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The RPS Verdict: Nidhogg

Hogging the Nids

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Do you Nidhogg? For years, only a few people could answer yes, but now the one-on-one swordfighting game has found its way into public hands. Adam and Graham have been waving their swords at one another, fighting for the right to be eaten alive by the pink worm of success.
Adam: We have gathered here to speak of Nidhogg, a game that has been in development since men drew swordfighters on the walls of their caves and admired the illusion of animation caused by the flickering of the world’s first flame.

Graham: How many Nids have you Hogged thus far?

Adam: I have Hogged most of the Nids. Mostly huddled around a keyboard rather than playing online.

I have three main points of discussion that I’d like to raise. Can we work through those first? With deviations permitted, of course.

Graham: That sounds very structured, but YES. Point one?

Adam: GRAPHICS.

I’ve seen lots of complaints about the style and apparent execution, most of which I assume comes from people who haven’t played the game. It’s mostly a very CLEAN look, which communicates events exactly as it should, I find.

Apart from the sky level, with the clouds, which hurts my eyes.

Graham: Have you played messhof’s other games? Nidhogg is tame, as far as his normal warping, wibbling, psychadelic fever dreams go. I remember Randy Balma Municipal Abortionist (an actual game) being particularly difficult to parse.

Adam: You’ve made that up, surely.

Graham: Nope.

Adam: Wow – Google’s second result for the phrase ‘Randy Balma Municipal Abortionist’ is a write-up by none other than Alec Meer Municipal Games Journalist, back in 2008.

I wish it was called ‘Randy Balma Municipal Abortionist (an actual game)’

Graham: Messhof has been quiet for a long time, until this proper release, but there was a while when he was turning out great, inventive stuff on a seemingly weekly basis. Punishment 2: The Punishing is a superb platformer, for example.

I love the way Nidhogg looks. Not just the colour scheme and backgrounds, but little details in the animation: the way your swords flex and bend as you change stances; the cute, Wildebeest crouchwalk; the spraying blood and melting of corpses; the way you can stick a guy with your sword, and keep moving the sword up and down ad infinitum.

In fact, I’ve fallen for every single animation: divekicks! Cartwheels! Swipe kicks! It all looks so fluid and, as you say, CLEAN. For all its flat-colour and oozing texture, there’s still something of the rotoscoped-style of Prince of Persia to it.

Adam: Do you think the trippiness, for lack of a better word, adds anything? I agree that there are lovely details, in the backgrounds as well with the chomping worms and droplets of water, but it’s such a precisely controlled game that any distraction could be deemed unnecessary.

Is the feverish appearance part of the swordfighting and tension, or is it a charm separate from them? Does that make sense?

Graham: I do. Nidhogg pushes players to a point of near hysteria. You die so quickly, so often, that you snap into this rhythm of constantly rushing, trying to make progress and maintain momentum. Your deaths become very funny, very frantic. Falling into the void through your own mistake, or killing your opponent at the same time they kill you.

There’s a kind of madness to it, in the speed and frequency and desperate rush. I think that’s supported by the dripping, chomping, sacrificial theme and art, and the excellent, hypnotic electronic music.

Adam: Although the internet has attempted to diminish the act of physically laughing out loud by turning it into punctuation, I must say that Nidhogg genuinely does make me chortle like a buffoon.

Graham: I used to play the earlier builds in an office. Our yelps, guffaws and screams would draw crowds, and the people who’d come see what we were doing would start laughing along with it. There aren’t many competitive games like this which are so inclusive or social. It’s a great party game.

Adam: The aesthetic is part of that. It has a slapstick quality, particularly in the crouch-walk and the divekick, that convey proper human motion without having obvious verisimilitude. The avatars, like that early Prince of Persia, are very human indeed.

I always feel a bit sad when people reject a game because of its appearance when, in fact, the aesthetic works hand-in-hand with the rest of the design. It is a very hard game to screenshot satisfactorily though.

Before I played it, I wasn’t sure if it was messy, in a Valley Without Wind sort of way, or too abstract to maintain the tightness of control it needed to grab me.

Graham: It does seem to put people off, although yeah, often only until they see it in motion. I think the style is deliberately there to assimilate you into its fevered mindset, but even if you don’t buy that, it’s never obscuring of what’s happening.

It’s never scratchy in the way VWW felt either, because it’s all moving, shimmering, blowing, reacting. Like the way the crop fields ruffle as you run through them.

Adam: That’s my favourite bit of scenery. I love a good crop field. Left 4 Dead was the last game to do the dread of a corn-sea quite this well.

Now that we’ve confirmed our fever-punk art appreciation credentials, shall we move on to the next point?

Graham: I am skewered. You have the initiative to progress, fighter.

Adam: SCENE: As we travel to the left, onto the second screen, ADAM lifts his sword to parry GRAHAM’S lunge. Both swords slip from hands and come to rest some distance away. The two combatants roll in the dust, punching and kicking, until a loud SNAP as ADAM’S neck is broken.

BUT THERE WAS LAG.

Confusion reigns. The scene didn’t quite gel as it travelled across the tubes of the internet. The second point is netcode, which I’ve found a bit dodgy.

It’s a game that needs to run as smooth as butter but sometimes it’s a bit like trying to spread butter that has just come out of the fridge, and you end up hacking at it with an axe and then just sort of piling it up in shards in the middle of the toast and hoping it’ll melt.

Graham: Yeah but then it does melt, and it’s delicious because the shards have smeared more butter across the toast than you’d ever dared apply otherwise?

Adam: So good.

Graham: I haven’t had personal experience with the lag, although it’s a common enough complaint that it’s clearly an issue. What I had was the near impossibility of connecting to friends in the first place, after it first launched. A couple of updates have improved this, but it’s still a tad fiddly in its multiplayer menus and a tad unreliable at that initial connection for me.

Also, when we played, you beat me a lot. Were you lagging at the same time? Am I that bad? Say it ain’t so.

Adam: I’ve found it impossible to play at times because there’s a delay, probably less than a second, but sometimes it’s absolutely fine. as I said earlier, I mostly play with people locally, so it’s not too much of an issue but there are definite issues.

It was fine for me during those bouts – it often is. I haven’t been able to pinpoint why exactly the lag occurs because sometimes it’s just too much to take and other times it doesn’t happen at all.

Graham: When it does work, do you find playing online as fun as playing locally? Or is there some intrinsic part of its enjoyment that relies on sitting next to your opponent?

Adam: I’ve never played without an audience – even if I’m playing online, I’ll have people around me and we’ll pass the keyboard around from game to game.

But I don’t know if I need the opponent right there. I don’t think so. Anyone is good. I’m capable of cackling like a maniac watching a colourful nightmare while I’m all alone, but it wouldn’t look good in my psych file.

It’s fascinating how a slight delay can change the entire experience though. The speed and precision of the game, with even the slightest of input or timing flaws, means that it ceases to be hilarious and immediately becomes frustrating. Which, in a way, demonstrates just how perfectly machined it is.

Graham: It’s obviously much simpler than a Street Fighter-style fighting game, but for sure it’s no less dependent on timing. There seems to be only a few pixels of difference between a disarming divekick and meeting a pointy, instant end.

Adam: Yeah. There’s a tendency to describe any multiplayer game that has a comedic, slapstick element as chaotic, and that can imply a lack of precision. Nidhogg is as sharply honed as a good foil though. Same’s true of Wizard Wars, my other multiplayer obsession of the moment. Packed with madness and seemingly chaotic outcomes, but all dependent on very deliberate inputs and timing.

Graham: Similarly tight one-on-one fighter Samurai Gunn is the same. The feeling in these games of being out of control comes from the pace. It pushes you to the edge of what you’re capable of reacting to, so you’re always off-balance. But your actions are precise and deliberate.

Graham: I say, saying the same things you said.

Adam: We need to violently disagree about something. Perhaps point number three?

Graham: FINAL SCREEN.

Adam: A simple question comes into play on the final screen – is Nidhogg a game of skill or a game of mad circumstance? We’ve touched on it in that previous conversation but, in more detail, do you believe that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Nidhogg players? Does experience improve the skillset? How complex is the possible curve of learning and adaptation?

IS IT POSSIBLE TO DIVEKICK ALL THE WAY TO THE MAW OF THE BEAST

Graham: I believe there are definitely good and bad players. If timing matters, it’s possible to master that timing. To be more precise. More than that, it’s possible to make better decisions. It’s the question of: when should you throw your sword, and when should you draw your opponent closer? When should you divekick and when should you keep your feet planted? High, middle or low? This only comes through experience.

Graham: We’ve described it as a multiplayer game again and again, but I’ve been playing a lot of the singleplayer. The challenge here is: how fast can you reach the end of a series of fights against different types of AI opponents?

There are leaderboards. I’m terrible. But I’m getting better, too.

Adam: Ah. I’ve only played singleplayer briefly because I have many friends. It is good fun though – one of the few games in which I find the computer more unpredictable than a human opponent, and that’s quite entertaining.

One of the lovely things about playing with an actual person is that they will occasionally throw a sword because IT IS FUNNY TO THROW A SWORD. They don’t need to do it, it doesn’t help them, but there is something inherently comical about lobbing your weapon across a room and then crawling around on the floor, bouncing occasionally.

That’s what games are all about really.

Graham: I don’t think enough good things have been said about the AI. I can’t tell how much is programmed and how much is projection, but it seems to have real personality and character. Occasionally you’ll meet an opponent who loves throwing their sword, or likes to crouch and then hop after killing you, seemingly gloating.

In the singleplayer, the opponents are different colours. I’m not certain, but I think those colours have fixed strategies that are the same every time you meet them. So the red guy has a greater chance to like divekicks, or whatever.

Adam: The computer opponents seem a bit bonkers. Sometimes they destroy me completely and other times they are quite passive. I didn’t think about the timed element because I’m very silly.

There is no AI. Messhof imprisoned seventy two people in a large underground chamber and whenever you choose to play singleplayer, you are randomly connected to one of them.

Graham: This would also make sense. The crouch-jumping guy must really enjoy his imprisonment.
4:30 PM

Adam: I’m an extremely cautious swordsman. I inch forward and jab a lot, defense up. Like a cowardly boxer.

But if I kill someone, you better believe I’m going to crouch-jump ALL OVER the room.

AND IN THE GAME

Graham: I grow impatient and sprint in wildly, thrusting and swiping and leaping into the air. My favourite move is to try to slide-roll under a person’s waiting sword, after they’ve expected me to stay and fight fair. It only ever works once or twice, but boy it feels nice.

Adam: That is the most satisfying thing ever. Better than a headshot in the sort of game that bellows HEADSHOT

Graham: We haven’t reached the pointy end of your question, yet. Do YOU think there are good and bad Nidhogg players?

Adam: No. I believe that all is in flux and that everyone will eventually be devoured by Nidhogg, whether they have been good or bad. I believe that the only way to improve is to play but to play is also a sure way to atrophy, caught in the endlessly burning colours of the landscapes and lunges. I believe that to question the possibility of skill in a game that is defined by a sense of glee entirely separate from notions of victory or defeat is abhorrent.

And I believe that we have come to an impasse. EN GARDE.

Graham: Hey. HEY. Wait. I should stress that while I think that Nidhogg is the kind of game you can get better at, slowly mastering its madness, I also agree that skill is not the point. It’s a game that’s possible to master. It’s not a game /about/ mastery. Playing against someone who has never played before can be as fun for both parties as playing someone who is of equal experience.

You may improve, get better, win more in the long run, but I’m not sure it’s possible to never die, to never lose. Death and laughter are wonderful equalisers.

I may hold contradictory beliefs.

Adam: Nggh. (you can’t say Nighodd without ‘nghh’) I actually agree entirely. I just wanted to have a pretend fight, for thematic reasons. Maybe we can have a pillow fight.

Winning doesn’t matter but pulling off a neat move is incredibly satisfying. But I’d rather perform one really good kill and lose the entire round than win without doing anything particularly superlative/silly.

Graham: It is kind of a game about showing off, and inevitably failing at trying to show off. The only sensible way to ever play must surely be to go mid, jab, recoil, and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. But on any given day, I’d rather throw my sword in the first second, go for a divekick and try to crouchjump my way to the next screen.

Adam: Is there anything more beautiful than two swords simultaneously thrown? The ‘ting’ as they collide in mid-air? The mad scramble to retrieve one?

Graham: Nothing. And I think the game knows it, since dying leaves your sword behind. If two players get stuck in the same room for a while, they end up with a dozen swords littering the ground. So everyone starts throwing, immediately picking another up another sword from the bloodpainted floor.

Adam: before we wrap up like a couple of mummies, I want to return to something you mentioned about the lack of complexity in comparison to a more conventional one-on-one beat ’em up, like Street Fighter, the number one franchise about punching tarmac.

Graham: And cars. Sometimes in Street Fighter you beat up a car.

Adam: One of the things I love about Nidhogg is that anyone can play and compete straight away. There’s no memorisation required, no need to study movelists and characters. That’s a legitimate form of complexity, of course, but I much prefer a game that rewards use of a few functions than knowledge of an enormous amount.

And, yes, I am saying that Nidhogg is better than Street Fighter. All of the Street Fighters. COME AT ME, INTERNET

Graham: I don’t know that it’s better, but I think Nidhogg can certainly sit comfortably alongside Street Fighter or anything like it. I think the fighting game community maybe feels the same way, too. Nidhogg appeared at the EVO Championship Series recently, and there are other, similarly simple fighting games that have been born from that community itself, like the aptly titled Divekick.

Personally, Nidhogg is far more my style too.

Adam: It’s certainly better for me but that is partly because I can only remember two moves. Trying to learn fatalaties in Mortal Kombat was harder than finishing my dissertation. I am extremely rubbish at beat ’em ups.

Graham: I enjoy watching and reading about them more than playing them. I don’t like learning by rote, although I appreciate the enormous skill required and satisfaction in choosing the right move at the right moment, and executing it flawlessly.

Adam: Aye. I’m an observer rather than an actor as far as fighting games go.

Adam: Three topics raised – many words flung across the internet. Have we verdicted Nidhogg?

Graham: Is Nidhogg a champion, destined to be eaten by a Nordic dragon in glory? Or is it me, destined to attempt to throw its sword in a corridor with too low a ceiling, only for the sword to fall limply to the ground, before hurling itself into a swirling abyss?

Adam: To an extent, it all depends on lag.

Graham: I am slain.

Nidhogg is available from Steam for £12/$15. Read Graham’s Wot I Think here.

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