Nidhogg reveled in simplicity. Messhof’s one-on-one fencing experience stripped away the ornamental redundancy of a traditional fighting game and exposed the bright core of competition. What appeared to be a mess of pixels poking each other with swords revealed itself as a competent, confident fighter. As either a party-strengthening ingredient or a vector to settle skilled rivalries, Nidhogg was happy (and capable) to oblige.
The objective behind Nidhogg 2 should feel familiar. Killing your opponent allows the player to run, unimpeded, in the direction of their goal. Across three (or five) protracted screens, your opponent will constantly respawn and try to kill you in order to reach their goal on the opposite side. This formula sustains a tug-of-war ripe with applied dexterity, improbable luck, and irresistible mind games. Nidhogg 2 may not look or behave like a traditional fighting game, but it lives in the ambiance of the same competitive spirit.
Nidhogg 2 is Nidhogg with an extra layer of everything. In Nidhogg, you could position your sword high, medium, or low or you could throw it. Nidhogg 2 retains the basic rapier, but compliments it with a dagger, a bow and arrow, or a hulking broadsword. These new weapons aren’t texture replacements or brainless substitutes — they fundamentally alter how one approaches the game.
The broadsword only has two positions, high and low, but its sheer power obliterates anxious foes. As a trade-off it makes the player run slower (allowing unarmed foes to actually catch up, rather than neatly suicide in the opposite direction) and isn’t particularly great against the more agile dagger. Still, the strength and violence behind the thing, not to mention swipes that run top-to-bottom as opposed to the traditional back-and-forth, make it a pleasure to use.
The bow and arrow has the potential to turn Nidhogg 2 on its heels. An arrow can be cocked while running and fired, high or low, at any time. This creates a game of chicken with a similarly armed opponent and game of chance when surface height differs. Certain arenas have different levels, and jump-firing the bow and arrow just barely above the ground proved to be a viable strategy. As a measure of defense, all three blades can reflect an arrow back at whoever fired it, provided they’re on the correct plane. You can also throw the entire bow and arrow, which is hilarious.
I found the dagger to be a faster version of the normal rapier. It trades reach for speed, opposing the broadsword, and carries the same three levels of height. Close quarters are also preferred, as it proved to be better than fists when rushing and rolling beneath an opponent’s outstretched blade. While I hesitate to call any of Nidhogg 2’s weapons “duds,” the dagger is the one I found myself literally throwing away the quickest. Perhaps that’s the point.
Fists are also an option. Nidhogg 2 retains the classic dive-kick maneuver, which remains useful in any instance where an opponent isn’t holding a sword high. The roll mechanic, while still momentum-based, now has an extra slide attached. This creates a weasel-y, disarming trick that was especially useful when followed by a low bow-and-arrow. Punching the shit out of people until they explode also has its thrills, up to and including the embarrassment of an armed and prepared opponent.
By default, all four weapons cycle with respawns. Sometimes opponents have the same weapons. Most times they don’t. Nidhogg 2 thrives in the juxtaposition, forcing players to improvise strategies or apply skill, all relative to the current environment. It’s worth noting that the playing field is usually covered in dropped weapons (and fluorescent blood), providing sufficient reason to pick up a temporary keepsake after you’ve throw yet another dagger into your enemy’s face.
Nidhogg 2 more than doubles the amount of stages from Nidhogg. Castle and Wilds return with a fresh set of textures while Clouds is completely revamped. Seven more are brand new. Volcano specializes lava-flow conveyor belts. Winter’s opening screen offers bobbing ice floats. The second segment of Swamps has the player entering a nidhogg, the third is travelling through its disgusting body, and the fourth (victory) screen subtly climaxes by ejecting the player from its butt hole. Fantastic.
Nidhogg 2’s greatest divergence is reserved for its outrageous art direction. Gone are the chunky pixels and rudimentary environments and in their place is some of the weirdest, hideous-yet-charming art to grace a videogame. Nidhogg 2’s mix-and-match characters feature the raw aesthetic Madballs mixed with the cartoony macabre of Crash Test Dummies and intensified by visible, permanent battle damage. It’s like someone melted the 90’s grossest toys into a chimeran zombie then hand painted the abomination with neon wax and colored glue. Then they animated the mobile corpse and made its sole objective to either kill or be killed. I really dig it.
There’s no story to speak of, but there’s just so much to imagine. According to our Wikipedian god, Nidhogg (or Níðhöggr) is derived from Norse mythology’s concept of a serpent that eats villains in hell. Death means death and victory also means death because you’re not escaping the laser focused nidhogg. Nidhogg 2 operates this theme across a Mode 7-inspired world map, carefully rotating 360 degrees of sprites across each of the ten stages. Elements of one are the background of another, making every setting one aggressively colored ode to neon debauchery and undulating topography. Videogame hell, usually a tight procession of clichés, is finally a party.
Feelings of inadequacy appear when operating Nidhogg 2 as a solo experience. Running through the arcade mode’s ten stages requires fewer than twenty minutes. The AI routines don’t seem to grow or evolve, although it does stop and wait for you to respawn before moving to the next screen, a courtesy human players often deny to each other. Other than familiarizing yourself with the stages, single player is kind of pointless. Getting the most anything out of Nidhogg 2 requires a party, a buddy on the couch, or an internet connection.
Moderate options are available to enhance human-on-human action. Weapons can be turned on and off, and a fists can also be inserted into the rotation. “Cheats” enable classic diversions like pulling spines (swords) out of corpses and boomerang swords. Along for the ride are new experiments like baby mode (you’re always crawling) and low gravity (Virtual Fighter 2 jumps). There’s also a built-in eight person tournament mode for when things inevitably start getting serious.
Nidhogg 2 succeeds in how quickly it evolves the state of play. Instruction, trial-and-error, and skill development are accelerated through a simple veneer, creating a level playing field out of a tricky premise. A ceiling is traded for an expanse, granting Nidhogg 2 passage across social circles and fighting game enthusiasts. Nidhogg was my personal go-to game whenever I had friends over, and the only game that could have replaced it was, of course, Nidhogg 2. I am pleased with this line of succession.