November 30, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 39°F


Review: Artful game boasts stylish swordplay


Developed by Messhof

“Nidhogg” is the type of game that two friends play on a couch for the entirety of a Saturday afternoon. Each moment is a laugh-inducing flurry of thrown swords and intense combat, concluding with the victor running past the finish line and headlong into the monstrous mouth of the titular flying snake.

The fighting game by Messhof is a two-dimensional tug of war between two players, each trying to wrestle control of the arrow, which lets players make a break for their end zone at the level’s edge. The match begins in the center, and the first player to stab the other gains the arrow and can begin a sprint to the finish. The other player will continually reappear just ahead of the first. If the second player lands a strike, they take the arrow and can run back to the center and eventually to the other goal. The goal, in this case, is being the first to sacrifice yourself to the Nidhogg, a giant snake. The Nidhogg serves solely as an eccentric finish line. The journey there is far more important.

It’s a prime example of a game that is easy to play yet hard to master; it’s both extremely accessible for newcomers while still deeply satisfying for experienced players. The controls are simple — just two buttons and a control stick. The concept is easy to understand: Don’t get stabbed; make it to your goal. Best of all, the combat is charmingly chaotic. It’s hard to not laugh over prematurely ending a fight by slipping into a pit. Because of its accessible controls and simple premise, new players can hop in and have fun without having to master its systems.

Every action in “Nidhogg” is an evaluation of risk and reward. Knowing just when to jump, thrust and roll requires split-second critical thinking and a pinch of luck. Playing patiently is safe, but the temptation to try a crazy gamble is incessant. And when it does, all the time a player spent inadvertently springing onto the opponent’s sword becomes justified. This constant pressure to quickly make difficult decisions in rapid succession makes victory in “Nidhogg” satisfying.

What drives the game beyond a simple novelty, however, is the amount of pure personality it exudes. There’s nothing quite like “Nidhogg.” Every tense encounter culminates with an explosive fountain of yellow, orange or pink blood, springing forth from the loser’s body and onto the walls and floors. In particularly heated matches, the blocky walls and floors begin to resemble a painting by Jackson Pollock. Its levels live in 8-bit watercolor, the environments just as full of life as the combat.

The artful nature of “Nidhogg” isn’t limited to its visuals. In terms of aesthetic appeal, it’s refreshingly distinct, but the most artful aspect of “Nidhogg” is beyond its looks. Strip that all down, and it still stands strong by the level of self-expression the combat allows for. Despite the game’s simple controls, there are always countless ways to outmanoeuvre the opponent. What players choose isn’t reflective of an objective right or wrong — it’s reflective of themselves.

When played alone, however, “Nidhogg’s” few flaws come to light. The single player mode is nothing more than a timed challenge to beat 16 computer-controlled opponents in a row. The artificial intelligence is surprisingly good and fun to fight, but without the friendly banter and personal interaction that “Nidhogg” fuels, it feels empty.

When it’s at its best, “Nidhogg” is an elaborate, intimate dance, each player pushing the other more and more until one passes the final screen. In those moments, the controller melts away and leaves the raw drama of the struggle for victory. “Nidhogg” encapsulates exactly why people play fighting games for years on end: It’s not about blood, gore or violence. It’s about the connection the game creates among players — one that is deep and personal, impossible to recreate elsewhere.