Reviewed on: PC

A directional pad for player movement. Two buttons, one to jump and the other to attack. Pixelated graphics reminiscent of games from decades past. Two combatants armed with rapiers, duelling to the (instant) death. A relatively simple game free from many of the advanced control inputs and configurations that have been introduced to videogaming over successive decades.

The thought occurs that Nidhogg could have existed on the NES.

The goal is simple; defeat your foe (which takes a single hit) and then race to the opponents end of the 2D playing field, where the opposing player will respawn and continue to impede your progress. Should they land a killing blow on you, they run to the opposing end while you respawn and attempt to thwart their efforts. A final screen confirms victory; one last celebratory run in front of a cheering audience before you are presented with your prize – although to detail said prize would be to spoil one of the many joys of this game.

Death is immediate and respawns come nearly as fast. In time a rhythm builds between players, and this simple game of duelling can become a tense back-and-forth of trying to goad a foe into making a mistake, reading patterns and all kinds of mental trickery. It is possible to have matches go as long as twenty minutes, while others can be over in less than one. It would be foolish to make the chess comparison, but there is a palpable level of mental engagement that many games would dream of having.

Despite the sparse presentation and lack of single-player options, Nidhogg may just be one of the finest fighting games I have ever played, and comes alive in group parties. The low barrier to entry and simplicity of its control scheme makes it far easier for newcomers to pick up and play without needing a revision class in quarter circle motions and an introduction to frame data analysis.

There are nuances to be discovered, of course. There are a number of ways to engage in combat, starting with basic stances (low, middle and high forms to attack an opponent) and moving into more skilled, timing-based techniques such as the ability to disarm an opponent. Players can roll underneath an enemy attack (though will be made especially vulnerable to a low stance counter if they do so) and can defiantly throw their rapier across the screen, robbing them of offensive capabilities but capable of catching a foe off-guard for an outlandish kill.

Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the game is light on content. To date there are only four stages to select from, and the single-player component amounts to little more than a standard tournament mode. In group settings the game is amongst the best of it kind, but players looking for something more substantial in terms of depth of content will be left wanting. The aforementioned stages do feature some slight differences that distinguish them from one another and add extra challenge (a stage set on disappearing clouds discourages idle play, for example), but that there’s only four means that most players will have seen all the game has to offer within an hour.

There’s an outrageous amount of entertainment to be gotten from Nidhogg, and it certainly occupies a niche that much of the fighting game genre has left behind. Street Fighter V made some attempts at simplifying controls in an appeal to casual audiences that struggle with high-level inputs and techniques, and the Super Smash Bros series is far friendlier than the average fighter (and with a wealth of content to uncover) though neither come close to what Nidhogg has to offer.

To make the NES comparison can be a disservice, implying the game lacks the complexity and depth of its peers, but it is ultimately a strength of the game. It distils the genre to its raw essence, bringing back an accessibility that has been lost over the years; no knowledge of quarter circle motions needed, no tier lists for character match-ups and no need to be intricately familiar with concepts such as footsies and i-frames. It is an invigoration of the genre, channelling the competitive, anyone-can-play spirit lost to the arcades of the 1990’s, and a firm reminder that fighting games need not be complex games of Poker, they can be as immediately involving as Snap.

Nidhogg 2 is due this year, and early impressions detail a greater level of content in the form of new weapons and offensive possibilities. While such news is welcome, let us hope that Messhof retains what makes this first title a gem in its field.

Nidhogg is available on PC/Mac, PS4 and Vita