First, thanks to HokutoNoShock for playing at least one (1) match of Urban Champion with us until Fightcade 2 refused to continue playing it. We crashed that thing multiple times. Next, we once again find ourselves in a battle against Nintendo home consoles and their wacky native resolutions versus what you'd actually see on a CRT. The most dirt-simple game on Earth and still we find ourselves wrestling with this problem. NES games have a native resolution of 256 x 240 which makes it a slight box. However, this would usually be stretched out a wee bit on a CRT television, with the generally-accepted 'resolution' for simulating this being 320 x 240. Now, we would've got away with not changing anything had it not been for the Arcade Archives rerelease of the Vs. System version, which after scrunching things to a reasonable size comes to... 320 x 240. To keep things as consistent as possible, then, we've slightly stretched the NES screenshots, making our little Urban Champion a little chonkier, slightly more like a brick shithouse. Maybe it does the poor guy a favour. Still working on that technology to turn all our screenshots into badly-photographed ones from old game magazines, but this'll do for now.
Today, Gaming Hell takes a look at no-one's favourite Nintendo game. Don't lie.
This is the sad ballad of the Urban Champion.
In a moment, anyway. Urban Champion comes to us from late 1984 in Japan (and whenever the hell the NES released in the US, and I dunno, 1995 or something in Europe knowing our luck) and as it's basically a fighting game, it'd be appropriate to look at where the genre was at the time. This was absolutely an era of primordial fighting games with very little to go on- Yie Ar Kung-Fu wasn't even out yet!- with the most obvious being Technōs and Data East's 1984 dual-joystick Karate-Dou / Karate Champ, which came out in June of that year according to アーケードTVゲームリスト 国内•海外編 (1971-2005) (ISBN: 978-4990251215). You could also look to Allumer and Taito's Great Swordsman from August 1984 as that's kind of a fighting game but with a more streamlined high-medium-low system for attacks but, sadly, no player-vs-player option. The only other notable game on home consoles at the time (Activision's Boxing on Atari 2600 probably doesn't count) would be Sega's Champion Boxing on the SG-1000 which had a strange menu system for selecting moves and was released just a month before Urban Champion in October 1984 according to Game Machine from July 15th 1985 as archived on this site. Looking at all this, it seems like Urban Champion didn't have much competition in the one-on-one fighting space on home consoles at the time! Being there first doesn't guarantee a parade in your honour though, sorry to say. Then again, Urban Champion doesn't really play like any fighting game before it, with something approaching a round-based system but with very different win conditions.
... Well, there is one game that plays similar to Urban Champion as postulated by Jeremy Parish's NES Works video on the game. Nintendo may have just started getting into the swing of things with their home console business by this point in time, but they were still knocking out Game & Watch units now and then all the way until 1990. Earlier in 1984 (July 31st, according to gameandwatch.ch) Nintendo released the first Micro Vs. series Game & Watch, Boxing (later rebranded as a Punch-Out!! game in the US) which has some very obvious similarities to Urban Champion, primarily the way attacks and guards are divided between high and low and that you can lean back to dodge. There's some pretty significant differences, and four months between the two doesn't give much breathing room for production... Although given what Urban Champion is, maybe that's plenty of time. The next question beyond what inspired it is, of course, who made it? There's no real credits for the game beyond most places on the internet stating the developer was Nintendo Research & Development 1 which certainly makes sense, and no-one really cares enough about this to ever talk about it, but there are clues here and there. Hirokazu 'Hip' Tanaka is credited for the music on a 1990 album containing a medley of the game's soundtrack so it's probably his work (it's certainly catchy enough) and at least two of the initials on the high score table of the Vs. System version match up with R&D1 staff members from around that time (M.K. being designer Makoto Kanoh and MSO maybe being programmer Masao Yamamoto). Until someone comes along to claim ownership though, that's all we've got to work on, pinning this as a Nintendo R&D1 production from the early days of the Famicom.
I suppose I'd better talk about the game now, I can't really put it off much longer.
Urban Champion pits two unnamed neighbourhood toughs- one on the left side with blue hair and green trousers, another on the right side with green hair and red trousers- against each other, making the street their fighting arena to the annoyance of the locals. Similar to Great Swordsman (albeit minus one tier of attacks) and Game & Watch Boxing, you've got high and low attacks determined by where you're holding your fists, and altering your stance alters your guard- keep your dukes up high and high attacks won't connect, guard the family jewels and you won't get hit by low blows. Compared to Karate Champ, the Urban Champion Fighter (apparently that's his official name) has a significantly less-sophisticated move set, but you have just barely enough- you've got a jab that comes out quickly but has low knockback and a straight which sends your opponent tumbling but has a longer wind-up and so can be countered with a jab. The poor guy can't even jump, but he can dodge backwards for a moment and even break away from the fight- hold back long enough and you'll put your fists down and walk away. This technically puts you at a disadvantage as the closer you get to your corner, the closer you are to losing a round, but goading your opponent might help a little too. Even back then, you had the opportunity to play some mindgames.
See, positioning is the name of the game here, sort-of, as while you have a big Stamina ticker that gets whittled down when you throw a punch or take a hit, that doesn't actually determine who wins. When your Stamina runs out, your fighter just gets tired meaning their jabs take as long as a straight to come out and their straights can't knock the enemy back as far. Instead, you win a round by knocking your opponent, whether by jab or straight, into the very corner of their screen. They'll go tumbling across to the next building with one less life in reserve, and when they're down to one life remaining, a manhole appears in their corner- knock them into it and you win! This element is present in Game & Watch Boxing to an extent, as bullying your opponent into the corner takes a significant chunk off their remaining energy before returning to the centre of the ring, but here it's the primary win condition outside of running down the clock (whoever's closest to their corner gets arrested and loses a round). When playing against the computer, you'll go on to fight your next opponent with your remaining lives staying as they are (so the manhole on your side basically follows you if you're on your last life) and so it continues until you lose. The Urban Champion knows no peace, you see, and glory is but a fleeting moment. I can't decide if what happens when you finish a player versus player match- an unceremonious booting back to the title screen- is funnier or sadder, though.
Ahem. The rest of the game's embellishments on the formula are tied to the game's street setting, using it in a few clever ways to add just that little bit of spice. Each round takes place in front of a different building be it the Discount Store or the Restaurant, but the residents aren't exactly pleased about you and a buddy making such a huge ruckus outside and will occasionally try to drop a plant pot from their window. If either player gets a bump on the noggin, they'll get dizzied and their opponent gets a free hit in, and you have to watch out, sometimes the annoyed neighbour will delay dropping the plant pot! Don't be caught out by the flower pot mixup, champ. There's at least one person happy to see these fights play out though, a lady who throws confetti out for the victor, so that's cute. Finally, there's the police to consider- outside of arresting someone when time's up, at random points during each round a patrol car might drive by, forcing both players back to their corners to whistle as if they're not brawling to the death. This is essentially a reset putting both players back in neutral, analogous to a boxing referee breaking up two pugilists from clinching for too long. Unfortunately, as funny a detail as this is, it does happen perhaps a little too regularly so you almost wish you could alter how often it happens.
It's a pretty limited game then, all things told. This is definitely more apparent if you play against the computer, an endless gauntlet of challengers where neither your opponent or the backdrop really changes much, and unless you really want to see the 'ending' (beat 138 rounds (D9 on the counter) to display the text 'CHAMPION') you might stick with it for too long. Somehow, I can actually play for a solid 20 or 30 rounds when I play, cursed as I am with mad Urban Champion skills for whatever reason. This is definitely in contrast to other arcade-style games for the system as they'll usually change something between stages, be it round layouts or difficulty, but this is definitely a limitation Urban Champion faces. When played against a human though, it's not bad, certainly playable and fun to goof around in- mess with your opponent by breaking away from the fight, take advantage of the flower pot man, that kind of thing. The unique win conditions are also a welcome and novel addition to the game, making it stand out amongst the points-based fighters around this time. I think the term I'm looking for here is inoffensive. There are plenty of early-era NES games that you can absolutely give a bloody good kicking to, whether considered in the context of their release or in a modern setting, but I just don't have it in me to give Urban Champion a drubbing. It's a strange case as there's not very much here at all, yet I can't necessarily call it bad. It works as intended for good or ill, and that's actually something you can say in a game's favour with something of this vintage- they weren't always this scrutable and understandable. You can hand this off to anyone and they'll pick it up fairly quickly, and this brutal simplicity has its appeal too.
This is where we get to the game's lousy reputation. I've definitely seen people write the game off as one of the worst black-box-era NES games, and to me that seems a little harsh on the poor thing. On the one hand, Urban Champion does add a lot to the Game & Watch Boxing formula but ultimately didn't provide much of an evolution for the nascent genre- many of its ideas were already being advanced upon in the arcade, such as Great Swordsman's three-tier hit system and Karate Champ's more involved movement and feinting mechanics, and its skeleton is just an LCD game. It brought some of those ideas home for the first time, certainly, and its visual embellishments give it a lot of character and charm, but ultimately it didn't do too much for one-on-one fighting games beyond its unique win conditions. On the other hand, Urban Champion was (roughly) among the first thirty-or-so Famicom releases, nestled among the likes of the early sports games and arcade ports like Galaxian and Mappy, and this was roughly a whole year before Super Mario Bros., so you have to cut it a bit of slack- it did its best with the limited hardware in a genre that, ultimately, would prove difficult to do properly on the system, unless you ask all those bootleg Street Fighter II games on the thing. I imagine this is the big issue- in Japan it was an early release, but in the West it showed up alongside Super Mario Bros. and, well, if this is what you brought home instead of a landmark platform game that would leave a mark on video games forever... Yeah, I can imagine being mad. It's a bit like how Hydlide is ridiculed in the West because it came out after The Legend of Zelda, although the stakes are considerably lower here.
I'm dodging around the question a little, so here's my final thoughts. I think Urban Champion is a pretty charming, mechanically fine little game but ultimately limited by both its apparent inspiration in an LCD game and the hardware it's running on. It's definitely alright to bash the computer around for a couple minutes (although maybe not the full path to CHAMPION) but the real entertainment is from versus mode where you and a live opponent can do a little mind-games on each other and have a general faff-about with what's there. Plus, the presentation isn't outstanding but it works with what it has to give it a bit of personality. No, it's not Karate Champ, a personal favourite of mine from this early era of fighting games, but it was never going to have any hope of doing that, and that's completely fine. I can't give Urban Champion anything higher than two hearts on account of how limited it is, but I want you to know these two hearts are given out of respect. It's so, so easy to clown on Urban Champion, and many others have taken that path, but I won't do it. I'd sooner play this over the early NES sports titles any day of the week, except maybe Golf. You can always depend on Golf.
For putting up its dukes shortly before being punched in the family jewels, Urban Champion is awarded...
In a sentence, Urban Champion is...
A scrappy little fighter doing its best.
And now, it's that time, folks!
As this is a first-party black-box Nintendo game, you'd better believe it's available everywhere.
Well... Almost everywhere.
Let's tackle them in order, starting with the arcade Vs. System version.
So, many Vs. System games have differences with their NES counterparts ranging from slight to significant, and Urban Champion (no Vs. on this one, although this European flyer shows a different title screen with the Vs. in-tact) definitely has some touch-ups and improvements from the home console version. There's a few presentation changes which give the game just that little extra bit of charm- when fighting the computer, each new opponent has a different colour palette and the time of day will eventually change, most of the in-game music has been replaced with something jauntier and a small graphical glitch affecting hands when knocked back is fixed. During gameplay, two-player mode gives both players four lives instead of three and, while this is purely anecdotal, the patrol car forcing fighters back to their corner seems to show up significantly less-often, to the point where after at least an hour or two of playtime I've only seen it once, which means the fight gets broken up way less frequently. Finally, befitting an arcade game, there's now a score system (with remaining time and stamina giving you point bonuses) and a high-score table to go with it that encourages you to "Do your best!". Honestly, this is probably the best version of the game just for its tiny embellishments, especially if you want local play against a friend (a weakness of the 3DS release that we'll address soon) so if you want to experience Urban Champion at its best, the Vs. System version is for you.
This version is, at the time of writing, undumped for use in MAME and is one of the few confirmed-to-exist Vs. System games not currently dumped and preserved, but amazingly Nintendo went ahead and rereleased it themselves. Or, rather, they got Hamster to rerelease it in 2018 as part of their Arcade Archives line but only on Switch for obvious reasons. That version is where our screenshots come from! This has the standard suite of Arcade Archives options- the basic dip-switches, basic graphics options, a Hi-Score Mode and 5-minute Caravan Mode with online leaderboards, no online play or anything else too fancy. I would've really been reaching to write about this one if they hadn't done this, so ta, Hamster, my cheque for mentioning Arcade Archives at the drop of a hat is in the post, I trust.
Next, let's very quickly go over the times the game's been rereleased just by itself. First, the weirdest one is the Nintendo e-reader version from 2002 as part of series 2 of the NES-e games (that's a very useful site and it's where the card image above comes from!) exclusively in America and Australia- scan five sets of two dot strips to play Urban Champion on your Game Boy Advance until the battery runs out! There's also the various Virtual Console services where the game showed up on two out of three of them, the Wii in 2006 and the Wii U in 2013, skipping the 3DS VC for reasons that will soon become obvious. Some obvious places where Urban Champion didn't show up include the N64 and Gamecube Animal Crossing games, the Classic NES Series of rereleases on GBA and the NES Switch Online service.
Inbetween the Wii and Wii U reissues, though, there was a more notable version- the 3D Classics version on the 3DS by Arika in 2011.
Part of a line of six 3D remakes of NES games- including Excitebike, Kid Icarus, Kirby's Adventure, Namco's Xevious and Konami's TwinBee- Urban Champion seems like it really sticks out in this crowd. You can even tell a little from the Iwata Asks interview about the games when Takao Nakano mentions that, "some titles were minor but looked good in 3D". I can't be convinced otherwise that he's talking about Urban Champion here. Anyway, this is a pretty solid version with the action taking place on the top screen and your stats on the bottom screen, offering a larger view of the fight and there's an option to have the camera swing to the left or right between rounds depending on who's winning, showing everything is in 3D! Well, sort-of, more like big 3D pixels. The only other addition is a ranking- across multiple playthroughs (and versus matches) you'll ascend the ranks from Lonely Champion to Alley Champion to Street Champion and so on, as a nice little nod to the 'ending' of the original game.
Amazingly, this version of the game was actually rebalanced for two-player mode! Here, stamina works a little differently- jabs are free but you now lose four points of stamina if you dodge backwards, discouraging you from breaking away too often, plus both jabs and straights do five points of damage instead of different amounts. Good luck getting a two-player fight organised though- you'll need two 3DSs and it has to be local wi-fi, no proper online for this one. Since Urban Champion isn't on NES Switch Online yet, this is the closest we've ever gotten to legitimate online Urban Champion, sadly. I still don't think it's quite as good as the Vs. System version, and the inaccessibility of the versus mode is a little unfortunate given that they changed some of the rules (ROM hackers, get on making a Tournament Edition with these rules!) but it's a neat showing of what 3D can do to visually spice up an old game like this. You'll have to find it via alternative means now though, seeing as the 3DS eShop stopped letting you add money to your wallet in 2022.
Finally, let's take a look at references to Urban Champion in other Nintendo games.
Unsurprisingly, there's not a lot to go on here, but we're compelled to do so.
First up is the WarioWare series, where a microgame based on the game appears in WarioWare: Mega Microgame$! and WarioWare: D.I.Y.! as one of 9-Volt's games.
Amusingly, the game is called Urban Champ in D.I.Y.!
What about Smash? Our boy was robbed, as according to this translated post from the official Super Smash Bros. Melee blog, the Urban Champion- alongside the Balloon Fighter from Balloon Fight, Bubbles from Clu Clu Land, Popo and Nana from Ice Climber and the bike rider from Excitebike- were in the running to be the game's Famicom representative. In the end, the Ice Climbers were chosen, which was probably the smart choice as they're the most unique yet viable of those options (although I dunno, maybe Urban Champion wouldn't have been able to wobble).
Other than that... Urban Champion's victory fanfare appears in Brawl's Famicom Medley for the Mario Bros. stage, not returning for subsequent Smash games.
Urban Champion is also a Spirit in Ultimate, seen above using art from the Famicom and European NES box-art.
That's... That's it.
This one turned out differently than I imagined... But I guess that's what happens when you try to be the Urban Champion.
Let's take this outside... And back to the index.