Almost exhausted after battling for so long, I am now at the final area. I must be the one to be sacrificed. Momentum is with me, but my opponent stares at me without emotion. The arena music drowns out my thoughts, but I wonder if I can hear the cheering crowd in the adjoining area.
I am distracted, and suddenly my opponent thrusts their sword towards me. I feel as if it enters my chest, as if I may explode. But wait, no, that’s not how it happened. My opponent raised his sword, jabbing towards my face…No that’s not it. The ground is covered in something. Is that my blood? My opponent dashes away, thinking they are safe. I react, throw my sword and watch it drive into their back. They explode. I run. Someone appears suddenly in front of me, I skewer them without thinking and run on. The crowd roars. Come unto me, Flying Penis Monster and take me. I have earned this.
Nidhogg is a frantic 2D, one-on-one, sword-fighting game. If you’ve played the PC version, both PS4 and Vita versions are identical. If not, each player’s character is killed by a single successful sword attack, then explodes in a fountain of pixels and respawns ready to defend again. From the central starting screen, the aim is to progress three screens forwards. Kill your opponent to be able to move on, get killed and they can. The results are tense duels with the balance tipping towards and away from you until one player finally gets through the final screen to be consumed by the Flying Penis Monster.
[The Flying Penis Monster, one would assume, is the titular Nidhogg. Nidhogg is a dragon taken from Norse mythology who (possibly) heralds Ragnorak, so it’s entirely possible we may one day see it in a Thor movie. Chris Hemsworth riding a Flying Penis Monster would surely be a sight to behold.]
[So many people are going to arrive on this page through Google and be thoroughly bemused.]
Everything about the game is focused and well put together. The combat relies on positioning and reactions to tease precision from simple controls. One attack button and one jump button lead to three stances to attack high, medium or low, a roll, a jumping attack and, with good timing, a chance to disarm. There are no complicated special moves, and as important as the fighting is success usually depends on knowing when to simply run as fast as you can. Duels can last barely a minute or go on for ages, but the backwards and forwards pattern will always be the same. The driving, magnificent, soundtrack helps keep your mind on the violence too, as if it could ever wander.
Where the gameplay benefits from being so focused, the variety of modes on offer probably could be considered a little too limited. The single-player mode is simply a timed series of bot fights without even a hint of a story attached. Online play seems to have few players, but if/when an opponent is found the game seems relatively smooth and works as well as can be hoped.
Honestly, unless you’re playing locally it’s very difficult to recommend Nidhogg. Against someone on the same sofa the tension and the drama shine through. In the same way you soon forget you’re watching a black and white movie, the pixellated graphics suddenly disappear from your consciousness as you focus on exactly where the opponents swords is and when you can make a move. Best of three matches becomes best of five, best of five becomes a whole night. Few games of recent years can enter the legendary roster of all-time classic local multiplayer games populated by classics such as Micro Machines and Goldeneye, but Nidhogg does.
There is a feeling, engendered by mentioning it along with nineties classics as I just have, that games such as Nidhogg rely on nostalgia, that they’re playing to an audience who remember games “like this”. Certainly at a glance the game looks old fashioned, but it is harking back to an era that never actually existed. Games this well put together, this pure, this fun, have always been a rarity. Perhaps technical limits used to push creators towards this direction, but games back then stretched themselves too far just as often as they do now. When a perfectly crafted game like this does come along, regardless of the era or art style, just enjoy it. It’s a truly magnificent creation.