Fanatical Symmetry in Nidhogg

Anyone who stops by this blog regularly knows about my obsession with minimalism in games, and really now, no treatment of that topic would be remotely complete without bringing up Nidhogg. The game has been kicking around festivals and conferences since 2011, but it was released to the unwashed masses this past month. In my unwashed (and again, minimalism-obsessed) opinion, it’s damn good.

Nidhogg comes out of what people are starting to think of independent videogames’ very own New York scene: games that embrace competition and systemic beauty rather than singleplayer narratives or procedural generation, and developers who embrace a fluid pixel aesthetic unstuck from time—too deliberately lo-fi to come from the modern AAA space, but too detailed and speedy to come from the actual old days. Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn being two prominent examples.

But where Samurai Gunn offers the chaos of a Smash Bros. match, Nidhogg offers the one-on-one, every-moment’s-a-clutch-moment tension of Divekick. And where Divekick offers numerous character-specific variations on (and mutations of) its titular only-move, Nidhogg is fanatically symmetrical.

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It works like this: the game begins in the dead-center of a symmetrical two-dimensional arena, three screens wide on each side. Player One’s goal is to advance right. Player Two’s goal is to advance left. Each player starts with one character, and each character starts with a épée (I think, based on my spectacularly limited knowledge of fencing). There are high, medium, and low attacks, ripostes, jumps, and yes, divekicks.

You and your opponent can (and will) disarm one another, or throw your swords during particularly desperate moments. Or you can always make a run for it, if you’re currently playing offense.

You see, whichever player has most recently died is on defense, working to prevent the opponent from advancing with an endless supply of identical respawning fencers. Player One’s characters and Player Two’s are different only in color, and there is no variation among a given player’s platoon.

This total symmetry, and these organic shifts in each player’s role at a given moment, produce a satisfying tug-of-war where hard won advantages are real advantages, but no advantage is to great that it can’t be lost if your opponent executes a few brilliant moves.

It rewards nuance, patience, and skill. And it rewards impulsively chucking your sword away and then running across the battlefield screaming. I expect I’ll be playing it for a long, long time.

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