Me and my opponent stand a pair of fencing sabers length away, give or take the intermittent shuffles towards and away from one another. At almost 15 minutes, neither of us can seem to claim an advantage of the other for very long, except in this particular exchange, where I can clearly see the finish line behind the poor bastard. He’s taken the path of least resistance every time he has the advantage, avoiding a straight up duel with me every time. But now he can’t run, and is forced to deal with my superior sword skills. I play at his sword a bit, clanging it dauntingly while we each find an unblocked lane to plunge it into. I suddenly rear the blade back and send it hurtling towards him. Without much ceremony, it whiffs past him, as he cartwheels in close, and drives his blade into my gut. An orange shower explodes from my back, and 30 seconds later, we’re back where we started.
These tense and subtle moments define Nidhogg. The simplicity of its combat makes it approachable to anyone, but the lethality of it makes winning with it a whole different monster. The times when you aren’t stabbing someone is usually the most fun, as playing mind games with your opponents and figuring out creative ways to use the games many options is a rewarding experience in and of itself. In this case its not so much the destination, but the journey, further punctuated by the fact that when you finally win, you’re eaten by a flying pink worm (the titular Nidhogg).
How does one win in this pixelated world, anyway? After successfully using your arsenal of trips, dive kicks, and sword flourishes to slay your opponent, you are given the “right of way” depicted by an arrow telling you to run in a direction to continue, a la Streets of Rage. From then on, every time your opponent respawns, he will be on the defensive, looking to stop your momentum and gain the “right of way” for himself. Whoever moves past their final screen first wins a standing ovation from a platoon of muddy observers, and the privilege of jumping into the maw of the Tree Nibbler.
The struggle to get to the final screen features some of the most intense swordplay since Bushido Blade, thanks to the simple rule that when the sword touches you, it kills you. The games mechanics never seem broken or unfair, every game plan and maneuver has an effective counter and you’ll never feel like you’ll lose in cheap ways. It’s not about launching opponents for juggles and bounds, remembering combos, or exploiting frame data. This is a fighting game that requires reflexes, timing, and trickery. You just have to be plain better than your foe.
The areas in which you fight, though limited, are diverse and add the much needed monkey wrench to your plans sometimes. Some zones feature conveyor belts, while others have floors that vanish after prolonged standing. Trying to to rely on footing and distance in scenarios like this can be difficult, and adds a layer of strategy that complements the hectic pace the game can produce at times.
The electronic soundtrack and color porn environments reinforce the craziness of it all. Trying to describe the sensory overload would involve wrangling all the confusion it made you feel. Some areas aren’t so offensive, but some (like the Clouds) are a complete menagerie, and may even hurt the game because you can see where your neon avatar starts and the neon background ends.
A huge disappointment is the shoddy online multiplayer options. The single player is just a series of battles with a number of AI opponents which is standard for the genre. But the matchmaking and lobby issues of the online multiplayer are so numerous that it renders that entire option broken and unusable. A real shame considering how much fun this game is to play with real life humans and I would have probably have been less letdown if the mode just wasn’t included all together (i.e. Samurai Gunn).
But despite that, this game is a real gem, and one of the most unique experiences you’ll find in the fighting genre, even with its ironically 80’s pixel art. It’s the perfect party game, as it recaptures the intense and sometimes desperation that a one on one fight should provide, and allows a combat system that’s simple enough for everyone to join in the madness. Even in the many ways it modernizes the genre by resorting back to its roots, it still fails to stay completely current, dropping the ball on its online components entirely (another bit of irony, considering its home on the PC). So if you don’t have real life friends, it’s time to make some, because this game is a must play for everyone with fingers and a little bit of blood lust.