You plummet through clouds, and land on the floor, your temples tingling and your ears encompassed by a synthesized, primal sound. Your opponent, a mystery swordsman, rushes forward with his blade held high and defiant. You stand your ground, for you are the last barrier left against your opponent’s victory. You spot an opening and stab viciously at his midsection, but he drops to the floor and rolls under your blade! As your weapon whiffs harmlessly over him, he sweeps your legs from under you before wringing your neck. You yell out in rage as your opponent scurries forward past your corpse, jumping onwards over the ledge.
This is Nidhogg, an indie dueling game that creator Mark “Messhof” Essen first debuted almost four years ago- the lo-fi but deep fighter was first known as Raging Hadron at NYU Game Center’s multiplayer exhibition, before being renamed after the Norse serpent that appears at the end of each game, winning IGF awards/nominations in 2011 and even making multiple appearances at Evo.
There can only be one
The premise of Nidhogg is simple but intensely fun. You and your opponent square off in four different stages, each its own kaleidoscope of colour and moving hazards. You duel and stab at each other, spattering gouts of gaudy, pixellated blood all over the floors, with each players’ objective being to get to the end of the level (either the right of left corner depending on the player).
With each successful kill, the victor gets to run without encumbrance for a brief period towards his objective before the opponent respawns at certain specific points. You don’t necessarily have to fight once you have the “arrow of initiative” which grants you the ability to transverse to the next room after you’ve scored a kill. You can simply evade your opponent’s searching blade with a well-timed wall-climb or a jump/roll.
The action is frenetic and back and forth- between two skilled opponents it’s common to see one player battle all the way to the last screen before losing the momentum and the other player fighting all the way back to the other side of the stage. It’s extremely gratifying after a drawn-out ten minute duel to finally claim victory with one last nifty piece of skill to outwit your opponent, or to have a perfect game and steamroll your opponent with multiple consecutive kills to win in thirty seconds. Either way as you run screaming in triumph through the victory room and jump over the ledge, a giant wyrm flies across the screen and swallows your victorious warrior – an odd but cathartic ending.
Pixels and positioning
The art style of Nidhogg harkens back to the old 16 bit era- with your characters being no more than yellowish stick figures, and the stages swathes of iridescent pixels. Yet playing Nidhogg is another strident example of great game design and gameplay > overproduced graphics/setpieces. You get engrossed instantly, and your brain begins exploring the deep combat system and how to best use the tools you are given.
For example, you may raise your sword in a high, mid or low stance, with each stance having its own advantages (the high stance is good at anti-airing jumps, for example). You can stab out of each stance, you can jump up and divekick forwards, you can do running stabs or from a roll, you can raise your blade behind your ear and hurl it forwards (duck to avoid), or perhaps fake the toss with a sword raise and go for a nefarious sweep instead. You can even position your blade underneath your opponent’s blade and flick upwards to disarm your opponent! He’ll then have to fight barehanded with a great reach disadvantage, but spectators always get hype when a pugilist is able to win against all odds.
Every action has a counter, lower your sword to impale people who roll at you and you might eat a jumping divekick to the face. Your opponent ran past you, ditching his sword for extra speed? Toss your sword after him and run the opposite way off the screen to sandwich him between your flying sword and your new respawn position in front of him. You have to be intelligent with your blade in Nidhogg and react with speed. There is still finesse in the swordplay – in protracted duels with each player in tune you can fence back and forth, swords clinking away.
Each stage has its own unique characteristics and strategy. The cloud stage has bits of cloud that fall off as you run through the level, the wilds has tall grass that obscures your fighting, reminiscent of old Samurai movies. Another stage has long and tight corridors that force you to fight on the ground without jumps or sword throws. Another has moving conveyor belts that add an additional strategic layer to the positioning.
There is a single player mode in Nidhogg where you duel against a succession of AI enemies, but the AI can be random in its strategy and reactions. Local versus mode is where Nidhogg really shines, the locking of wits against your fellow man, the yelping and screaming with each violent clash and the incredulous swearing of the fallen – Nidhogg is incredible multiplayer fun, and it is a hoot to spectate as well. Spacing, positioning, and mixing up your strategies is key. It’s just a fantastically balanced fighting game with a genius premise.
The online multiplayer in Nidhogg is not the best. The connection invariably favours the host, and the rollback nature of the GGPO-centred engine creates many frustrating situations. I’ve seen my character successfully stab an opponent before only for rollback to happen and abruptly I find my corpse on the floor instead, my opponent running past. I’ve encountered scenarios such as tossing my sword, but the rollback suddenly flashes and the sword is bewilderingly back in my hand. Finding an opponent can be an uneven experience, and you really need a good connection- any lag turns the precise gameplay of Nidhogg into an exercise in frustration.
Stick to local multiplayer for the best Nidhogg experience.
Nidhogg takes me back to a generation of games where it was the execution of a tiny germ of an idea, the development of great concept that created a great game- a game that actually rewards my increasing skill and strategy.
I can imagine someone taking the concept of Nidhogg- two swordsmen fighting, dueling back and forth to the end, all the fighting game mechanics like highs / lows / rolls / projectiles / jumps, and slapping great graphics, maybe realistic effects and stages over it and the result a big-selling mainstream title. As it is, it’s still a great indie game that will offer you hours and hours of devious and frenetic fun, provided you have good local competition or friends to play with.
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