Mark Essen’s creations are more than games. They are art. Featured in galleries such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, the New Museum in New York, as well as galleries in Brazil and Germany, Essen is an artistic maverick in the gaming world. He is a digital Warhol, finding beauty and grace in simplicity with his retro-chic pixelated style.
Unveiled years ago but played only at select conferences off of a wooden arcade box by a very lucky few, Nidhogg has finally received a commercial release.
“It was always the plan to do a release that people could play at home, I just didn’t see it as ready until now,” said Essen. “I wanted to create a spectator sport that was as fun to watch as to play. Just donkeyspace, man.”
For those not versed in the more technical terminology of the game industry, donkeyspace refers to the multidimensional plotting of possible strategies and techniques used to defeat one’s opponent. A funny word for a heavy idea, but it functions as a core driving concept in Essen’s latest creation.
A creation which, in this critic’s opinion, is one of the most dynamic and engaging digital multiplayer experiences ever created.
The game appears deceptively simple. Two pixelated swashbucklers stand facing each other on a 2D plane. Your objective as one of these fighters is to outwit your opponent and reach the other end of the level. The thing is, your opponent has the same objective. Will you try to disarm them? Dive-roll into a stab? Maybe leap into the air and kick the sword from their hands, allowing you to cut them down with ease? Maybe you will run, turning at the last moment to throw your sword clear through their abdomen.
You may be shocked to learn, with this seemingly diverse range of actions, that this game is controlled only by two buttons and the directional pad. Up, down, left, right, jump, and attack. These are the only controls. It is in how you use them in combination that allows you to pull off these complex attacks.
During my first bouts (backed by the game’s stellar soundtrack composed by electronic music legend Deadelus), I tried to simply be faster than my enemy, striking before they could. Then I improved, adding elements of strategy, learning how and when to block, then counter. Eventually I thought myself a near master of the game, learning the perfect way to dive roll, disarm and then stab in one fluid motion. I was wrong, quickly being eliminated by more skilled players online, and by friends playing locally who learned to counter my technique. Like a game of chess, my strategy was forced to constantly shift and adapt. The gameplay evolved, because my opponents did.
Playing online is a joy to be sure, but it was in the presence of others that the game truly shines. Plugging in a couple controllers (not necessary, but encouraged), I did battle with my friends. We laughed and cheered and had mountains of fun trying to figure out how best to run each other through. Plug in your computer to your TV and play on Steam’s Big Screen mode, leave a couple controllers out and watch as people immediately take to the game. You hardly need tutorials, as the two button system allows you to quickly discover the depth of the game while remaining easily approachable.
“Quality rules everything around me,” said Essen, remarking on his approach to development. Those words ring true with every pixel of this game. It is a masterpiece of multiplayer gaming, and a true pleasure to play. Get this game, plain and simple. You will not regret it.
Nidhogg is available on PC via Steam for $14.99, with Mac and console versions rumoured to be in the works.