Nidhogg is entirely mental. Despite this seemingly fatal flaw, the game also manages to be wonderfully entertaining from start to finish, alone or with friends, around one PC or through many online. Its aesthetic is one derived linearly from Microsoft Paint, its controls are limited to four directions and two buttons and the winner gets eaten by a giant serpent from Norse mythology. This is what gaming is all about.
Let’s go back to the start. Nidhogg has been around since 2010 in one form or another and has been developed by Messhof, or Mark Essen (plus Kristy Norindr since 2011), an indie games designer. This 2014 release of Nidhogg marks the first retail release of one of the best fighting games of recent years to make it to gamers. Nidhogg then is a two dimensional one versus one fighting game. It has a single player mode, local multiplayer and online multiplayer. The aim of the game is to make it from the centre of a level across the multiple screens to the far end where you’ll be cheered by an adoring crowd. And then eaten by the Nidhogg.
The way you get from A to B is where the fun’s to be had. You are a yellow, or maybe peach/red/blue coloured stickman, with ballast. You appear to have a slightly odd-shaped head, so let’s call you a Knight. A duelling Knight. You are armed with a sword and the ability to jump. From here an infinite wealth of opportunity presents itself. You’re facing off against a similarly specced opponent of a different colour. They block your way to the end, and conversely you block theirs to the opposite end, where they might be crowned (read: eaten) the winner. You can eliminate your blockade in multiple ways - maybe you bypass your opponent entirely. Or drop them down a hole. Or kill them. With immensely satisfying 8-bit primary-coloured gore. It’s truly glorious.
It sounds simple and to pick up and play it is, very. You instantly get what needs to be done. Move and kill. Repeat, ad infinitum. The thing is, that killing is not easy and the nuance in the fighting mechanic is such that there are so many ways to do it. You’re effectively fencing against your opponent, or duelling if you will. Within that you can hold your sword high, low or in the centre. You can throw it, you can disarm an opponent if you parry at the right time and with the right stance. You can jump and dive, climb and roll. You can stick the knife in and twist it or you can wait it out for the opening. No one fight is ever the same because of this and the deaths are so hilarious it makes you want to keep on going. Which is good, as on each level your opponent will respawn ahead of you again stopping your progress. You can just run and run if you get past them but honestly, why would you not want to just do them in once more?
Although the environments are limited in the quality of tools utilised by the developer, the effect is anything but. It’s always clear where you are - up in the clouds, in long grass, in a castle or underground. On a travelator or a ledge; near fire or in a precarious situation. The clarity of communication is fabulous given the paucity of resources available to push the information. There are four arenas in total and each ensures the fight is that little bit different. The clouds, well, they might disappear and you’ll fall through the sky. The wilds have the hiding place of the long grass. It makes for a different challenge every step of the way.
That way can last anything from thirty seconds to thirty minutes. Once your skill improves you’ll find early AI opponents fairly simple to get rid of, but up against friends or latter AI opponents you might find yourself in an epic battle where you inch one step forward and they push you back. Repeat ad infinitum. It just emphasises how spectacularly well-balanced the central mechanic is. When you finally defeat your challenger, or come back to win having been right next to their win screen, well, it’s a thrilling moment. Playing against real people has the same effect. You can do this locally on your PC using the same keyboard for each - leading to some very nearly real fighting depending on what happens onscreen - or using joypads or joysticks in combination with Big Picture mode. This is a party game. You can set up tournaments for up to eight people and given the insanity and speed of the whole thing it will likely be very popular with anyone who likes competition and/or fighting games. Online is good to have but given the nature of the title it’s at its best when both ends have very low ping and therefore minimal lag. With lag - which you do see unfortunately at times - it makes for a less precise and therefore less rewarding and exhilarating match-up.
So what we have here is a future-classic, old-school indie title for individuals and like-minded folk alike. The visuals are retro but work, the soundtrack by Daedelus is dynamic and ever-changing in tune with the onscreen action. The code is so precise the fighting is always balanced and true to your inputs - whether that is a disarm, throw of your knife and preference for fisticuffs, or a straight thrust to the chest (with a little wiggle up and down for that achievement) - that the result is always joy, whether you win or lose. Some might question the idea of paying for a game that’s been available free in one form or another for a few years. The riposte to that is that the game is worth it. The developer deserves to be rewarded and this is the best version of the game you could ask for - tournament mode on the living room TV with joypads is, well, quite exquisite.