With de­vel­oper Mark Essen torn be­tween free­lanc­ing, teach­ing and fine-tun­ing Nidhogg’s feel, it’s been an ag­o­nis­ingly long wait for the IGF 2011 Nuovo win­ner and ir­reg­u­lar event favourite to see a wide­spread re­lease. But now the core game has been deemed ready for gen­eral con­sump­tion, there seems to be greater mo­men­tum be­hind it, with Linux and OS X ver­sions an­nounced days af­ter the PC re­lease, along­side hints of a con­sole port. Essen also talks of want­ing to keep the up­dates com­ing, speak­ing to Venus Pa­trol about ideas for a new fighter that in­cor­po­rates some moves cut from the game in or­der to re­fine the an­i­ma­tion and state set, such as a Yoshi­like ground pound and the crane kick from Karate Kid. three lev­els – hip, chest or eye height – switched be­tween with taps of up or down. At­tack at the same height as your foe’s foil and you’ll be de­flected, a scrape of metal your only re­ward. Find an open­ing first and the match’s im­pe­tus is yours.

The dis­arm is per­haps the clear­est ev­i­dence of de­signer Mark Essen’s del­i­cate touch, though. Flick your sword’s po­si­tion to match an in­com­ing at­tack at just the right mo­ment and you’ll swipe the blade from your op­po­nent’s hands with a whoop. It’s hard to do pur­pose­fully, but im­mensely re­ward­ing. And while an un­armed en­emy is far from de­fence­less – Nidhogg is made for last-sec­ond come­backs – the sur­prise should have given you the up­per hand. The rest of the pack­age is min­i­mal­ist. There are just four stages, each one com­prised of two ar­eas mir­rored around a cen­tral seg­ment. Cas­tle is of the Prince Of Per­sia school of an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture, all cav­ernous grey block halls and death pits. Mines has con­veyor belts and tun­nel choke­points too claus­tro­pho­bic to chuck a sword around in. Clouds is the weak­est of the bunch, its cen­tral screen bright enough to ren­der swords and even play­ers in­vis­i­ble, al­though dis­si­pat­ing cloud bridges add new ten­sion to Mex­i­can stand­offs. Then there’s Wilds. It’s a trea­sure trove of tiered plat­forms, long grass to con­ceal yourself in and gor­geous pixel fo­liage. Ev­ery stage is pri­mar­ily ren­dered in dark, muted hues so as to con­trast against the retina-sear­ing player colours and gore, with an an­i­mated back­ground that puts us in mind of Peter Gabriel’s Sledge­ham­mer video. We wouldn’t ex­actly call it easy on the eyes, but it’s dis­tinc­tive even among the pixel art crowd.

Even de­spite the limited va­ri­ety, lo­cal mul­ti­player is bliss­fully easy to lose hours to. The same can’t be said for on­line matches, which are ham­pered by spo­radic dis­con­nects and vary­ing de­grees of lag, the lat­ter a real prob­lem when suc­cess is mea­sured in frac­tions of a sec­ond. The chat is less am­bigu­ously poor, un­able to deal with long mes­sages and cursed with a con­fus­ing font. Let your sword do the talk­ing.

And while mul­ti­player is ev­i­dently the rai­son d’être of Nidhogg, there is a time at­tack sin­gle­player mode to at­tempt, where you rip through matches as quickly as pos­si­ble against AI swords­men. Sadly, the bots are prone to stupid ex­ploits, lin­ger­ing on van­ish­ing clouds or tum­bling into pits, but they do a de­cent job of prep­ping you for real op­po­nents.

Still, Nidhogg is not about lengthy stage lists, im­prov­able on­line sys­tems, fussy con­trol map­ping or AI. Nidhogg is about the pu­rity of two friends on a couch duk­ing it out as Daedelus’s moody dy­namic elec­tron­ica frames ac­ro­batic dis­plays of wits and re­flexes. In that sense, it has no equal.

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