The fighting game genre, in terms of being a universally appealing market, is stuck in quite a vicious loop. If the skill-based entry barrier is too high for the non-core market to play and improve at, it will quickly be left behind by non-hardcore players. Likewise, if a fighting game lacks depth and doesn’t offer the chance at worthwhile mastery, hardcore players yell “Casual!” and it can suffer the unfortunate fate of being reduced to a drunken party game. For years the debate has raged over the perfect culmination of accessibility and intricacy, and although it’s far from the graphically and mechanically polished experience expected from the average AAA fighting game, we may be one step closer to finding that marketable middle-ground with Nidhogg.
Developed by Messhof, Nidhogg is a fast-paced side-scrolling and highly competitive indie game which challenges the notion that more moves and combo potential make for a more rewarding fighting game experience. Unlike traditional fighting games (which, I’ll express once more, this is not) the main objective of the game is not necessarily to kill your opponent, but to rush past them so that you may reach the final screen and sacrifice yourself to a great worm-like creature known as the Nidhogg. Both pixelated players, armed with jousting swords, are aiming to advance towards opposite sides of the screen.
To reach the next screen the player must be the last one to have secured a kill. When a player is killed (which occurs from one sword stab or a ground takedown,) their right to advance shifts to their opponent and they immediately respawn further down the screen. There are simple enough mechanics to grasp on a first playthrough such as ducking, jumping, stabbing, disarming, and sword tossing, but to sell them short would be a crime against a beautifully realized, and perhaps unprecedented, fighting game experience.
Where controls and moves lack in quantity they make up for in execution. Nidhogg is not about finding a character whose weight, mobility, and diverse moveset cater perfectly to your intended style of play. Instead, both players are pitted against each other on equal playing fields and the only advantages present are mental ones. Do away with past fighting game-related questions such as “Do I have a move that can stop him from dropping in on me from the air?” and instead prepare for the simpler but faster thought process that sparks questions like “Where can I stand to immediately stab this punk when he lands?”
With controls that can be mastered in just a few quick matches, the difference between a seasoned Nidhogg veteran and a first-time noob lies in their sense of positioning and prediction. Simple enough on paper, the superior swordsman becomes clear-cut when noticing their ability to capitalize on their opponent’s tendency to divekick or toss their sword when closing a gap. While each match grants players a small shed of insight to help them better improve these two senses, I noticed the skill gap between the strongest and weakest Nidhogg players to still allow for some close and exciting matches. With no time limit, it’s not uncommon to see two players have a match that lasts only 30 seconds immediately followed by another that lasts 20 minutes. It’s a feat not commonly accomplished in the genre, and for that I give equal parts credit to the game’s rewarding mechanics system and an important third skill that both veterans and first-time players possess; unpredictability.
Like most of gaming’s innovative greats, Nidhogg’s unique gameplay and excitement-inducing essence can only be truly conveyed through firsthand experience. Unfortunately, what can be (somewhat) objectively looked at are the game’s art and price point. While the game’s barebones pixel art plays to its strengths by complimenting the simplistic-yet-deep nature of the game, I couldn’t help but feel more could have been done to further flesh out Nidhogg’s overall style. There are only four different stages to play on in the game, and I personally found one of them (Clouds) to be borderline disorienting.
Coupled with a tacked-on, shallow single player mode, Nidhogg’s $15 price point is a hard sell, especially compared to the flashier, content-richer experiences available for the same price in today’s age of indie gaming. This is not to say that the price is unfair or unjustified compared to the amount of worthwhile multiplayer madness that the title offers – it’s only to say that it may be too steep for the mass market to buy into based on what’s being offered. It’s a shame, too, because there is some really great content that deserves to be tried by both newcomers and veterans of the genre.
If you can look past its glam-less pixel art and lack of traditional content found in most fighting games (such as collectibles, skins, campaigns, etc.) there is a tremendous amount of competitive joy and depth to be experienced in Nidhogg. Whether you’re a casual fighting game fan looking for a game that demands less of your time to enjoy or a hardcore fan with hopes of finding a title that you can share with your less-versed friends, there’s likely something you’ll admire in one of the most memorable multiplayer experiences I’ve had in 2014 thus far.
Nidhogg is currently available on Steam (and for a 40% discount until June 30!) and will be coming to PS4 at some point this year.