All Tech Considered
2:57 pm
Wed January 22, 2014

Swordplay Fighter Nidhogg Revives Arcade-Style Competition

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 8:05 pm

In the ancient days of video game yore, the head-to-head game was king. Sitting down at a Pong or Joust cabinet to defeat your friend (or a stranger) was some of the best time you could have in an arcade.

These games eventually led to the reigning champ of head-to-head genres, the fighting game. For a time, the Street Fighter series, and in particular Street Fighter II, was all anyone was playing. The billion-dollar franchise filled arcades with eager brawlers, their tokens queued up on the machine to signal their place in line to face the current champ.

Since then the fighting genre has waned in popularity, though it's by no means gone. Online multiplayer has changed the way we play these games — players no longer face each other in both a physical and virtual space. Games like Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series and some new indie games have aimed to recapture some of that magic of face-to-face competition that many old-school players like myself grew up on.

One of those games is Nidhogg, a two-player sword-dueling fiasco from developer Messhof, whose real name is Mark Essen. The game has actually been around in various demo versions for some time, picking up awards in the indie design circuit since 2010. It received a full, public release in January for Windows (and I hope to see it soon on other platforms).

'En Garde'

The game casts you as a simple-looking, solid-colored swordsman facing off against a similarly monochromatic opponent in a small, 2-D arena. Using only two action buttons, you run, jump, roll, thrust, parry, dodge and fling your sword in an effort to get a fatal stab at your adversary, who then explodes into a shower of colored pixels that would probably be too gory for many if it weren't for the simple graphics.

Matches are played out like a game of tug-of-war, with each player trying to make it to his respective "end zone" at opposite sides of the arena. When one player bests the other, he gains advantage and runs forward as far as he can before the other player respawns in front of him and another sword fight begins. The matches are fast-paced and frenetic, with each player gaining and losing the advantage several times over the course of a battle.

All of this high-speed madness is set to a heart-pounding and imposing electronic soundtrack by Los Angeles composer Daedelus. You can listen to the track "Forest" to get a taste of the tempo of the game.

Once a player has felled his opponent enough times and makes it past the final screen, he is whisked away by the titular Nidhogg, who in Norse mythology is a dragon that gnaws at a root of Yggdrasil, the World Tree.

And that's the game. It's simple, delineated and a lot of fun.

A New Challenger Has Entered

While Nidhogg does have a single-player mode, where you square off against a series of increasingly difficult A.I. opponents, as well as an online mode, the game really shines when played among actual people in the same room. This is something that is slowly dying as we gravitate more toward online competition.

Now don't get me wrong; I have nothing against playing against opponents online (my recent Hearthstone addiction can attest to that), but there really is nothing quite like battling against someone who is actually there. Competitive trash talk and the jubilant celebration of a win are always better when not sent by VoIP or in a chat box.

For anyone who has played a game online, especially one that allows player interaction (be it through voice or chat) and is backed by a large player community, those communities can often be toxic and unwelcoming to new players. Online play is a natural progression of video games as technology advances, but it often seems that a negative side effect of that is a generation of players who forget that their opponent is an actual person at the other end of the Internet connection.

Now, this will never be something that can be "solved" by a game. It's the nature of anonymous online communities; mix that with competition and you get a volatile combination. But Nidhogg, and games like it (TowerFall is another example), that encourage head-to-head and face-to-face competition, are a reminder that video games can still be an amazing and robust social activity. These types of games do great things for an industry and a hobby that is often painted as antisocial by those who seek to criticize it.

So grab your epee and a friend and prepare for some sword-dueling madness with Nidhogg.

Steve Mullis is an associate Web producer at NPR. If you want to suggest an independent game worth featuring here, please write or tweet him.

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