If you haven’t attended numerous videogame-related gatherings over the past four years, you might not know what Nidhogg is. I can only imagine what you’d think a Nidhogg is if you are not into independent videogames. Actually, your brain would probably try to convince you it’s something boring, like a Scandinavian band that isn’t very good. Either that, or you’d know that it has something to do with Norse mythology.
I have, for many reasons or many others, been to plenty of independent-game-celebrating events in the past four years, so I’ve played Nidhogg many times—and, more importantly, I’ve seen dozens (hundreds) of other people playing Nidhogg against each other. Nidhogg is that rare breed of videogame that is certainly as fun to watch as it is to play. Heck, depending on your opponent, it might actually be more fun to watch than it is to play (and I mean that in the best possible way).
To put it into bland terms, Nidhogg is a two-player competitive one-on-one minimalist electronic sport with a fencing metaphor and the rules of tug of war. It is a spectator-hyper-friendly speed-decision-making exercise wherein the decisions regard position and action. The left player is a yellow fencer; the right player is an orange fencer.
The yellow fencer must advance to the right; the orange fencer must advance to the left.
A player earns the right to advance in their necessary direction only when they have killed their opponent. To kill your opponent, you must stab your opponent (or throw your sword, or kick your opponent and then break their neck). Once you kill your opponent, you are free to move forward. Move forward far enough, and you’ll find your opponent waiting for you.
Here, you’re free to imagine whatever you want: The players can be clones, or they can be Looney Tunes reincarnations. I like to think they’re all members of a team. When one member of the team dies,another rushes to fill in. This is how you end up with so many dead bodies by the end of a game.
To win a game of Nidhogg, you must advance to the goal at the ultimate limit of your necessary direction. If the yellow player gets all the way to the right, the yellow player wins.
Winning is excellent. You run by a crowd of cheering onlookers, and earn your prize: the right to be eaten by the titular Nidhogg, a dragon-worm-snake-beast which is so cool it turns human sacrifice into an honor worth killing for.
You don’t need to think about the world or the narrative just now: For now, know that the game is mechanically air-tight. By pressing up and down while standing, you can raise or lower your sword. Press the stab button to stab. Hold up and press the stab button to throw your sword. Press and hold down to crouch. Hold either horizontal direction to run. Tap downward while running to roll through your enemy, and (usually) under his sword. Press the jump button to jump. Throw your sword while jumping, if that seems like a thing to do.
If you throw your sword, now you don’t have a sword.
Nidhogg plays out over a series of short-term conflicts inside a long-term conflict. You’re fighting one opponent at a time, yes, though if you have the lead and the right to advance, “fighting” might mean “running”: Every inch counts. So Nidhogg occupies an interesting position, if we’re discussing its rules as a sport: Sometimes (usually?), approaching victory requires you to put yourself onto defense by giving up offense.
All of the player actions interlock and play with each other in densely cute ways. If a player is holding a sword forward at a medium height, and standing still, then they can deflect a thrown blade. If a player has no sword, they can punch and kick and crouch-kick their enemy to death. If you press the attack button while jumping, you perform a dive-kick that can knock your opponent down and stun them—yet this action carries the risk of accidental impalement on your opponent’s sword.
Almost no moment in Nidhogg is funnier for spectators and more emasculating for a player, however, than when one runs directly into the other player’s sword.
(This happens, of course, because psyching out your opponent in Nidhogg is about as valuable a technique as stabbing your opponent in Nidhogg. Maybe if you run right at them, they’ll jump? Sometimes, they don’t jump. Sometimes they stand still, and you run into their sword.)
When players first play Nidhogg matches will be over in a minute or less. Then the match time creeps up to two minutes. Eventually you’re seeing ten-minute matches. Ultimately, once all of the players are familiar with the quirky timings and nuances of every action (they are all deliciously just out of the reach of muscle memory), the best parts of Nidhogg are the silences. Players stand on opposite sides of a chasm, raising and lowering their foils in some complex mind-dance. These moments (and their aftermaths) are as fascinating to watch as they are to play, or think about. Few games ever ask players to think as much about what their opponent is going to do in so specific, tiny and dire a situation.
As much as I admire this game’s design, a few little things glare at me. For one, sometimes I just don’t know when my enemy is going to spawn, and where, and sometimes I get to the edge of the screen and he just pops out. Sometimes I have to explain to new players why the heck they haven’t spawned yet, or why I spawned earlier than they felt like I was supposed to: This is a common conversation among new players. Also, I don’t like the word “GO!” being on the screen next to the arrow. The arrow is my color or my opponent’s; I would prefer the game have no language on the screen. Similarly, I don’t like the words “Final Screen” on the final screen in either direction. I feel like the levels all have enough personality for spectators and players alike to know that The End Is Near.
My next tiny complaint is tougher to explain: Sometimes your opponent is running from you, and he has such a lead on you that it is impossible for you to catch up. In Nidhogg, you run faster without a sword than you do with a sword, so maybe you throw your sword at your opponent in hopes of getting a hasty kill and earning the right to run in your direction. Usually, however, the proper move is to turn and run the opposite direction, off your end of the screen. This causes a new fencer to spawn at the next spawn point off your opponent’s edge of the screen. This is, given the game’s set of variables of circumstances, probably the only solution to this as a “design problem”, though it is a solution that makes me wonder about the world of the game maybe a little more than I am comfortable wondering: How are these fencers getting into this arena? Why am I not wondering about how the fencers are getting into the arena when the respawning involves one fencer dying?
Keep in mind that all of the above complaints are coming from a person who literally carries a wooden spoon and fork everywhere he goes, because he can’t stand the sound of metal on porcelain.
Speaking of metal sounds, the clash of Nidhogg’s swords sounds like a miracle: It does not offend my weird ears. I like all of the sounds a whole lot. Every other sound in the game is masterful. Jumps and crouches and footsteps all have an eerie naturalistic tone that clashes beautifully between the game’s low-fidelity look and the bizarre theme of human sacrifice as a spectator sport. The music completes the atmosphere with such richness that it’s difficult to imagine Nidhogg without it: It is strange and dark and solid and hard; it is psychedelic noise of an unmistakably meaningfully interesting, musicianly quality, yet it does not distract from the occurrence of the violent contest on the screen.
If you introduce players to Nidhogg, they will play it and enjoy it. Like Samurai Gunn, it is an interactive piece of creation that can enrich a social gathering without turning that social gathering into a social gathering about playing videogames. Like Samurai Gunn, Nidhogg’s pixel-art aesthetic pushes past “retro videogame” appeal and into pop art in its own right. Like Samurai Gunn, players of Nidhogg will have fun and keep playing whether they win or lose. Like Samurai Gunn, players not acquainted with videogames at all can play Nidhogg and master its basics within minutes. Like Samurai Gunn, Nidhogg has a single-player mode which you will play a few times before ultimately deciding you prefer using the game as a tool to understand your friends’ individual psychologies in a party setting.
Unlike Samurai Gunn, individual contests of Nidhogg manage to be more fun for spectators about as often as they manage to be more fun for players. (Samurai Gunn is a player’s game. [Not that there’s anything wrong with that.])
It’s worth noting that Nidhogg has four selectable arenas—the castle, the mines, the wilds and the clouds—and that one of these (I won’t tell you which: That’d be a spoiler) burns my eyeballs. All of these levels have unique and amazing music, however. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the robust “variants” list allows you to play the game with decreased gravity (higher jumps!) or in slow-motion (much more lead time on your decision-making! louder screams from spectators!), or with a dozen other kooky effects. These boost the replay of the game off the charts. Nidhogg is a slick game with tight rules and excellent animations and brilliant atmosphere and mood-altering music: The depth of variant options allows it to transcend the title of Hangout Facilitator and truly become a Hangout Destination.
I have designed and am directing a minimalist multiplayer electronic sport myself at my company Action Button Entertainment. It’s called VIDEOBALL. VIDEOBALL is just deep enough and just nuanced enough that I am mortified whenever an event organizer asks me if they can display it at their event. VIDEOBALL requires teamwork—it’s strictly two-on-two—and though you play with just one analog stick and one button, that one button can do a lot of different things: You hold for differing lengths of time before releasing to launch different projectiles with different properties at a ball, with the idea being to push the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Yet the depth of the rules is such that I never see players pick up on the reversal mechanic (if a player has used the highest level of shot to spike the ball, any other shot will reverse the ball, yet keep it at spiked velocity) without explicit instruction. What I’m thinking is, we need a tutorial. I swear, I think “we need a tutorial” just about ten times a day. It should be short and sweet and happen right at the beginning of every match. Maybe we could have a practice room, like in Samurai Gunn? I think around in circles every day, and then I think, “Nidhogg doesn’t need a tutorial”. Then I think, “Samurai Gunn doesn’t need a tutorial”.
I can only hope that my game is different enough from Samurai Gunn, Nidhogg, TowerFall, BaraBariBall, Divekick, and all the other hot minimalist electronic sports, to warrant its own unique audience, necessary tutorial or no. Though part of me can’t help feeling like Samurai Gunn and Nidhogg have “won” this genre with their instant simplicity.
A friend asked me three questions when I said I was reviewing both Samurai Gunn and Nidhogg. First, if I am going to say they are better than VIDEOBALL. No, they’re not better than VIDEOBALL, in my wholly subjective opinion as the designer and director of VIDEOBALL (coming Q2 2014 for PC, Mac and (hopefully) All The Consoles). If they were, I wouldn’t be making VIDEOBALL: I would be working in an investment bank, or some other place where terrible people would surround me and suffocate me until I was rich and horrible instead of poor and great. My friend’s second question was something unrelated to videogames. The third question was if I’d recommend Nidhogg over Samurai Gunn or vice-versa. My answer to the third question was that you should probably buy both of them. Once you play either one of them for two minutes, you’re going to want as wide a library as possible of games in a similar style, and you can believe that’s the sincerest compliment my brain contains.
Tim Rogers is the founder and director of Action Button Entertainment, the game development studio behind Videoball. You can follow him on Twitter @108