Local multiplayer is a dwindling hobby. That’s not to suggest that it’s “dead” or that there aren’t people out there with a major investment in it, but it’s one of those truths of the internet age that a decreasing number of games are offering an offline multiplayer component, and that with more incentive than ever to play online fewer and fewer of us are getting that closer human contact and electric atmosphere which comes with sitting down in front of a system with some friends and going toe-to-toe at a good video game. Fortunately, there is a new corner of indie development devoted to solving this problem with titles like Gang Beasts, Sportsfriends, and Samurai Gunn giving us a reason to get local multiplayer back into our homes. This is the family of games Nidhogg belongs to, with exactly the kind of frantic excitement you’d want to experience around other players, but a focus on one-on-one competition and unique combat dynamics.
Nidhogg’s action is set on a 2D plane with a side-on perspective and takes place across a series of screens. You and your opponent assume the forms of two monochrome pixel people armed with rapiers, competing for the honour of being eaten by the mythical Nidhogg. Both of you start in the dead center of the level with player one’s goal being to try and make it all the way to the rightmost screen of the stage, while player two is attempting to make it all the way to the leftmost screen. The catch is you can only continue progressing to the next screen if you have control of the game. The way to gain control? Kill your opponent. If you’re already in control taking down the other player is also a way to secure your own safety, forcing them to spawn a little way ahead in the stage.
Nidhogg is essentially a two-button affair, with one button letting you jump and the other letting you attack. This gives you a simple and easily memorable palette of moves from which you can work. The game also implements something approximate to a high-mid-low system of combat, allowing you to hold your sword at different heights when you attack. These two things combine to make clashes between you and your opponent like a tiny game of rock-paper-scissors, but with a weighting on coordination and reaction times. If your opponent tries to jump at you maybe you stab high, if they try to to hit you in the middle maybe you duck and slice low. Some of the game’s one-two punches are a particular treat, like dive-kicking an enemy to knock them down then pulling their spine out while they’re on the floor, or knocking the sword from their hand and then stabbing them in the chest. Then there’s the option to throw your sword, the game’s sole projectile attack, and it feels like magic when it hits. Even if you miss you can enjoy the advantage of moving faster without your rapier, but you have less reach on your strikes and they only knock the opponent to the floor instead of killing them. Making headway without a sword feels daring.
In some ways Nidhogg is a fighting game for the people who don’t want to spend countless evenings and weekends glued to a television screen to compete at a basic level. It’s a more filled-out version of Iron Galaxy’s Divekick. Like in any other fighting game you end up trying to limit the space the enemy can move into, make the moves they won’t expect, and exploit the windows of opportunity they leave you, and yet all of this can be done without a whole lot of preamble to take on board all the caveats of the gameplay. It’s like a Mortal Kombat where you don’t need to worry about learning all the character moves, or a Street Fighter you can pull out at parties, and this does feel like a party game, at least providing your partygoers are a little nerdy.
There is a single-player mode in which you can fight an increasingly difficult legion of computer AI, and an online multliplayer that I’ll talk about in a bit, but I still see this as primarily a local multiplayer game, mainly because it feels so natural to jump in to and jump out of, and it feels designed to elicit strong reactions from players and spectators. The game’s feel is in no small way defined by the fact that your position in the world and how close you are to winning are the same thing. It makes the experience of moving through that space similar to watching a football or basketball game, it makes you want to will yourself or the characters you see on screen just that bit closer to the goal at any given second, as though if you just mentally struggle hard enough you can nudge them towards where you want them to be. There’s a great positive, celebratory release of this tension when you reach that final screen, and a negative but almost masochistic release of it when the other player manages to kill you and steal that progress from you. This plays excellently off of the vulnerability of the characters. Because it only takes one successful hit to kill you or the other player it’s easy for the game to completely turn around in a split-second. You can have someone be inches from winning, take a sword to the chest and all of a sudden everyone looks on shocked and incredulous as the game begins to slide in the complete opposite direction.
In another context this might be frustrating or dejecting, but the spawn distance sits on a firm middle ground between getting a dead player back into the game quickly and giving the living player some time to advance. Only now and then will you run into a situation in which your opponent spawns right in front of you, giving you an uncomfortably slim window in which to react to them popping back into play. Often, even when neither you or your opponent are particularly good, Nidhogg is still an entertaining experience. When a player goes down fast or for a silly reason (like jumping down a gap), or you and the other player fumble get a hold on each other the game takes on a hilarious slapstick quality. The madness and comedy of the gameplay is only enhanced by some of the extra options like super speed and boomerang swords.
There are four separate maps to play on: Castle, Clouds, Mines, and Wilds, which are generally well-designed, offering a variety of obstacles and enclosed spaces to make you change up your play style and think quickly about how to approach problems, while retaining plenty of areas in which you can just jump and stab away to your heart’s content without restraint. The only serious problems with the levels are that Clouds features a bright background which constantly changes colours that can make it difficult to see what you’re doing, and Mines is full of tightly-packed corridors in which you can barely jump and therefore are limited in ways you can attack or defend against your opponent.
Nidhogg does however do a good job of giving each of the maps its own distinct appearance, from the vibrantly coloured Wilds to the minimalist Castle, and the game’s art style is blissfully surreal. Synthesised, discordant music swells and sways as the backgrounds flash with random sections of light and dark, like a stop-motion papercraft video. All aspects of the world are drawn with a near disorienting low-fidelity and every death is punctuated with a spray of coloured paint, marking the constant switches of control in the combat. It’s like an art project gone gloriously wrong.
If I have one major complaint about Nidhogg it’s in the modes outside of local multiplayer. Single-player has an MK9 kind of problem where you end up placed against a considerable number of enemies either above or below your skill level, while the online multiplayer mode is outright broken, and that’s not a term I use lightly. Realistically, even in 2014 many of us aren’t going to be able to support the flawless high-speed connection required for a game where hyper-fast reactions count, but the problems in Nidhogg’s internet play go far beyond occasional hitches. There are essentially three hurdles between you and proper play against rival cyberfencers: 1. The matchmaking frequently trawls up few to no other players. 2. When it can finds players it often dithers on the lobby screen, failing to connect. 3. In the games it does find the lag can be severe, sometimes to the point that play becomes impossible. All of this happens even on a good connection with no clear cause or fix. Sadly, part of the reason why this feels like more of a local multiplayer title than anything else is because the other modes are not reliable.
Nidhogg is in short an elegantly frantic competitive romp. It’s tense, it’s humourous, and there’s a very pure fun at the centre of it. The game isn’t really up to being played outside of an offline multiplayer setting and some of its maps are better than others, but rarely have I seen a situation in which Nidhogg has been received with less than smiles and laughter from players and onlookers.