Building a Better 'Nidhogg'

For his next trick, Mark Essen wants to expand and improve on his minimalist masterpiece.

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Mar 14 2017, 4:00pm

I'm going blade-to-blade with Mark Essen on the final screen of his minimalist multiplayer masterpiece, Nidhogg, and I can't believe it—for once, I might actually win.

As I approach the threshold of victory, his mustard-yellow stickman attempts a flying roundhouse kick, but misses by a pixel, and I sprint past; I manage to clinch the win just as his flying sword touches the nape of my neck. Out of his grasp, I take off towards the stands, blocky figures applauding my unlikely triumph. As I begin to gloat, the titular dragon Nidhoggr zooms toward me in its fateful arc, snatching up my avatar in its low-fi maw.

"Let's just say I let you have that one," Essen says, laughing. Not that it really matters. After all, he had handily taken the past three.

"I think a lot of people had an idea of how the characters looked that sort of clashed with mine - like, they were muscular, fit. To me, it was always kind of this goofy concept, like, why  not have them be naked fat guys?"

I'm supposed to be interviewing Essen, but, as is always the case when I'm around Nidhogg, we very quickly devolved into playing round after round of the game, which casts you and a friend as two clumsy immortals who must slice, strike, and neck-snap your way to the end of a multi-tiered stage. It's a bit like American football, complete with a durable concept of possession—the person who notched the last kill gets the right to scroll the screen "down the field," so to speak - only you're throwing rapiers instead of pigskins.

Released just over three years ago following a lengthy tour of gaming events on and around the West Coast, Nidhogg might not have immediately lit a fire on the sales charts, but its frenetic and distinctly-watchable brand of action has won it a devoted following among streamers and former arcade junkies alike.

Nidhogg 1 waterfall

Images courtesy of Messhof

Along with fellow multiplayer-focused pick-up-and-play titles like Towerfall, Samurai Gunn, and Lethal League, these creators achieved the improbable: They pioneered—or perhaps revived—something akin to their own genre. Whether you call it "couch competitive," "micro-eSport" or some other hashtag-worthy verbal concoction, the fact remains that Nidhogg helped define a style of games, a legacy that few can boast. And now—in perhaps the most unlikely follow-upsince 2014's Chess 2Essen's development duo Messhof is now making a whole new Nidhogg.

Sequel announcements to popular video games are rarely surprising. This is, after all, a franchise-driven industry, where even the most stagnant series entry can beat the surprise sleeper hit of the year by an order of magnitude at the till. But the aspects of Nidhogg that make it so striking—its kaleidoscopic blood trails, its pseudo-Amiga aesthetic, even the staccato, just-one-more-round compulsion that holds it all together—seem to clash against the notion of a whole new game. After all, almost nobody remembers Dig-Dug 2 or Joust 2, and for good reason: These early sequels to arcade classics did little to refine the core magic behind the original's success, and thus remain eminently forgettable to all but hopeless enthusiasts.

Essen doesn't see it that way. For him, it's just a natural outgrowth of Nidhogg's lengthy development. "I can see how it would surprise some people, and I didn't really plan on it," he says, simultaneously shrugging his shoulders and running my stickman through the heart. "Honestly, it just started as a wishlist for the first game, with features that fans requested and that I personally wanted to do. It started with the netcode, and then moved onto new stages, and then almost everything else. It just ballooned to the point where we just said 'okay, it'd be easier just to make a new game.' So that's what we're doing."

Judging by the alpha build of the new game that Essen and I put nearly an hour into, his words ring true. Anybody looking for a total reinvention of the original needs to revise their outlook; so far, this Nidhogg 2 is every bit the gradual evolution of the core fence-forever concept that the tiny "2" next to its title implies. Indeed, the greatest departure from the original lies not with the swordplay, but on its surface. The bare elegance of the original's visual style is nowhere to be seen; our regal, almost august stickmen replaced instead with googly-eyed mannequins that resemble Homer Simpson getting in a scrap with barfly Barney. A vocal contingent of fans has decried this new look from its very reveal. When I ask him about it, he just sighs.

"I mean, everybody talks about how much they love the art style of the original, but I always kinda wanted it to be better. The simplicity ended up working out, but if we were going to make a sequel, I wanted it to look a lot different. There was just no way we were going to make another game that looked like that, like an Atari game. So we found this artist, Toby Dixon, and we were just blown away by his stuff. So we went with him, and I definitely don't regret it."

I suggest to Essen that much of that hostile reaction comes from still images, not video, which convey the gonzo grotesqueness of the new style, but none of its fluidity. Like a lot of devotees, I was taken aback by it, but seeing it in action, I began to understand the appeal. Essen agrees.

"I think a lot of people had an idea of how the characters looked that sort of clashed with mine - like, they were muscular, fit. To me, it was always kind of this goofy concept, like, why not have them be naked fat guys?"

"I even have one of my friends writing the backstory to this universe. Why are these fat guys fighting? What is their relationship to the giant worm? These are the questions that Nidhogg 2 just may answer." He laughs. "But don't ask me yet, because they're definitely a work-in-progress."

Even the default battleground is unmistakably Nidhogg. The flaring flames of the familiar chandelier now cast shadows, and the central hall features portraits of your Cro-Magnon leading men, but it's still an unapologetically hi-fied version of the original's beloved Castle stage, complete with the same bottomless pits. A handful of new weapons complicates matters, each with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Like the game itself, their attributes are in a state of constant flux. The build I played featured a battle-axe, a bow, and a dagger - the last of these, when flung low, seemed to enjoy an impressive advantage over its brethren, a fact which Essen himself noted. In fact, he almost seemed to be re-designing on the fly.

"Everything's a little broken right now," he said, smiling sheepishly, upon killing me for a third time with it. "And the bow - it should probably be a little stronger. That's the beauty of alpha, I guess." (Sure enough, newer builds of the game have ditched the auto-throw of the dagger for a thrusting attack, and a well-aimed arrow now results in an instant kill.)

"A lot of people said that the other stages in the first game had too many lethal traps - in one, standing still would just kill you outright. We're definitely trying to avoid that in the new one. Same with the online netcode - it's a huge priority for us."

I can see why the balance of various weapon match-ups seem so important to Essen. After all, since their inception, games like Nidhogg and Towerfall have always danced on the periphery of the competitive eSports scene. And while they lack the ever-looming complexity of fighting games or multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), they demand the precise dexterity and seat-of-the-pants strategizing that make games like Street Fighter so fun to observe. And they enjoy one possible advantage over the likes of DOTA and League of Legends: much like a lot of traditional spectator experiences, even a layperson can figure out what's going on relatively quickly. After all, nothing says defeat quite like a sword in the stomach—or, in my case, a knife in the knee.

But Nidhogg 2 is the first attempt to design a full-throated follow-up to one of these local multiplayer couch-'em-ups, which leaves some to worry that the addition of these new deadly toys might dilute the magic that made the original one of the best games of 2014. But while Essen understands this concern, he downplays it.

"I suppose you could say that it's 'less pure' than the original game, but if you're really concerned about that, you can just go back and play it. I mean, we just did. It's not like we're taking it off Steam or anything. To me, they'll always be two different games, with two different philosophies.

"If people want to play Nidhogg 1 at EVO, that's awesome. If people want to play Nidhogg 2 at EVO, that's fine too. I wasn't really a fighting game designer when I started all this, so I can't say that it's really what I'm shooting for, but it would be pretty awesome if it happened."

While I can personally say that I would love to see Nidhogg at EVO, I'd honestly love to see the two stickmen duke it out just about anywhere. To me , it will always be the game that I can set up, no matter the occasion, and have a good time. A couple of years ago, I even lugged it outfor my birthday party where my drunk friends—experienced swordspeople and graceless newcomers alike—took turns stabbing each other senseless. Nidhoggr the dragon may be little more than an all-consuming maw, but Nidhogg the game shares that core impulse—it will devour your afternoons, and your weekends (and all your friends' too). It does what great art accomplishes so often, and what even great video games nearly always fail to do: it brings people together. Here's hoping that Nidhogg 2 lives up to that legacy.