Rules of Nidhogg? There are no rules. Two men enter, one man leaves to be eaten by a ceremonial dragon.
Expressed in modest trappings, Nidhogg quietly aims to recast the mold of a competitive fighting game. A deliberate lo-fi aesthetic and input limited to the absolute basics cleverly mask engagement as hardcore and contemplative as any of its peers. By opening its boundaries past the usual static fighting arena, Nidhogg transforms from another one-on-one fighter into something more akin to a goal-oriented sport. It's a fighting game simplified without feeling dumb, a multi-staged combat arena with no particular advantage, and as much a battle of wits as an all-out brawler.
At a glance, Nidhogg appears to be a simple fencing game. Even a cursory run through its basic mechanics betrays any sense of depth. Your chunky-pixilated, monochromatic avatar can move his (or her, I suppose) sword high, medium, or low by pressing up and down on the same analog stick used for basic movement. This sword can also be thrust directly at an opponent for a one-hit killing blow or literally thrown at your opponent from a distance. Some discreet hand-to-hand combat moves are included for sword-deficient fighters as well. Rounding off the mechanics are battle roll, a rather generous jump, and the ability to transform that jump into a diving kick.
A head-to-head face off feels more like a chivalrous duel. Swords thrust at the same height will clink away with no damage incurred, while striking your opponent high when his sword is low results in a killing blow. Interestingly, your opponent can become disarmed should you move your sword from low to high while it's above or below an opponent’s sword. Further down the rabbit hole, any dive-kick performed on an opponent holding his sword high results in the death of the kicker. Likewise, a thrown sword can only be deflected by another thrown sword or a stationary sword at the appropriate height. For every perceived advantage, Nidhogg is quick to answer with an appropriate countermeasure.
If that was all there was to Nidhogg, it might have been enough for a small Divekick-lite style fighting game. Fortunately either player's main objective isn't simply vanquishing their foe; in Nidhogg the ultimate goal is to make it to the end of the stage (to be devoured by the titular Nidhogg). Each venue is divided between a central stage and two identical opposite sides. Murdering the guy standing in your way provides the literal go-ahead arrow to proceed before your opponent respawns to stand in your way. The opposing player can't make a mad dash to their goal without taking you down first. In this regard Nidhogg transcends the trappings of a typical fighting game and rematerializes as a maniacal blood sport.
Nidhogg's call for strategy reveals itself in rolling waves. One of the more important revelations was applying concept of offense and defense; if you don't have the initiative, every pixel of ground becomes important. Aggressive players may cast their dissent, but there's no real need for a player defending their territory to surrender their position. Nidhogg actually seems to encourage this, specifically by placing high ground and other advantageous level design quirks at the defender’s disposal. Other discoveries manifest quickly; swords can't be thrown through doorways, battle-rolling is an effective tactic for the tragically unarmed, and low-ceiling rooms can change the combat dynamic dramatically. Committing suicide by running the opposite direction of a sprinting opponent also proves to be a viable tactic when respawning may be more practical than giving chase.
While Nidhogg could have probably survived with a single combat arena, four different stages are available. Castle seems to be the standard, with its tricky doors, varying surface levels, and that excruciating last-line-of-defense hallway at the end. Wilds is defined by tall grass apt for concealing your avatar, though I found this feature more annoying than engaging. Clouds is a dreamy pastel wonderland bursting with disappearing platforms. Mines' signature conveyor belt offers a similar twist on typical combat, though the remainder of it is structurally similar to Castle. I found stages other than Castle to be a distraction, leaving that particular stage as the place to go whenever matches and or trash talking started getting "serious."
While a pixel-perfect aesthetic seemingly fit for an 8-bit system, Nidhogg's art is too detailed and animates far too well to have actually appeared on 80's era hardware. Nevertheless it succeeds in creating a fondness for a time when gameplay was valued more than visual prowess. In either case Nidhogg remains beautiful, even when the entrails of countless vanquished foes are spattered all over the arena. Each stage is also blessed with wildly atmospheric music from Daedelus, who might have created the most evocative soundtrack since the marriage between Disasterpiece and Fez or Power Glove and Blood Dragon. The music backing Clouds, in particular, has this ethereal presence perfect for tropospheric combat.
It’s worth mentioning that this review is happening over a month after Nidhogg debuted because I wasn't exposed to the game until it took over a Super Bowl party I attended. Samurai Gun was on a TV in another room and seemed to garner moderate interest, but when Nidhogg was introduced most everyone seemed taken aback and unwilling to do anything other than play more Nidhogg. We had matches that lasted thirty seconds and others than took thirty minutes. The push and pull of being on the bleeding edge of defeat and mustering some sort of impossible comeback was in constant effect. We all even developed our own particular play styles; and neither relentlessly-attacking offense or methodical turtling defense seemed to prevail.
At its best Nidhogg is an anecdote generator perfect for social gaming. Fallen or thrown swords litter the ground until that particular screen is cleared, creating impromptu arms restocking stations or a vast cache of potential projectiles. Sword throwing itself is open to a significant amount of surprise, especially considering the different planes each character can occupy. One time I threw my sword, suicided off the screen, and wound up killing my respawned-self with my own sword. The sheer barbarism that unfolds when two sword-less players desperately and mindlessly duke it out is often reflected in an animation in which someone's spine gets Sub-Zero'd out of their body. It perfectly reflects the inevitable primal button mashing with victorious violence.
Every fighting game strives to strike some sort of balance between its players. Nidhogg's single character load-out and identical arena setup addresses most of this problem, but the rest is solved in simplified controls. It's complex without being complicated and simple without being stupid. The dream of a perfect fighting game has always been to favor timing and intuition over complex input or endless move lists, though few have been able to manage that ideal scenario without defaulting to seemingly requisite convolution. Ideal Nidhogg-play feels open to interpretation, encouraging vastly different styles within its quiet rule set. The lack of a clear solution may be its enduring success; staunch defense, aggressive offense, sword throwing aficionado and/or running like hell proved no better than the other.
If there's any reasonable qualifier, it's that Nidhogg currently must be administered under certain circumstances. Messhof gets all the credit in the world for bucking the trend of recent social brawlers by taking the time to include legitimate online play, but in practice (or at least as of early February) that experience just isn't there. Playing online it seemed a host throwing a sword worked miraculously, and when it wasn't dropping a connection matches were plagued with game-destroying lag. That being said, after experiencing Nidhogg at a party, after battling friends in escalating grudge matches, after obtaining victory in a thirty minute fight to find myself champion of our silly little tournament - I couldn't imagine playing Nidhogg any other way.