Is it reasonable to judge a sequel under the spectre of the original? I’ve been thinking about this a lot when it comes to Nidhogg 2. It’s a game that has quite a bit going for it, but it would be easier to celebrate its qualities if it wasn’t the follow-up to a cult-hit. I continually find myself asking: is it better? Is the sequel justified, as such, if the developers could have worked on a content update for the original Nidhogg instead? Are these questions even fair, or relevant?
For those who’ve never Nidhogged, Nidhogg 2 is a side-scrolling two-player fighting game. It’s part sword-fighting, part tug-of-war. The goal for each player is to run and fight their way to the opposite end of the stage, whereupon a giant worm (the titular Nidhogg) eats the victor. All weapon hits are one-hit-kills. Attacks can be parried, deflected and dodged, and weapons can be disarmed or intentionally thrown. Killing the other player allows one to gain ground temporarily before they respawn a few seconds later, but has no other bearing on the overall outcome of the bout.
Graphically, Nidhogg 2 is striking. Many eyebrows were raised and tongues waggled when the first screenshots emerged, all with a healthy amount of scepticism. Whereas Nidhogg is relatively minimalist and elegant in design, Nidhogg 2 is straight up over-the-top garish and goofy, wrapped in a crayon colour scheme reminiscent of the 16-bit days. Gone are the silhouetted fighters, replaced here with customisable pastel-coloured humanoids, faces permanently confused or worried. It has a lot of cartoon gore – the novelty of this wears off pretty quickly. That said, the use of colour, particularly in the background decorations, is endearing. I’d hesitate to use the word “pretty” here, but it has some undeniably nice moments.
As for the actual fighting in Nidhogg 2, you’ve now got four weapons to cycle through. The original rapier is accompanied by knife, broadsword and bow. Each of these behaves differently, as you’d expect: the rapier pokes at three different heights; the broadsword cleaves in arcs either up or down; the bow fires arrows but isn’t so effective on defence; the knife well…it’s like the rapier but shorter and faster. In a standard game of Nidhogg 2, each player spawns with these in roughly sequential order. As a result, you end up with a rolling series of rock-paper-scissors moments: knife versus broadsword, broadsword versus rapier; rapier versus bow, and so on, all which interact with each other slightly differently. It’s never completely unfair – there are no unwinnable matchups – but it’s an extra layer of metagame chaos. While it makes the game more complicated, varied and unpredictable, I don’t know if it makes it “better” as such.
Moving away from the rapier v rapier combat means that largely absent too are the prolonged fencing engagements that were a staple of the first game. Here, thanks to the way the new weapons match up, combat instantly ends in one player’s death. Where it doesn’t, it’s usually a case of players trying to dodge or out-position each other rather than from a good back and forth of blocking and parrying. It’s still fun in its way, but it’s hard not to notice what’s been lost. And sure, there’s the option to replicate the weapons and rules of old Nidhogg in local versus, but in single-player and online you’re forced into embracing Nidhogg 2.
Speaking of online; yes, Nidhogg 2 has online multiplayer, but you probably won’t want to rely on it. My experiences using this were poor. Most matches were simply too laggy and stuttery for either me (or my opponent, judging from their frustrated chat) to enjoy the biffo, with most of the fights really devolving into network attrition i.e. who will quit first? Occasionally I’d get lucky and find a relatively lag-free fight. The game theoretically lets you limit your search distance for match-making, but adjusting this never seemed to make any discernible difference in whether or not the resulting match was playable. Nidhogg 2 also has a ranked matchmaking option but, strangely, this doesn’t go so far as to tell you your own ranking, so I wonder: what’s the point?
Meanwhile the single-player option, “Arcade Mode,” recalls the single-player mode of the first Nidhogg, and is similarly limited in its utility. It has you fight an AI opponent on every one of Nidhogg 2’s ten levels. At first it limits you to rapiers only, but it slowly mixes the other three weapons in as you progress through the stages. Once you’ve beaten the last opponent, the game tells you how long you’ve taken, which goes into an online high-score list. The mode is reasonable as an introduction to the game and its various weapons, but that’s pretty much all. The leaderboard doesn’t really lend it replayability, while the idea of committing fifteen, twenty minutes or more to fight a bunch of AIs doesn’t necessarily feel like a good use of time or an efficient way to practice. The limitations of this mode wouldn’t be such an issue if you also had the option of playing single-player quick matches, but that’s not the case. It was an odd oversight in the original Nidhogg, and the same is true here.
Where Nidhogg 2 is a genuine improvement on its predecessor is the levels. There are ten of them, and they are largely fun, lively and functional. The arenas take place on a variety of cartoony, weird settings – a cave-ridden beach, a lava-seeping volcano, a pirate air-ship factory. There’s even a nightclub where the final rooms are an aquarium walkway. It also has some decent re-renderings of the original Nidhogg levels (the new iteration of Clouds, in particular, is a joy). Many of the levels have the old hazardous death crevices and conveyor belts to keep you negotiating the platforms, but at least this time there are no disappearing surfaces. It’s all very good, and there’s only one of the ten levels which I prefer to avoid. To be honest, the bar set by the original was pretty low (four levels – only two you’d probably play, another which was pretty much unusable), but they’ve certainly gone to work here.
Even so, despite the across-the-board quality improvement, the Nidhogg 2 levels are on average a fair bit longer than Nidhogg’s levels. This typically leads to more stalematey fights where neither player ever seems to quite be able to finish it off, which I don’t think is an ideal state for a pass-the-controller couch game. Also, other than the Castle level, none of the stages have the cheering crowds in the background of the last screen where the victor gets eaten by the Nidhogg worm. It’s a tiny thing, but I can’t help but feel slightly miffed about this; getting eaten by a giant worm seems noticeably less amusing and heroic when there isn’t a virtual crowd cheering the spectacle.
If you want to know whether Nidhogg 2 itself is a fun fighting game, the answer is yes, yes it is – although you will need friends, preferably local friends, to get much out of it. If you want to know whether it’s an improvement on the original, the answer seems less clear cut. Regarding feel, core gameplay and aesthetics, I’m more attached to the first Nidhogg. However, Nidhogg 2 has a heap more stages to fight on, which the original sorely lacked. In the end we’re stuck in the middle, not getting the best of either. I can’t help but wish, just a little, that Messhof had given the first Nidhogg a content upgrade and patching over instead – although neither can I honestly begrudge them going the cash cow route.