GDC 11 – Nidhogg Hands-on

Don’t let Nidhogg’s rudimentary graphics and simple concept fool you — this is a game with deep mechanics and a nearly limitless potential for fun. Combining jousting, tug-of-war, and old-school fighting games, the title, by indie developer Messhof, will enable you to control one of two identical sprites. The one on the left has only one goal: get as far to the right as possible. His opposite number has the opposite goal — go to the left. If you make it far enough in one direction, you win.

In between you and victory, however, lies your adversary. Each character is armed with a sword — one nick with the sword, and you’re toast. The sword can be held in high, medium or low positions and also — this is where it gets fun — thrown. If you miss your throw, however, you’ll be unarmed, easy prey for the opponent now bearing down upon you.

In order to evade him, you could attempt to jump over him, or slide under his weapon, if the opportunity presents itself. If you die, he’ll have a few precious seconds to sprint towards his goal, before you respawn in his way, and the dance of death begins again. The brilliance of Nidhogg lies in the white-knuckle see-sawing of initiative — win a couple duels, and you’ll be well on your way to freedom, only to accidentally fall into a pit, or mistime a jump and end up dead, only to find yourself fighting desperately against a rejuvenated foe who has blinked into existence between you and your objective. The higher the stakes get, the more it becomes a battle of will and concentration.

Depending on the skill of the players, fights can last as long as 30 minutes, and the throwback control set (Nidhogg is played using an NES controller) can handle a surprising amount of dexterity, aplomb, and fencing wizardry. Pounding, monotonous electronic music ratchets up the tension, and the game’s bizarre backgrounds give it an uncanny, otherworldly flair. To see the game in action on the GDC show floor, check out the videos below.

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