Nidhogg is kind of like the ultimate one-versus-one game of football or tug of war. The game operates by a very simple two-button combat system, in which the last player to get a kill receives the right of way to run towards their respective “end zone.” It’s a fighting game with only a handful of moves, but lets the player use those moves in new and inventive ways that are intuitive enough to pick up and start playing with, but require plenty of practice to perfect. Developer Messhof has made a fighting game just as much about anticipating your opponent’s movements as it is about pure skill.
Nidhogg is a competitive fencing game where one simple stab means death. And while it does feature network play and something of a single-player component, the game lives and breathes for its local multiplayer. Like actual fencing, the game requires finesse, focus, and studying of the other fencer. It’s not about memorizing combos or brute-forcing a victory, but rather waiting for the opponent to open themselves up to attack or disarming them completely. Slow and steady almost always prevails.
One of the smartest things about Nidhogg is the fact that a stab isn’t defined as just hitting the jab button, but rather by if the opponent runs, rolls, or jumps into the presented blade at all. An impatient adversary would often run right into my blade, relieving me of any effort. This mechanic added initial shock value and excitement, especially due to the simple but effective eight-bit character models and the way they animate and bleed. Seeing my fencer attempt to roll under his opponent and sweep his feet, just to be brutally clothes-lined through the neck by his low-hanging blade really communicates the lethality of fencing in very satisfying ways.
Music in Nidhogg is procedurally generated, depending on the flow of the match itself. And while I know this to be true, it can be very hard to tell in practice. The music tends to simply stay in the background and is relatively secluded, with what feel like frequent repeats that grow old quickly. The music is certainly unique, but fails to hold up after extended sessions. This actually highlights the games biggest hitch: variety. There are four stages in the game, each with one unique gimmick – the Mines have moving conveyor belts, the Wilds have grass that hide sword positioning – but aside from this, each stage is essentially a straight line to the finish. There is very little verticality to any of the stages, which can make it rather easy to hop over opponents and dart for the next screen transition.
In the perfect setting, Nidhogg is magical. Get a few friends over, start up a tournament, and it’s immensely fun. And while this is great, its single-player and network play leave a bit to be desired. The single-player is especially weak, being nothing more than a continuous slog of opponents in the same four stages the game features. Progress through this mode is never saved, which is just dumb. Network play allows for the inviting of friends or random matchmaking, but connections are hit or miss, and there is definitely a noticeable amount of latency that can break a match. I would stab, kill, run, and occasionally be teleported back dead, as the opponent saw something else on their screen. These problems with online play are potentially fixable, though I don’t see it becoming a stronger single-player game anytime soon.
In a recent resurgence of great local multiplayer-focused games, Nidhogg doesn’t disappoint. It makes for a fantastic party game, and natively supports controllers on PC to make it more accessible. With its two-button controls, it’s definitely possible to pick up and start playing and experiment with the deeper mechanics of fencing and disarming. Nidhogg is the slowest yet fastest moving competitive game I’ve ever played, and that’s something really special.