It is almost irresistible to compare Samurai Gunn and Nidhogg. They are both (mostly) local multiplayer games (Nidhogg has a currently broken online mode and they both have lacklustre singleplayer options) focused on intense competition between living players. They both make use of a sparse control scheme and very simple set of rules to contain a deceptively deep fighting system. Instead of relying on complicated execution or memorization, both games boil combat down to a matter of strategy, mind games, and creativity. Both are rendered with stunning pixel art and presented with masterfully composed music.
This is something of a growing trend in recent indie titles. Divekick could be said to do much the same, boiling down the complicated fighting game genre to two simple button presses, dive and kick.
But it was loaded down in baggage. The longer Divekick spent in development, the more it seemed to stray away from it's originally streamlined design. Extra characters with highly specialized moves, super moves and meter building, stat changing gems and alternating stances. The sardonic criticism of modern fighting games, particularly Marvel vs Capcom and the first iteration of SSFIV's Arcade Edition, which saw both games dominated by a select few characters capable of landing the eponymous dive kick and going into a victory deciding combo, got lost. Instead of sticking to those fundamentals, the Divekick devs layered in more and more gags, an extensive collection of in-jokes and references to a genre and community a little too in love with itself.
The result was a confusing compromise – a game designed to simplify the baffling fighting game genre ended up being just as weird and impenetrable to outsiders as any other title in the genre. Fighting game neophytes couldn't grok the Stream Monster's bizarre double jumping mechanic anymore than they could catch the reference to abysmal fans jeering at an online broadcast.
Nidhogg is pretty in love with itself too. This was a game that won the IGF awards, then spent two years quietly circulating trade shows, exposing a select group of individuals to it's peculiar style. The relatively few industry insiders and convention attendees who played it would go on to speak of it in hushed tones, like it was the VHS from The Ring. Before it was available to the public on Steam, it was hosted in a New York museum piece. Nidhogg is named after a Serpent-Dragon from Scandinavian myth. Victory in the game is rewarded by being devoured by said Serpent-Dragon to the uproarious applause of pixelated spectators.
Clearly, some art is going on here.
But none of that gets in the way of the game. There is something profound about the purity of play presented by the title. There is no fat to be found, just pure mechanics. Two buttons, four directional inputs, and a simple goal – kill the other guy and run like hell to the endzone. With that simple pallet, and a few understated stage obstacles such as pits, doors, and tall dry grass, Nidhogg gracefully opens up a world of tactical choices and split-second decisions.
When you press start to begin a fight, Nidhogg just dumps the two combatants into the stage. It doesn't even bother with an extraneous "FIGHT!" declaration, or a three second countdown for players to find their feet. It drops two dudes onto the screen, swords in hand and ready to stab, almost nonchalantly, as if you say "figure it out for yourself".
Samurai Gunn cuts straight to the chase too, no baggage. The characters are all functionally identical, offering only an aesthetic preference (ninja, topknot dude, puppy Samurai). Everyone works with the same rules and mechanics. The stages play on Samurai movie and videogame cliches.
It's slick, it's well presented, but it's clean.
Do I think Divekick would have sold better without those extra characters and jokes? No. It is a fairly niche title to begin with and I doubt it would have performed better if they just stuck to Dive and Kick. Do I think it might have been a better game?