Nidhogg has been a darling of the underground scene for quite some time and I was beginning to lose hope of ever getting to enjoy this outside of those rare trips to EVO. That worry is gone now because Nidhogg is finally available on Steam for all to play, and it certainly deserves some attention. This pixel art blood sport blends subtlety and intensity in almost equal measure to create something that is simple, elegant in design, and a whooping, hollering, great time.
Complex duels are underpinned by an elegant control scheme and a simple set of rules. A few button and an analogue stick control a complex branch strategies and counter strategies. It’s a game about nuance.
Nidhogg starts by pitting two opposing players at a time on either side of the screen. The first goal is to get the arrow by killing your opponent. The player with the most recent kill gets the arrow and is allowed to progress into their side of the map. The defensive player constantly respawns in front of the offensive player trying to get the arrow themselves. You win by reaching the end of the stage which is normally just a few screens length away from the starting point. It’s a fencing tug-of-war.
And yet the reality of reaching the end entails overcoming an opponent who has access to same tools as you. There are no unlockables, no perks, just your own ingenuity and mastery.
Like the rules the controls are simple. The game is controlled with only the use of a few buttons or keys. One button attacks, one jumps, and the analogue stick controls movement and sword positioning which comes in 3 heights/stances: low, medium, and high. There’s more to it than that, though, because everything is contextual.
Depending on your motion with the stick you can move back or forward, raise or lower your sword to block, attack, or disarm opponents,, cart-wheel, roll, duck, or hoist your sword for a throw.
The attack button can thrust your sword, throw it if you have it raised with the stick, divekick if your mid-air, trip your opponent if you’re crouching, breaks the necks of downed opponents at your feet.
It almost sounds like these buttons do too many things, like the control scheme is cluttered and clumsy. It’s not. It only takes a few seconds of experimentation to warm up to the contextual buttons. It’s easy and fairly intuitive to control, but true mastery comes from learning how to use your options. That’s where this game becomes magnificent. Every tool in your belt is powerful in some way. It takes a crafty player to employ all of them effectively.
There’s an immediacy to Nidhogg. From the moment you enter a game it’s a chess match in a lion’s den. Planning, poking, posturing and buying time to size your opponent up blend into a fierce showdown until you commit to a strategy. Complex interactions unfold over seconds.
Exploring the possible range of strategies and moves is a game in and of itself and it’s just as satisfying to pull moves that feel like trick shots off as it does to win a match.
It became apparent to me early on that I could fake my opponents out by feinting like I was going high with a flurry of high and medium thrusts. They would raise their swords to guard my high attacks and I would roll under them, trip them, and break their necks. Sharper opponents adapted to my feints and would learn to react by lowering their guard as soon as I backed up to run forward and gain momentum enough roll. I would either be forced to explore a new option or I would roll head first into a sword held at waist-height. The sheer number of feints and attacks and counters makes for some exhilarating plays, heart pounding triumphs, and head pounding failures.
The arenas add an extra layer of strategy by featuring unique obstacles and hazards. One level features walkways which slowly dissolve under the weight of a player, another features conveyor belts and tight hallways, and another features tall grass that conceals stationary players.
There are four levels in total and while some have found that grounds to criticize the game, the lack of arenas doesn’t present a problem. Each level serves a unique function and changes the matchup. There’s no fat on the meat.
Besides, even without the added complexity of differing arenas, if you only had a flat expanse of ground to play with and 1 level of that the game wouldn’t be less fun. It isn’t made or broken by virtue of the variety of maps keeping things fresh like a Quake or Starcraft. Faulting the game for having too few levels would be like faulting chess for not having enough types of boards.
In fact the only problem I had with this part of the game stems from the visuals in one level. The game’s visual style is like a feverish breathing maelstrom of clashing bright colors. The walls are quickly covered in ultra low fi viscera. The breathing pulsing visuals set fire to the senses. It’s grungy and ugly by design for the most part it works except in the cloud stage where it reaches a tipping point and crosses over from being abstract and overwhelming to messy and distracting due mostly to background colors that don’t contrast with player character colors
Nidhogg can be played, explored, and enjoyed through and incredibly short single player which may as well just be an extended tutorial, but the real magic happens with another player, or 8 even as the game supports local 8-player tournaments, side-by-side versus, or online versus with a ton of matchmaking options to change the matchups and the netcode in my experience has held up pretty well.
The only problem, which is one that plagues so many promising multiplayer gems, is the size of the active community playing at any one time. It’s certainly not a fault of the game, but because this game is best enjoyed with others I have to offer the disclaimer that if you’re only way to play with someone else is through online matchmaking you might have trouble finding games quickly even at peak hours.
When you do find someone to play with, though, Nidhogg is ecstasy. It’s non-stop intensity that keeps you glued to the game. Your ingenuity is constantly tested and rewarded, and it’s everything I could have hoped for.