If games are dancing, then Nidhogg is the Argentinian Tango. Grace and blood, attacks and parries, personal space being fiercely invaded time and time again. Swift moves sometimes sliding into long-held pauses with heartbeat percussion as underscore. The name for developer Messhof’s newly-released fencing-come-LSD-trip comes from a huge dragon featured in Norse mythology, whose primary interest was the chewing of both life-trees and on the bodies of the unfit for eternity.
And once this game has you, there couldn’t be a more apt title.
The first thing you’re bound to notice is the graphical style. With pixelated characters and backgrounds looking like something from the days of wooden consoles and brick-sized cartridges, it’s a brave shift directly away from the visual fireworks that seem to be so in demand from modern games. However, don’t make the mistake of dismissing it on sight. Nidhogg is a laser-targeted missile of focused gameplay, refined to perfection, and the art style only exists to serve it.
This may sound borderline pretentious, for a developer to take three years and knowingly create the bare minimum to realise a gameplay vision, but the purity of Nidhogg‘s flow justifies every single decision. Concept is simple; you start in the middle of a set of horizontally-layered rooms and have to fight your way all the way to right. Your opponent appears before you, and has the left as their focus. The fighters, each a simply-defined stack of single-colour pixels, only has a limited set of moves to their disposal: run, shuffle, jump, and strike, either with sword or fist. Your sword can be placed in one of three positions of height, or thrown at the head. And yet, this limited move set enables a to-and-fro that can be as exciting as any Errol Flynn setpiece.
Contact with your opponent’s sword means instant death, causing another “you” to spawn in their path, meaning that rounds can last seconds or tens of minutes. The former is beautifully ridiculous; sometimes the gods are on your side and every pirouette lands you in the perfect place for a deadly strike. The latter, however, is pure elegance and patience, with shades of Dark Souls creeping in as you obsessively stare at the position of your enemy in hope for a blade-sized gap. Suddenly the Atari 2600 pixels take on all the personality and character of the famous movie swordsman, extra showcase animations adding to the splendour. It’s impossible to not fall in love as you grab a dropped sword in the middle of a cartwheel, hold your impaled enemy on its blade for longer than is needed, then stand in victory as they slip off into a shower of their own blood.
And your prize, after passing the final screen, after the floor has become drenched and stained with the colourwheel blood of your and your enemy, is to run past a crowd of cheering supporters into the waiting, unavoidable jaws of Nidhogg himself. After a protracted fight of style, grace, blood and luck, it’s a worthy death.
Each level blazes with colours and beautiful dramatic touches, a real childlike wonder stuffed into their design, suitably matched with an original soundtrack by Daedelus. They’re all full of traps, too, death often coming from having to deal with a disappearing floor, or travelator shifting you into you enemy’s grasp, or head-high grass that obscures almost everything. It’s worth mentioning that the enemy AI when playing in single-player is really excellent, because it makes mistakes. It’s like playing against a human, and as such brings all the excitement of unsure strikes and teasing fakes. However, it’s going to be the same-couch multiplayer that solidifies Nidhogg as your new gaming obsession – run it through a TV, get the pads out, and you’ll have one of your best ever multiplayer experiences. Online play and an eight-player tournament mode just seal that deal even further.
It’s the game’s focus that’ll keep bringing you back. Fast to boot and quick to throw you into the action, being seconds away from such grandiose thrills means that it’ll be your go-to game for a long, long time. There’s been some raised eyebrows at the price, but it’s worth every penny. Nidhogg is not a game that deserves to be measured by number of levels, countable move sets or graphic fidelity – it’s a collection of moments that could each be the most exciting of your gaming year.
Good luck beating that, 2014.