's no surprise that it took some time to catch on. The Binding of Isaac is a weird game, full of unsettling themes and an art style that I would generously call unwelcoming. It explores such weighty topics as child abuse, abortion and stunted religious upbringing. And it's all viewed through the lens of character designs seemingly pulled from an angry-yet-immature teenager's high school notebook, full of piss, blood and feces.

For all these potential turn-offs, The Binding of Isaac won its ever-growing audience from exactly the place you'd expect McMillen to thrive: the gameplay. It's a top-down dungeon crawler, sort of resembling the exploration and treasure-hunting of the original Legend of Zelda mixed with the multi-directional shooting of Smash TV. It also borrows from the rogue-like genre, with each death leading to a fresh restart in a randomized dungeon, with a new set of treasures to discover.

It's that element of randomization and (as such) variety that really made The Binding of Isaac become so well-loved. Every single run through the game is going to lead to different items (or combinations of items), which lends each playthrough a completely unique feeling. You never know what you're going to find, and there are damn-near endless combinations.

This unpredictable nature made The Binding of Isaac the perfect game for streaming, and it became a huge hit on Twitch. It even spawned a fan-created racing league for speedruns. When I discovered The Binding of Isaac back in 2013 — a year-and-a-half after its release — I ended up sinking over 100 hours into the game over the course of a few months.


Born again

All of this explanation and praise for the original The Binding of Isaac may raise the very question I had when Rebirth was announced: Why do we need a remake?

The Binding of Isaac was an awesome, enthralling experience, but it was also hindered by its technology. Originally developed in Flash, McMillen expressed constant frustration at the difficulty with adding new content to the game. Between one expansion pack and some free updates, he said the game's engine was pushed to the absolute maximum amount of content it could possibly hold in its current state.

As mentioned, that state was still enough to keep tons of people playing and watching the game for hundreds of hours. But what if they could do more?

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth does more. Lots more. Over a dozen new bosses, hundreds of new items, new playable characters — the list goes on and on. And despite new developer Nicalis taking over (with oversight by McMillen), these additions accurately capture the feel and spirit of the original game. They build on the already strong core in interesting new ways, providing a number of approaches through the game that feels ever closer to infinite.

Rebirth not only fixes the limitation on amount of content from the game's original engine; it also builds on the design possibilities therein. For example, individual rooms are no longer limited to a single square. Now they can sprawl in multiple directions and hold many more enemies than was previously possible.

It also looks a lot nicer. Though the subject matter hasn't changed at all in Rebirth — it's just as dark and depressing as before — Nicalis has implemented a stylish 16-bit look that I suspect will pull people in a little easier.

Though the community is now larger and can pick through the game's many secrets faster, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is still holding attention. It's a Saturday afternoon after Christmas as I write this, and there are still 2,500 people watching others play Rebirth on Twitch. When a popular streamer or two come on, that number can jump by several thousand more.

So why isn't it on Polygon's list?

It's holding my attention too. At this point, I've played Rebirth on PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita for around 30 or 40 hours total. But that's barely scratching the surface. It's enough for me to know I love it and that I'm going to continue playing the hell out of it next year, but it's not enough for me to, for example, have written a review.

There's so much to uncover in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. It's a time commitment, but not in the sense of a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition, where you need to put in at least 80 hours just to hit the end of the narrative. No, this is the kind of time commitment where once you start playing, once you get sucked in, you'll find yourself wanting to sneak in a game whenever you can.

That's something that likely scared away some of my coworkers, especially with Rebirth's release near the end of a packed fall release season. If they hadn't played the original, didn't understand the buzz and were pushed away by the tone of it all on top of that, then sure, I understand how they may not have picked up the game at all.

But damn it, they're missing out. I'm going to be playing The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth for months to come yet, and I'll keep evangelizing for it every step of the way.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.

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