Nidhogg seems at first to be a game about fencing. Two players maneuver their pixelated fighters back and forth in a 2d environment, each looking for an opening to strike. There aren’t too many possible actions one can take at any given time, only moving left or right, jumping, raising or lower your sword (which can be in one of three positions), lunging, dive-kicking, or throwing your sword. The rules that govern how these actions play out are also fairly simple: swords can be held in low, middle, or high positions and automatically block all attacks made at the same height. Players die in one hit and respawn a few seconds later.
What makes Nidhogg not just another (albeit drastically simplified) 2d fighting game in the vein of Super Street Fighter, however, is the objective. Winning in Nidhogg does not consist of merely defeating your opponent in combat. Rather, each time a player kills their opponent, they gain the ability to move forward through the stage. If a player manages to proceed far enough towards their opponent’s side of the map, they eventually reach the final screen where they are eaten by a giant worm (the titular Nidhogg) and win the match.
But Yellow’s triumph will be short-lived
All of these mechanics combine to create a fast-paced and frenetic tug-of-war. Individual exchanges in Nidhogg are often lightning quick, since even a single stab is fatal. In the few seconds when the loser waits to respawn, the winner tries to cover as much ground as possible — jumping over pits, navigating treadmills, and occasionally getting themselves killed even without an opponent! Oftentimes, the player with priority (the one who most recently killed their opponents) will try to just jump and roll past their opponent, ignoring them completely. It’s a risky strategy, but one that also leads to lots of cries of anguish if successfully pulled off. The mechanics also allow for stunning comebacks, since even when you’re pushed back to the edge of your territory you still have the chance to kill your opponent (which after all, only takes one hit) and gain some breathing room by making a run for your opponent’s side of the map.
Overall, the combination of very fast small-scale skirmishes that allow for demonstrating mastery combined with the longer-form objective of making it through the entire map creates a type of fun that I find very compelling, mostly in the form of competition. There is also a certain amount of sense pleasure (and even a little fantasy) to be had in Nidhogg, mediated primarily by the sound design that gives a satisfying “clink” to every parried attack and the agonizing wail akin to a Wilhelm scream that plays every time a player is slain.