Retro Video Game Review: Urban Champion (NES)

In 1986, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was still a very new item on North American soil, seeing its first games get published onto the market. One of these very early titles was Urban Champion, a two-dimensional fighting game for one or two players.


The A button performs a quicker punch with less damage, while the B button performs a slightly slow punch that does more damage and knocks the other fighter back, which is advantageous because the fight ends when the opposing fighter is knocked off-screen, knocked further back than the player at the end of the time limit, or knocked into the manhole, which appears every third round. Losing three fights in a row, and getting knocked into the manhole, takes the player back to the title screen. Winning three fights in a row gets confetti strewn on the player, though the protagonist just walks along to the next location. If each fighter wins one fight in a two-fight series, the third round will have a manhole on each side of the screen.

Gameplay takes place on a city street, each fight taking place in front of a building with a plainly labeled sign such as “SNACK SHOP” or “DISCOUNT STORE,” for example. If the player wins a fight, the guy walks to the next building to spar with some other street chump, until the manhole round. Hitting left on the control pad dodges, and retreats if held down; holding up while punching enables punching the opponent in the face; hitting down on the direction pad moves the blocking hands to a lower level to block low punches; and hitting the Start button pauses the game. Occasionally, someone will pop out of an upper-level window and drop a flower pot, which temporarily dazes whoever it hits, and causes 5 points of stamina damage to the player. The stamina count begins at 200, and is displayed at the bottom of the screen along with the time remaining in a row, how many fights the player and the opposition have won, and what round is being fought. Finally, sometimes a police car will drive by, causing the fighters to retreat and act innocent; the squad car will also arrive if time runs out on a round, and whoever is pushed farthest back gets arrested.

That is, literally, about everything there is to know about Urban Champion. This is a very early NES video game title, and it shows: Simple elements like hit detection are faulty, one prominent example being the odd pause before a punch is registered as an impact; the gameplay is among the most shallow and limited ever seen on an 8-bit cartridge; play continues past the third “confetti round” infinitely, yet no points are kept, so this is not even an arcade-style game for getting a high score, it is just an exercise in futility. The fight scenes in Blades of Steel are better designed than this, and that is just within a hockey game.


The visuals are remarkably crude, with block-background lettering, plain-Jane storefronts, blobby characters, and every fighter is just a palette swap of the same basic pixelated drawing. The palette swaps are not even appealing, as the fighters show up with green hair, orange pants, and light blue shirt, for instance, among other weird combinations. The snazziest visual is the city skyline in the background. The confetti is animated in an odd way.


While the music is pleasant, there are only two tracks, one taking place during fighting and other in the transition from one storefront to another. Though the background tracks are pleasant enough and not distracting, it is also only composed in one layer of instrumentation, giving it a very bland, archaic, hardly-worth-noticing distinction. The sound effects are dull and basic, with the exception of the siren sound effect, which does sound like a siren and might be the highlight of the entire game.


As limited as its play may be, as crude as it may appear, as simplistic as it may sound, and as low as it ultimately lies in the pantheon of 8-bit gaming, Urban Champion does deserve some credit as being a very early example of a true fighting game. The fighting-game genre was hardly developed at all on the NES console, with the one notable example being Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fights; a relatively decent game on its own merits and within the context of the era, but also the game that most prominently displayed the hardware limitations of the system and why true fighting games would have to wait until the next generation in 16 bits. Urban Champion, with its cool name sadly being among its highlights, definitely feels like a prototype game that was merely meant to test the possibilities of the idea of a one-on-one fighting title.

Nonetheless, even as a prototypical genre-founder, Urban Champion still sucks, thus throwing down one star out of five. If a player ever wants to walk the gritty city streets beating people up on the NES, then he or she should play a proper beat-‘em-up style game like Double Dragon II, River City Ransom, or Mighty Final Fight.

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