Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It’s been a big summer for the arcade revivalists over at Housemarque. With Nex Machina, the Helsinki studio finally got to team with Eugene Jarvis, the designer whose classic games it’s been riffing on for so long, and now it’s back in cahoots with Sony for the PlayStation 4-exclusive Matterfall. (What a great pair of sci-fi-gibberish titles.) This one’s more of a hyper-stylized Contra clone, with Housemarque applying its neon-lined, screen-full-of-particles aesthetic to a side-scrolling shooter. The big twist is the dash move your character can use to phase through bullets and freeze enemies, who then take way less of your shots to bring down.
There’s not a ton more to it than that—you walk to the right (or sometimes left or up), watch a bunch of little red robotic bad guys appear and fill the room with bullets, then you dash around like a maniac trying to stay alive and fight them off. The control scheme is an odd one that takes some serious getting used to. Almost all your actions, including jumping, are mapped to the shoulder buttons. It’s an awkward layout but a necessary one, since it allows you to keep your right thumb permanently attached to the right stick and your gun permanently firing. Like Housemarque’s entire oeuvre, it’s a simple concept executed well and a damn impressive thing just to see and here. Once you get a grip on the controls, what’s more impressive is your ability to pull off some wild moves and come out of the direst of situations unscathed.
Funny games are less rare now than they were a decade ago, when the height of video game comedy tended to be the less blatantly obnoxious radio commercials in a Grand Theft Auto game. But it’s still rare to see a game combine humor and play as effectively as West Of Loathing, the new stick-figure-cowboy-based RPG from the team at Asymmetric, which also created the long-running browser game Kingdom Of Loathing. Combining turn-based combat, adventure game puzzles, and an avalanche of jokes so relentless that you’ll see five a minute and miss another half a dozen more, West Of Loathing manages to make its gameplay as funny as its writing, whether that’s working your way through the bureaucracy of a literal ghost town, finding uses for “a functionally infinite pile of buffalo bones,” or recreating the work of renowned medical crackpot Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. (There’s also a running series of gags about spittoons that contain some of the sharpest writing from any game I’ve seen in recent memory, regardless of genre.)
But West Of Loathing isn’t just a joke-fest; it also contains elements of real heroism and horror, with some remarkably graphic sequences playing out in its monochromatic text. And as a puzzle game, its willingness to forego hand-holding of any kind feels incredibly refreshing, especially in the early days of its release, before the game could be fully wiki’d out. That sense of discovery is as rare as good comedy in a game. West Of Loathing somehow manages to offer both.
A few years back, there was a rush of attention to “The New Arcade,” a wave of games focused on in-person competition: Sportsfriends, TowerFall, Push Me Pull You, Screencheat, Samurai Gunn, Starwhal, and so on. They seemed to be an antidote to the anonymous aggression of more popular first-person shooters, replacing headsets and matchmaking with local multiplayer, such that shit talk didn’t devolve into racial epithets and rage-quits but friendly ribbing. They even served as a sort of icebreaker. It recalled the four-player slumber-party game-a-thons of the Nintendo 64 era or the pleasures of an afternoon spent over a tabletop game rather than the enveloping isolation of a day spent in Halo’s thrall.
Of these New Arcade games, Nidhogg was one of the stars. The side-scrolling fighter oozed style, with psychedelic washes of color and an uptempo soundtrack by Daedalus, as well as mordant wit: Each battle climaxes in the winner running into the open jaws of a giant, flying dragon. To do so, though, you had to get past your opponent, soaring over obstacles and conveyor belts while engaging in lightning-quick sword duels. Defeat your opponent and you could sprint, at least for awhile, toward your goal before she reemerged to block your path. Lose, and she’d take off past you, attempting to make her way toward her own finish line and the glorious dragon death.
It was compulsively playable, with matches that sometimes stretched into 10-minute epics that all came down to one tense sword fight atop a drawbridge. While designer Mark Essen seemingly spent forever on the original, carting it out mostly for massive gaming parties like San Francisco’s Wild Rumpus, Chicago’s Bit Bash, or New York’s No Quarter, where he’d introduce some new wrinkle that may’ve disappeared by the next time you saw it, he banged out its sequel relatively quickly. Nidhogg 2 honors the precision of the original game’s design by not breaking anything, instead adding a ton of detailed new levels, a preposterous create-a-character mode that envisions an army of goblins designed by R. Crumb, and a couple new weapons that inspire new “holy shit” moments. (Try thwacking away an opponent’s arrow.)
It is, accordingly, an absolute blast, assuming you have a couple controllers, friends, a variety of beers and other intoxicants, and a night to spend screaming at each other. But it also suffers from the same problem as its predecessor and all the games of the New Arcade: impracticality. It’s a game designed for a remarkably specific setting—with a handful of players of different skill levels coming and going, and preferably with a crowd of spectators on hand to cheer on and collapse in agony with each defeat. It’s far too intense to play for an extended stretch, and played online or in single-player is like setting up some Solo cups and playing a game of beer pong by yourself. Other canonical party games—namely those by Nintendo, like Smash Bros. and Mario Kart—cracked the nut on single-player with intensely honed AI and a clearly defined sense of progression. But Nidhogg 2 is so tightly designed around the space of a party for all that—and, to be fair, still made by a single person—and so it stays laser-focused on the task at hand. The result is arguably the best game ever made for an incredibly specific scenario; for anyone else, your mileage may vary.