There’s a true joy (somewhat lost in the modern age of internet gaming) of yelling at your friends next to you on the couch in either victory or defeat. Whether a well-placed red shell near the end of a race in Mario Kart, someone managing to grab the Golden Gun first in GoldenEye 64, or a perfectly lobbed Holy Hand Grenade in Worms, the live atmosphere of having your opponents (formerly known as friends) in the room with you, cheering you on or mocking your defeat is an incredible experience that Nidhogg II revels in. It’s a game that runs at a frantic pace; forcing players to slam up against each other in single-combat, making each encounter feel like a boss fight and has you sprinting desperately for the goal. You’ll be on the edge of your seat, clutching your controller like your life depends on it (unless you throw it down in defeat), grabbing whatever weapon is at hand to continue the fight. It’s a simple set-up, but an incredibly engaging experience and a blast with friends.
Mechanically, Nidhogg is a mix of duelling and tug of war: whoever wins the duel gains advantage and can being to run toward the goal at the edge of their opponent’s screen. If you are killed in the attempt, you can no longer advance to a further screen and have to kill your opponent to gain advantage again. The result feels like a mix of swordplay, an endless runner, and a tug-of-war game; I know that sounds vaguely insane, but it works really well. It’s quick to learn and easy to play, but each encounter still feels dramatic and frantic (once you die you respawn moments later with a new weapon, meaning you’re constantly off-balance). Sometimes, you’ll fall into the flow of the game and will feel powerful and quick, other times it’ll all fall apart and you’ll be hard-pressed to understand why; the balance can shift almost immediately (particularly based on what weapon you’re good with) and watching your opponent free-run while you’re waiting to respawn is agonizing (it’s a couple of seconds each time, but it feels like an eternity, especially with the taunts of your opponent in your ears). It’s a tight, exciting game that is surprisingly complex.
Visually, Nidhogg II upgrades from the simple sprites of the first game (which began life as a small indie project before going on to wide release and critical success) for a cartoon-y visual style that makes the violence both more absurd and more vicious (the kills are gory and leave permanent stains on the map, which is a great touch). The improved animations, combined with the speed and viciousness of the combat had me thinking of the flow of Family Guy’s famous Chicken Fight (before they – pardon the pun – beat it to death) or more recently Pickle Rick’s sewer rampage in Rick and Morty. It also allows for great variance in characters with relatively few modifications (there are several customization options, all simple but distinctive enough to create tonnes of combinations); I was vaguely reminded of MAD Magazine’s Robert Crumb and Don Martin’s style – vaguely grotesque but still definitively cartoony. The levels are visually diverse and include some genuinely interesting variations, such as fighting in tall grass or in silhouette, and I would be remiss if I didn’t shout-out the incredibly bizarre flying wurm that eats you when you win (the eponymous ‘Nidhogg’ of Norse Mythology who feeds on the dead – appropriately enough for the player, given how many times you’ve died and respawned to reach the wurm).
Nidhogg II is fast, brutal, and incredibly fun to play with friends. The single-player experience is still a fun approximation of the experience, but the game really shines with a room full of people. The art style is bizarre but fun and really suits the play-style of the game. If you’re looking for a manic party game for gamers who revel in high stakes wins and losses, you really can’t do much better than Nidhogg II. It’s easy enough to learn that it won’t eat the whole night, but complex enough to keep things interesting. As a single-player game, it’s a fun run, but it’s really not as much fun battling an AI.
So, if you’ve missed good ol’ fashioned, controller-throwingly frustrating competitive games where whether you win-or-lose the game is still frantic and fun, check out Nidhogg II…just watch out for that damn bow-and-arrow: it can really ruin your day.