Nidhogg is often described as a "perfect" game by those who have sampled it. That's not said in the ten-out-of-ten sense of the word, or to suggest it carries some profound superiority, but instead in praise of its flawlessly pure concept.
It's not an unfair description either. This sword-fighting peculiarity takes one idea and runs with it, and what it accomplishes in doing so is a testament to the timeless virtue of simplicity. Nidhogg is as unspoiled as Tetris and as blissfully silly as a playground game of tag. Though the key objectives are as basic as they come (stab, run), the human element adds a layer of psychological complexity akin to a scissors-paper-stone tournament.
That being said, it's not perfect. When exhibited at games conferences and tournaments (which it has for three years now), those who play it for a fleeting half-hour come away declaring it an unimpeachable versus game. But thirty-minute bursts are the only way to enjoy Nidhogg. Its intensity gradually overpowers; the back-and-forth of brutal and exhilarating duels bring in fatigue at rapid pace. There's no downtime, no padding around that core concept - just impeccably balanced violence.
To describe the basics of Nidhogg is to explain the rules in their entirety. Each match opens with you and your opponent facing one another at the centre of a tunnel-shaped arena, which is about thirty times wide as it is high. To win the match, a player has to fight their way past their opponent and reach the exit at the other side, while preventing their foe from doing the same.
Slideshow: Nidhogg levels
The problem is that the screen can only scroll in one direction, so to earn control of the camera, players must slay their opponents. Here, a dazzling range of possibilities escape from the game's tightly defined rules.
Combatants always begin with a sword in hand, so the natural option is to kiss your opponent with a blade. It's quite incredible how Messhof, the game's two-person development studio, has managed to map the complexities of fencing onto four directions and single button. Thrusts, feints, lunges, parries and ripostes are all possible with the right timing and inputs.
In fact, you can even disarm your opponent if you hone those anticipation skills. Swords can be held out high, medium or low, and if you switch to the position your opponent is lunging from at the precise moment, their pixelated Colichemarde will fly out of their hands and a tremendous wave of pride will rush through you.
Though such graceful manoeuvres make you feel like a digitised d'Artagnan, Nidhogg is only a fencing game when it wants to be. Other times it wants to be a platformer, often it's a hundred-meter race, sometimes it's a beat 'em up, and on one occasion it was an impromptu game of hide-and-seek (my opponent was cowering in some bushes). Considering the swordplay is so flawlessly balanced and sophisticated, it may seem like a mistake to broaden the combat beyond this.
But it is an ingenious decision. This is prison-rules fencing, which happens to be significantly more enjoyable than the 500 year-old sport. Combatants can overcome each other with dive-kicks, jabs to the face, ninja sweeps and - its pièce de résistance - the option to throw their sword. The advantages here are similar to Ryu's fireball; it forces your foe to jump or block the shot while you, perhaps, move in for a sweep or diving kick.
If you miss (and you will), your chances of unarmed survival are slim, but Nidhogg always offers a glimmer of hope. The first time you are disarmed but manage to pirouette past your opponent's attack, knock them to the floor, snap their neck and reclaim your sword, you'll feel like Batman.
Glorious improvised moments like this are not rare. They are peppered throughout each battle, endlessly encouraged by that basic objective of running to the end of a tunnel.
Nidhogg is as unspoiled as Tetris and as blissfully silly as a playground game of tag
Once you eliminate your adversary, the floor is yours to dash across until - just seconds later - they reappear in front of you, fully armed. Now they must vanquish you in order to regain possession of the camera, which ever so slightly tips the balance in your favour. You can either slay them again to gain another twenty yards, or you can try to slip past them and potentially dash through an entire section. The latter is often riskier, but it does result in delightfully absurd scenes of one swordsman chasing another a la Benny Hill.
The combatant trying to regain possession is always in a trickier position. They need to kill their opponent but must not give them an opportunity to pass through either. With each yard you lose the pressure creeps towards the unbearable. This in turn forces more mistakes and desperation moves, but on occasion inspires moments of incredible nerve and clarity.
Much like those tales you hear of last-gasp comebacks on Street Fighter, Nidhogg players will soon retell cherished moments when they were pushed all the way to the precipice and fought against all odds.
Nidhogg's defining achievement will be the sheer variety of those stories. Its rules and mechanics conflate so beautifully that each player's favourite anecdote will be different. Like the first time you tossed your sword mid-air and caught a bunny-hopping adversary, or when two online strangers improvised a salute animation as they grew to respect each other's abilities, or that time you managed to roll under three oncoming swords and stumble straight into a pit.
But after thirty minutes of such intense bliss, you'll need to cool off. Battles are distressingly frantic, with players pushing each other back and forth for as long as it takes. That's not a flaw in the traditional sense of the word, but it is a reason to turn your PC off and take a rest.
Nidhogg's intensity overpowers; the back-and-forth of brutal and exhilarating duels bring in fatigue at rapid pace
There are some rough edges too. Setting up an online match (at the time of writing) requires staring at blank screens with no clear sign of what's happening. And while the AI in single-player is robust, working your way through a queue of clones is a little bare-bone for a campaign mode. Also, the choice of just four separate levels (one of which isn't proving popular) doesn't exactly paint a flattering picture.
Yet Nidhogg arguably doesn't need diverse levels, much in the same way that chess doesn't need any colour beyond black and white. This is a game which, at its core, is so impeccably balanced that it would shine on a blank screen. Its raw layout and design sometimes comes across as unfinished work, but the fundamentals are exceptionally refined.
So then, not perfect. Not yet at least. But certainly unforgettable.
A peculiar, thrilling and essential addition to your PC games collection
- Flawlessly balanced, exhilarating battles
- Remarkable intensity
- Inspires anecdotes
- Silly moments
- Player fatigue comes quickly