Platforms: PC (reviewed)
I used to think fondly of Edmund McMillen as the dude who worked on Super Meat Boy — partially because that's one of my favorite games of all time. Though he revisited the platforming blueprint with 2017's The End Is Nigh, McMillen is more closely associated with The Binding of Isaac these days. What started out as a fun, addictive Flash game went on to receive a full-on upgrade complete with DLC and bonus content galore. McMillen and James Interactive are revisiting the TBOI universe with The Legend of Bum-Bo, a prequel that's only loosely associated with the series.
Thankfully, though it's a complete departure from the Isaac series proper, The Legend of Bum-Bo still features a clever gameplay hook and plenty of that squishy, blister-y, pus-filled charm that The Binding of Isaac — and pretty much all of McMillen's work — built its reputation on.
Bum-Bo Want Coin!
If you played The Binding of Isaac, you might remember Bum-Bo as a passive item that spawned an assist character to help you out while moving around the map. Well, it looks like Bum-Bo was deserving of his very own game. The Legend of Bum-Bo hardly acts as an in-depth backstory for the titular character, but it doesn't really need to. Quite frankly, I think it's kind of cool — and right in line with McMillen's work — that there's an entire game based around what was once a simple item in another title.
With regard to plot, all you really need to know is that Bum-Bo is homeless, and he likes coins. So when he gets roughed up by weird creatures that want his coins, you best believe he's going to fight back.
The Legend of Bum-Bo is part match four, part turn-based strategy, part deck-building game. It doesn't really do any of these things in an especially unique manner, but the game is still a lot of fun to play. When it's your turn, you have to match four tiles of a kind — bones, teeth, boogers, poop, etc. Doing so deals damage, creates a shield, gives you an extra turn, or grants you a handful of other actions.
Once you're done, your enemies then take their turn, moving around the screen, preparing to attack, wiping off a booger you may have thrown at them, or — well, I'll just say it — eating a piece of poo you threw in front of them. Yeah, this game is pretty gross. But it's also kind of… endearing?
Everything in The Legend of Bum-Bo is randomized, including the item tiles and enemies. When you clear a room, you'll sometimes have the option of selecting from one of two cards (also random) to add to your deck before moving on to the next room. With these cards, you'll gain a variety of options for your arsenal, such as the ability to block attacks or reset the tile board. Attacking enemies and making moves fills up a mana meter that powers these card-based abilities, so you can't just spam them.
There's a surprising amount of strategy in The Legend of Bum-Bo. Sure, you can get by just going for attacks and matching four bones or teeth, but that'll only get you so far. Your best shot at making some worthwhile progress depends on how well you use the defensive tiles, as well as your deck. Of course, you'll usually want to be on the attack, but if you can be a little patient — and if your health meter allows it — you can wait to match five or more tiles to perform multiple moves at once.
The highly random nature of game means that you're sort of at the mercy of the gameplay mechanics themselves. Even when I had a good game plan, there were times where I'd be absolutely destroyed because of the tiles available. Speaking of getting completely owned, because your health doesn't regenerate before boss battles, you're likely to enter these big encounters at a huge disadvantage.
A Game Fitting of the Edmund McMillen Name
All of the visual gags we've come to expect from Edmund McMillen are present in The Legend of Bum-Bo. Characters feature that signature grotesque/cutesy look that we've seen in past titles from the developer. There are flies, people with gouged out eyes, blob-like… things, and big, scary boss monsters.
The game mixes a hand-drawn style with a cool cardboard cutout look. It looks pretty solid, and though the environments could use a little variety, there's a visual depth when engaging in battle that really stands out. This may be the best-looking game to come from the mind of Edmund McMillen.
Taking up the mantle of composer, Ridiculon was able to put together a collection of good music for The Legend of Bum-Bo. The various themes you'll hear as you fling boogers and teeth at your enemies are catchy, dark, and quirky. I do wish there was even more music, though, as you hear a lot of the same stuff over and over.
If you were hoping for something more akin to The Binding of Isaac, The Legend of Bum-Bo may disappoint a bit. The game lacks the depth of its predecessor, and there's plenty of room for improvement. On the plus side, the developers have been working continuously to patch the game and remove any bugs. And if McMillen's treatment of TBOI is any indication, it's possible that we'll see new content and updates for this game in the (hopefully near) future. All that said, $15 is a bit steep for what is essentially a roguelike match four puzzle battler.
The important take-away here is that you know what you're getting into. New content is coming to The Binding of Isaac, but this certainly isn't it. And its loose ties to the series make it so that this isn't exactly required playing. Still, there's a high level of quality and entertainment in The Legend of Bum-Bo, so if you're looking for a deranged game that has some really fun systems in place, you'll find a lot to love here.