2015’s Nidhogg is a game that’s hard to forget. Aside from being a fighting game that’s ostensibly about fencing, its minimalist pixel art stood out from the get-go (particularly that chandelier), its monochromatic combatants seemingly nervous and twitchy in their animations, and its violence of play readily apparent if not necessarily gratuitous. That’s all changing with the newly announced Nidhogg 2, due out in 2017, which is festooned with a detailed new 2D style that’s as much cartoon humor as it is meatier, more immediate violence.
But if you thought the original’s aesthetic — with its eerily hypnotic tunes, screaming avatars, and jittery trip visuals that bordered on abstract — were a sign that something was always a little off, congrats, because the sequel’s new art is essentially a confirmation of what you already suspected (if not at least proof of Messhof’s dark sense of humor). Developer Mark Essen, who handled the bulk of programming the original game while also creating all of its art, explains the vision was always meant to be gruesome; you just had to fill in some blanks the first time around.
“I tried to constrain the art to flat colors at low resolution so that I could keep it consistent and tweak minor bits of the animations as needed,” Essen says in an email. “I was also excited about making the weapon-based collisions pixel-precise, meaning that you could score a hit off of your opponent’s knee pixel rather than a simplified square hitbox like in most fighting games.”
The fighters’ strange animations weren’t something there originally, with the majority of Nidhogg’s visuals being made quickly.
“I added some personality later on, usually by inserting lots of in-between animation frames that gave things a rotoscoped look,” he says.
By contrast, Nidhogg 2’s look is much more defined, featuring weirdly muppet-like characters and much less figurative gore.
“[Nidhogg] has always been pretty graphic in content, though you had to use your imagination. People were getting impaled, disemboweled, having their necks broken, and gobbled up by a flying worm,” Essen says. “By the end of a match, blood coats most of the floors. Technology has finally caught up and we were able to actually show some of that detail with high-resolution graphics.”
That required getting some outside help in Toby Dixon, a pixel artist working with Essen and his co-founder Kristy Norindr, to quite literally flesh out Nidhogg’s bizarre world, not the least of which included the now near-Cronenbergian horror of the worm.
“The worm was always unsettling,” Essen says. “We just wanted to take it further [in] that direction and make it into a true freak of nature — a bald, lumpy flying worm, not a beautiful highly evolved snake with angel wings that you could imagine in a Final Fantasy game.”
One look at the worm’s new art direction and you’re likely to agree; the newly minted design resembles an oblong piece of raw hamburger, presumably driven by a psychotic compulsion for flesh, if its expression is anything to go by. Not that the original’s wasn’t a bit lo-fi nightmarish in its own right. Either way, the humor is buried there somewhere in the grotesquery.
“[The worm]’s not shooting you with an energy beam, it’s eating you,” Essen says. “It should be gross.”
That sensibility also seems to carry over to the fencers themselves whose goofy look contrasts the sequel’s more graphic gore and its new set of outlandish death throes. (Watch this ridiculous Wilhelm scream compilation and try not to laugh — you’ll start to see what I mean.) Essen says on a broader level it’s a juxtaposition that people don’t expect.
“There’s a disconnect between kind of cute animated people killing each other in realistic ways,” he says. “When players laugh, it’s usually because they read their opponent and tried to do something incredibly deft but ended up skewered or pummeled into the ground.”