Let’s go back in time, you and I. Back to a time before Disney owned everything, before I aged out of medical insurance, and before roguelikes exploded onto the indie market like a grenade filled with procedurally-generated, permadeath Nickelodeon slime: 2011. In this far-off era, Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl’s The Binding of Isaac first barreled onto the scene, grafting those aforementioned roguelike (or, if you’re a stickler, rogue-lite) hallmarks onto a mashup of 2-D Legend of Zelda dungeon layouts and twin-stick shooter game mechanics. Alongside genre hybrids like FTL: Faster Than Light, Spelunky’s glossy 2012 remake, and even Isaac’s own remake, Rebirth, these games heralded a first wave of indie roguelites, launching countless runs, let’s plays, and inspirations still trickling out today.
Which is a long way of saying that The Legend of Bum-bo, the puzzley Isaac spin-off McMillen has developed with James Interactive, has been birthed into a much more crowded space than its predecessor. This cold, insurance-less world of ours is now stuffed with competitors, and in the face of genius contemporaries like Slay the Spire, the otherwise fun, often clever Legend of Bum-bo can’t help but feel a little bit restrictive and thin.
The Isaac world is still cheerfully grotesque and scatological, a subterranean hellscape of little cartoon poops and cutesy mutants that must be systematically slaughtered on the way from one room to the next. Rather than playing as a nude crying child, however, you play as an assortment of nude homeless people descending into the familiar randomized depths, accumulating items and power-ups on the way to fight a boss but starting over from scratch if you die.
It’s all three-dimensional this time, too, with even the menus rendered in an arts-and-crafts aesthetic that gives the whole thing a nicely tactile, cobbled-together feel reminiscent of Paper Mario. The minimalist, Flash cartoon-esque hallmarks of McMillen’s style are still present, just now sketched onto paper attached to bits of cardboard. It’d almost be cute if it wasn’t still so proudly gross, with the game’s abilities still consisting primarily of body excretions to give the impression that your characters are pissing and shitting their way through hordes of monsters on the way to victory. Bum-bo himself is at once a pretty juvenile jab at the homeless and an unwitting avatar of the downtrodden, willing to descend into the awful Isaac world in search of coins (the game’s subtitle is what sets the scraps of the story in motion: “Bum-bo Want Coin”) because that’s the only option left.
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Tooth and Nail
Where Isaac cried his enemies to death in the style of a twin-stick shooter, Bum-bo takes on all comers through turn-based, tile-matching battles. When you match four of a tile, the tile type determines Bum-bo’s subsequent ability: bones and teeth are a direct attack, boogers stick to an enemy to prevent them from acting for a turn, poop drops a protective barrier, and yellow urine droplets provide an extra move to shift the tiles around. The more tiles you match, the more pronounced the effects — thrown, blackened teeth do more damage, for example, and the poop barriers withstand more attacks.
The wrinkle: matching also generates mana to power spells, items, and other abilities. So match four bone tiles and not only do you lob one at the nearest fanged worm but you gain 4 to the pool of bone mana that fuels something like the powerful Bum-bo Smash attack for further damage. Boogers might be the juice for a spell that gives you an additional tile movement, and at certain intervals you can buy upgrades like a risky stat reroll to change an ability’s mana cost; it might be beneficial if, say, you can get Bum-bo Smash to run on mana that lets you both attack and defend in one neat stroke, but a reroll also risks raising the mana cost to near-uselessness.
Apart from the self-described “peepee poopoo humor,” these abilities are the game’s strongest link to The Binding of Isaac and roguelikes in general, because you accumulate them in random order as you progress through the labyrinth. They’re the biggest wildcard in the randomly-generated game and make a good run feel truly satisfying, particularly in conjunction with how different types of Bum-bo require you to heavily alter your strategy. Since Bum-bo the Stout, for example, can’t save mana between turns, you not only end up prioritizing different tile matches but start burning off excess mana however you can, spamming one of the “transform tile” spells in hopes of pulling a lucky additional match out of thin air—with another character you might’ve tried to conserve the mana, but with Bum-bo the Stout, it’s gone no matter what.
In the Shadow of Isaac
And yet in spite of all the different permutations that shape any given run, The Legend of Bum-bo feels limited simply because of its rigid structure. Where Isaac or even other more strategic roguelikes like Slay the Spire let you pick different paths, the progression in Bum-bo remains the same: two battle rooms, a choice between this item or that one, two more battle rooms, a boss, and then the shop where you can do things like buy upgrades or pay to spin the stat upgrade wheel. The chaos and sheer unpredictability is what keeps roguelikes so engaging for hours on end, and in the interest of keeping things quickly paced, Bum-bo shaves much of it away, in the process losing some of that compulsive “just one more run” itch.
It also makes each run something of a slow starter, requiring you to trudge through a couple of fights before you actually find the ability that hopefully mixes things up. Regardless of whether The Legend of Bum-bo actually is smaller than the original Binding of Isaac, such restrictions leave it feeling more limited to the point where its ties to that seminal roguelike actually harm it, creating expectations of freedom and experimentation that it simply doesn’t have. If Spelunky is the father of roguelites and The Binding of Isaac a sort of goth uncle, Bum-bo feels a bit like some rowdy cousin who keeps insisting that his dad can beat up your dad.
The all-encompassing nature of playing a video game means we tie them to places and things like no other, wrap them up in our memories of another person, another time. In case my memories were a little too rosy, I fired up The Binding of Isaac again. I’m older now. Perhaps the general comedy of drawing tiny little buttholes on everything does not so enrapture me these days; perhaps the darkness of even these nude cartoon Bum-bos (or is the plural of “Bum-bo” also “Bum-bo”?) crawling through literal blood and shit for spare change is more apparent.
But I found that Isaac sucked me right back in, lighting up my brain at all the mechanical possibilities that the design of Bum-bo seems mostly to obscure. Though I had fun with it, playing The Legend of Bum-bo more left me remembering another period of my life, back when the world seemed more open to me. Back when I had the time to get truly lost in something like Isaac the way this spin-off never really manages to replicate. Back when I had some goddamn health insurance.
The Legend of Bum-bo
In the face of genius contemporaries like Slay the Spire, the otherwise fun, often clever Legend of Bum-bo can’t help but feel a little bit restrictive and thin.
- Clever puzzle mechanics
- Fun cardboard aesthetic
- Different characters open up new strategies
- Rigid progression system
- Runs are slow to start
- The United States healthcare system is broken