Sunday, 9 February 2014

What I'm Playing: NIDHOGG

With January consumed by the Play Off tournament, a high-concept test of my ability to write about the same song over and over, I thought my next project should be something simpler. Welcome to What I'm Playing.

Basically, I'm going to try and write a little something about every single game I spend any significant time playing this year. Starting with...


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Nidhogg is a competitive multiplayer combat game in miniature.

Two opponents – let's call them Left and Right – face off on a two-dimensional battlefield, each armed with a sword. Their goals are equal and opposite and brutally simple: get to the other side.

See, a game of Nidhogg doesn't rely on the abstractions of a gradually depleting health bar or a numerical score. It takes a single successful jab to off your opponent, and the only time you see how many times you ran your opponent through with your sword and how often you forgot about the conveyor belt floor and fell into the abyss is after each game is over. You just win, by being the first to make it through four screens and reach the endzone, or you lose.

Nidhogg
Fig. I: A Nidhogg match (Click to enlarge)

While the game might not score you on kills, each one is vital.

At any time, only one of the players can be pushing in their chosen direction, left or right towards victory. That player is the one who most recently dispatched their opponent, rewarded with a giant 'GO!' arrow in their colour. More than that, it takes three seconds to respawn: three long seconds during which the surviving player can flee unopposed towards the endzone.

So with two evenly-matched players, the game's rhythm is a constant push and pull: Left gains a couple of screens with a single well-timed stab, a three-second headstart and some outrageously lucky dodging, before Right stops them in their tracks with a thrown sword to the head. But Left respawns just in time to block Right's exit, and the two engage in some cautious swordplay, thrust, parry, thrust, parry, neither giving an inch.

At first glance, you might expect Nidhogg's closest relative to be something like Super Smash Bros, a 2D fighting game, but each game has the feel of an FPS Capture the Flag match, or even FIFA or Pro Evo. Strip away the combat, and it's a game of football: midfield possession constantly changing hands, until eventually someone breaks free and makes a run for the goal, the constant respawns allowing you to play both offence and defence.

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The game features just four maps, all picked out in Messhoff's distinctive jagged edges and pastel colours. Effectively, that's three more, I'd argue, than the number of levels offered by any edition of Pro Evo.

After consecutive hours of play, honestly, I did find myself wishing for a couple more (especially because, frankly: fuck the cloud level and its obfuscating colour scheme, which which requires to tilt your screen to just the right angle to discern your character from the background) but at the same time, I admire the decision. It feels like not like an admission of limitations, but a statement of intent.

Nidhogg is precise as a surgeon's scalpel, compact as a .zip file, and that runs all the way through the game. Its lo-fi visuals, which bring the two blocky duellists to life through evocative animation; the simplicity of its controls, which feel like a reaction to the convoluted finger-contorting button combos required by the likes of Street Fighter; and, yes, its four levels.

In each level, the smallest geographical feature - a step, a gap, a patch of long swaying grass - becomes a hard-fought choke point to be fought over, death after death.

Some screens will limit movement to a narrow tunnels, making sword-throwing and jumping over an opponent's head impossible. The twice-damned cloud level features some admittedly nifty platforms that melt away if a player stands on them too long, perfect for luring your rival onto. And the doors. Sun Tzu could write a whole other book about this game's doors.

After a few hours with singleplayer, I was impressed by the elegance of Nidhogg. It's a game which brilliantly evokes that action-movie moment where a gun drops to the floor and skids just out of reach and the two combatants wrestle to seize it back, made with the minimum of fuss and a watchmaker's precision.
Fig. II: Combat

It was only after playing it with friends that I appreciated how messy it is.

The handy gif above depicts a typical Nidhogg encounter. Seen one from one perspective, it's a taut cat-and-mouse guessing game, each blade outmanoeuvring the other, until one player catches the other off guard and delivers the deathblow.

From another... well, just look at it. The game is perfect slapstick, and playing Nidhogg post-pub, post-kebab, gathered round a laptop, really brings out its sense of humour.

The overwrought Wilhelm screams and explosions of colour-coded juices that mark a player's death, before they pop right back up again, Wile E. Coyote-style, for another duel. The discovery that you can keep someone impaled on the end of your sword, wiggling it up and down, as an increasingly unlikely quantity of vital fluid sprays out of them. The victory screen, which has the winning player running past a cheering crowd, before the phallic worm-dragon which gives the game its name swooshes across the screen and snaps them up in its jaws, the game sarcastically declaring WINNER.

Whole games were won on the strength of one player laughing too hard to keep up.

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All my singleplayer training, the tactics and patient playstyle I'd developed, were quickly rendered obsolete against the power of someone spamming the crap out of the divekick for three, four, five games of winner stays on, before I finally think to raise my sword and - splat - bring its reign of terror to an end. I'm eager to improve, to strike a balance between chaos and nuance, but mostly just to play more.

I can't wait to take Nidhogg on tour with my laptop over the course of the year, breaking it out with different sets of friends. It's too early to tell if this small package has the longevity to enter the drinking/hangover game hall of fame alongside Spelunky, Peggle and the sainted Worms 2, but I find myself praying to the mighty Nidhogg himself that it does.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.