Street Fighter II, Super Smash Bros, GoldenEye 007: some games are written into history indelibly for their competitive multiplayer. To play them is to have battle upon battle seared onto your mind, branded there by the white-hot thrill of matching wits and reflexes against your peers. Prepare to add Nidhogg to the list.
Not that Nidhogg’s seesawing hyperkinetic fencing matches bear much similarity to those couch classics in style or input methods. This is the multiplayer conceit triple filtered until all that is left is two eye-wateringly neon stick figures holding out two pristine white swords, each fighter with one objective: get to the final screen. But to make progress from one segment of the five-area-wide levels to the next, you need priority, as represented by a giant Go arrow. And the only way to get it is to be the most recent player to score a kill.
To start with, no one has the advantage. But as soon as the first gout of pixellated blood wets the ground, a deadly and hilarious battle of tug-of-war ensues, as each player tries to steal priority and push the battle to their end zone. The simple goal makes the game: every sparring match is in service to a higher aim, each push imbued with purpose and stomach-churning risk. It transforms Nidhogg into more than just a lightning-fast deathmatch. In fact, it is perfectly valid to skewer your opponent once and spend the rest of your time legging it to the finish. It’s just that you’re going to need to get good at fighting to survive long enough to get there.
That means crossing swords, and this, too, is governed by elegant rules. Rule one: let the pointy end of a sabre touch you anywhere and you’re dead, your corpse disintegrating into a shower of level-staining pixels. You’ll be spawned back in your foe’s path in seconds, but those are precious seconds where they are pressing their advantage.
And you’ll be amazed at what can be derived from such a simple control scheme. One button jumps, another attacks, and the arrow keys (or a stick, since Nidhogg yearns to be played with a pad) move you. But with each input sensitive to context, a broad spectrum of actions is at your disposal. Run forward and hit down to enter a roll that might carry you past your sparring partner and might leave you ignominiously impaled on a lowered blade. Jump and press attack for a quick disarming divekick to make Viewtiful Joe weep. Hold up to position your sword for a deathly fast, but easily blocked, throw.
This being a fencing game, however, most attacks are lunges, which buy you range at the cost of leaving you open as you pull your blade back. Timing is everything. Well, not quite everything: posture also counts. Your sword is held at one of three levels – hip, chest or eye height – switched between with taps of up or down. Attack at the same height as your foe’s foil and you’ll be deflected, a scrape of metal your only reward. Find an opening first and the match’s impetus is yours.
The disarm is perhaps the clearest evidence of designer Mark Essen’s delicate touch, though. Flick your sword’s position to match an incoming attack at just the right moment and you’ll swipe the blade from your opponent’s hands with a whoop. It’s hard to do purposefully, but immensely rewarding. And while an unarmed enemy is far from defenceless – Nidhogg is made for last-second comebacks – the surprise should have given you the upper hand.
The rest of the package is minimalist. There are just four stages, each one comprised of two areas mirrored around a central segment. Castle is of the Prince Of Persia school of ancient architecture, all cavernous grey block halls and death pits. Mines has conveyor belts and tunnel chokepoints too claustrophobic to chuck a sword around in. Clouds is the weakest of the bunch, its central screen bright enough to render swords and even players invisible, although dissipating cloud bridges add new tension to Mexican standoffs. Then there’s Wilds. It’s a treasure trove of tiered platforms, long grass to conceal yourself in and gorgeous pixel foliage. Every stage is primarily rendered in dark, muted hues so as to contrast against the retina-searing player colours and gore, with an animated background that puts us in mind of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer video. We wouldn’t exactly call it easy on the eyes, but it’s distinctive even among the pixel art crowd.
Even despite the limited variety, local multiplayer is blissfully easy to lose hours to. The same can’t be said for online matches, which are hampered by sporadic disconnects and varying degrees of lag, the latter a real problem when success is measured in fractions of a second. The chat is less ambiguously poor, unable to deal with long messages and cursed with a confusing font. Let your sword do the talking.
And while multiplayer is evidently the raison d’être of Nidhogg, there is a time-attack singleplayer mode to attempt, where you rip through matches as quickly as possible against AI swordsmen. Sadly, the bots are prone to stupid exploits, lingering on vanishing clouds or tumbling into pits, but they do a decent job of prepping you for real opponents.
Still, Nidhogg is not about lengthy stage lists, improvable online systems, fussy control mapping or AI. Nidhogg is about the purity of two friends on a couch duking it out as Daedelus’s moody dynamic electronica frames acrobatic displays of wits and reflexes. In that sense, it has no equal.