Nidhogg — Frantic, Jittery Combat Across Norse Skylofts
Nidhogg is… sort of a fighting game. It has two characters facing off against each other but everything else is unconventional. You fight with swords, but you have a single attack button and no health meter. A single strike is fatal. There are no combos. But the purpose is not merely to kill your enemy; that’ll happen dozens of times regardless, but it’s not your goal. Killing your enemy only gives you time before they respawn, time for you to run towards your destination at the end of the level whereupon your character has the honor of being devoured by the great serpent. Therefore you must be good at not only killing but sprinting through the scenery, navigating obstacles, and dodging errant attacks from chasing enemies. And the pacing is ravingly fast; act quickly or die.
You have the one attack button and a jump button—which seems too simple in theory—but playing the game for even a short amount of time quickly dispels such illusions. There are three fighting stances to choose on the fly, plus the ability to dive kick or throw your sword. Changing stances while in range of the enemy’s sword will knock theirs away. There are no characters or weapons to select from; you’re on even ground against your enemy. Except that the literal ground is uneven most of the time because you’re fighting in ruined castles, atop conveyor belts, and across insubstantial clouds. Push your way through rooms, kill the respawning enemies (who, remember, are just as strong as you), and run for the goal. Niddhogg is more complex than it appears at first glance and a testament to the ability of the creators to take a basic idea and expand it without becoming a bloated mess of “systems”.
There’s quite a bit of strategy involved in battle. Do you haphazardly run towards the enemy and stab at them, hoping for a quick kill? That might work against the early level AIs or unskilled online players, but a decent opponent will riposte and knock your sword to the ground, leaving you nearly defenseless. Any opponent who spams dive kicks like he’s a Street Fighter IV character will get skewered by a prepared high-stance fencer. Furthermore, a sword kills an enemy if any of its pixels touch; you don’t have to be thrusting, which means that it’s possible to get a kill on an enemy who walks into it. Of course, the same stipulation applies to you; you have no advantage over any opponent except for your ability to play the game.
You can use your own many deaths tactically. Bodies leave their weapons on the ground, making for additional options as you can throw the extra swords or fight with abandon, knowing you can pick up another sword if yours gets slapped away. But this can backfire as well, as there is no certainty that you can grab an extra sword in time. The best way to win is to learn to predict your opponents’ movements and have the proper counterattack prepared, as is the case in most fighting games. Nidhogg may seem a jumbled disarray, but it takes more skill than you’d think upon hearing the game’s simple premise.
Unlike many “retro” pixelly indie games, Nidhogg actually looks like it belongs on a Commodore 64. Images are vague representations of real-world objects, but are generally comprehensible. Backgrounds are frequently muddled, though, rendering your stickman’s positions impossible to determine. I’m sure this was intentional, but it doesn’t make it any less irritating. It doesn’t add a layer of strategy because I can’t see my opponent’s weapon through the billowing grass; it just makes fighting in that particular location overly random.
I remember playing Bushido Blade during Squaresoft’s brief creative period and Nidhogg is probably inspired by that great game. Both share the swordfighting and the same deceptive simplicity, and I applaud that effort. I’ve seen some people on message boards say that Nidhogg should have more weapons, more characters, more modes, etc., or that the game costs too much for something so plain (probably because everyone is used to indie games being five bucks or less). I would welcome any additions as long as they were optional. To add bells and whistles and force players to use them would probably destroy the pleasant utilitarian nature of Nidhogg’s combat, but if online matches allowed a player to choose between classic and loads-of-extra-crap modes, every player could be satisfied.
What the game definitely could use is more stages. There are a mere four included (odd considering how long the game was in development) and while each contains multiple rooms with different contents, I quickly grew tired of the repetitive scenery. How about extra-long levels, levels with randomized rooms, or levels with heaps of death traps? And improve the netcode while you’re at it; this is almost as bad as the new Killer Instinct’s. I enjoyed playing Nidhogg, but it needs some improvements, to be sure; it feels a bit hollow right now.
There’s room to grow, but Nidhogg is an impressive little game as it stands, and it is easily accessible due to its lack of frills. You can use it as a gateway drug into fighters or just as an uncomplicated party game. It is indeed overpriced—you should pick it up when it inevitably shows up in a Humble Bundle sale for a few cents—but it is enjoyable, and I look forward optimistically to seeing any improvements its creators might implement.