In what twisted alternate reality could Nidhogg be on Evo’s main stage…?
The voting has almost closed for the Evo 2017’s Player’s Choice game; out of the nine games competing for that coveted ninth spot, Nidhogg is perhaps the most unlikely, and most bizarre–and naturally, it has thus gathered little cash in tribute to the game and its namesake: the wyrm that gnaws upon the roots of the World Tree. Nidhogg is a beautiful, brilliant game–but this is almost certainly not the universe in which we’ll see a Sunday Evo final opened by this strange piece of dark art.
To know the wyrm
Is Nidhogg a “fighting game”? Players that have spent any time with this gem know the answer: “sort of.” But as a competitive game, Nidhogg’s design is so simple and elegant that it’s a shame it isn’t played more widely.
Among the heavy-hitters in the Player’s Choice lineup stand three “oddballs”: Nidhogg, Windjammers, and ARMS. Some have declared these three the “joke” contenders, as they have little-to-no hope of surpassing the feverish want for Pokkén Tournament, the fiercely-committed Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 community, the devoted followers for Super Street Fighter II Turbo or Skullgirls 2nd Encore, or prior main stage features Killer Instinct or Mortal Kombat XL. Windjammers makes no pretense of being a fighting title, and the argument will likely persist around Nintendo’s ARMS indefinitely. Nidhogg has all the components that make a great fighting game–but blended into a presentation that actively pushes it away from serious popular competition. However: the mechanics of a great game shine through brightly enough to support a dedicated casual community: ESL still holds online Nidhogg events on PlayStation 4, for example. The game has the guts, but has drawn minimal glory.
For those unfamiliar: Nidhogg is essentially a fencing game, but in the form of a “tug-of-war” of sorts. Opponents fight to make their way past (or through) each other and reach an end goal, through levels with similar structure and obstacles to “platform” fighters. Your swordsman can run, jump, crouch, climb, sweep, skip, cartwheel, and even divekick (see the inclusion of the “Fencer” in Divekick as a bonus character), providing a lot of mobility; this is paired with a three-level blocking/thrusting/disarming fencing mechanic at close range, as well as limited bare hand-to-hand combat–and even a projectile game, in the form of throwing your sword.
The controls for Nidhogg are basic–just directional inputs, attack button, jump button–but those controls are smooth and responsive, and at close range the game has genuine neutral where spacing and simple–but deadly–footsies take place. A single stab is a kill, and allows your fencer to proceed closer to their own goal–but the fencers are effectively immortal and respawn within seconds, meaning you are constantly facing a new obstacle, and if you lose the next standoff your opponent will gain their own ground. It’s like sharing a single life bar, pulling it back and forth until there’s a winner. If you have the last kill, you can opt to even try and just outmaneuver your enemy to get closer to your end goal–the mix of combat and evasion plays fast and furiously. If you manage to reach your end goal, your fencer becomes meat for the glorious Nidhogg, devoured before a exultant crowd–that is your honor, and your reward.
To look upon its majesty
Nidhogg feels like a fighting game, simplified and condensed in the best ways. It provides easy-to-jump-into fierce competition, making it an ideal crossover game, and great fun in short bursts. Its design elements suit a tournament environment perfectly. However, its aesthetics are an acquired taste–they are both one of its strongest features, and one of the biggest hurdles to mainstream appeal.
Nidhogg merges a very old-school look–in the form of Atari 2600-style pixel graphics–with a moody, otherworldly electronic soundtrack, and uses these to present a grim, bizarre medieval world of immortal warriors battling for the glory of feeding a mythical monster. These elements will appeal to players in different measure–frankly, your enjoyment mileage with Nidhogg will vary based on how hotly these particular components fire your imagination, and how dark your sense of humor is: pixelated fighters screaming in agony as they’re stabbed in the face, spraying their pixel-blood all over the landscape, over and over again… if that makes you laugh, this game is your jam.
As a game, Nidhogg is “pure” competition, and perfectly balanced–the only difference between the fighters is their color. There are no elements that give one competitor an advantage, or any difference at all, except their own guile and experience. This sounds ideal, and for some players and viewers, it is–but it brings into relief a significant aspect of the games we play–our own personality, expressed through the characters we choose to play. The different appearance, movesets, and perceived tier position of characters… Ryu versus Chun-Li, Dr. Doom versus Zero, Pikachu versus Lucario, Sub-Zero versus Scorpion; they have an emotional hold that draws our investment (figuratively and literally), making us want to play them and watch them fight. So while Nidhogg as a game is still very entertaining, only those that are already seriously into the mechanics of this game–or are open enough to be drawn into the basic tug-of-war struggle–could be interested enough to watch it be played on a stage as large as the Mandalay Bay arena.
To honor its memory
Nidhogg is weird enough to remain a niche title, and well-built enough to maintain a cult following. If you haven’t tried this game, do so. It’s not expensive, and you can play it on PC, PlayStation 4 or PS Vita. Maybe you’ll come to love battling for the wyrm’s favor, perhaps not–but it’s a game that deserves recognition, in any case. The upcoming sequel seeks to expand the game’s mechanics, upgrades the visuals from Atari-era to something that looks more like Super Famicom/SNES level, and appears to take the tone in a more obviously comical direction. The wyrm may still find glory at Evo yet–but in the BYOC area, most likely.
It is very difficult to imagine Nidhogg actually opening Evo 2017’s Sunday finals, as the center of competition for a prize pool beefed up by a $10,000 bonus… The accessibility of the game could lead to some very exciting matches: top players, known for other titles–and maybe some new unknowns–could be battling it out in this remarkable indie title… but that’s a weird vision of another, stranger reality. It would be a sight to behold, but it would be madness.
If you would see that madness become our reality, it is not too late to pay the great wyrm the tribute it hungers for.
Vote for Nidhogg–and that strange vision of an alternate reality–on generosity.com here. Voting closes at 12:00 PM PST on February 8, 2017.