Video game genres often end up having stock comments associated with them. You may have said some of these things yourself. "Of course, it isn't as good as Mario," works pretty well if you're talking about most platformers, for example. Then there's: "It's just a spread sheet, really," which is great for sports management sims and some of the weirder, more item-heavy RPGs. There's even: "My back is hurting. I can't feel my left leg," to bust out after a Kinect session. And for fighting games? For fighting games, the classic is: "I'd like to get into them, but they're too complicated. I'm not as clever as Simon Parkin."
For those situations, I even have a stock answer: "You should try Urban Champion. It's simple to understand and easy to master." There's one problem with this argument, though. Urban Champion is completely terrible.
Urban Champion is a game by Nintendo, and it occupies the same space on the company's CV that Firefox (the movie, not the browser) presumably does on Clint Eastwood's. You know they made it, but you assume they were very sick at the time, or very upset about something, and didn't really understand what they were doing.
It is a brawler of precisely no finesse, an arcade-style experience with zero charm. It's also a sports game based around street violence - and not in the overblown superhero manner of Ryu and Ken and Chun-Li. Nope. No spinning bird kicks here: it's just two louts smacking each other into open manholes. The only reason the UK Parliament referred to a "Grand Theft Auto culture" rather than an "Urban Champion culture" during the recent riots was that even Keith Vaz was too sensitive to bring Urban Champion up again. It's really bad.
I'm not going to try to talk anyone into giving this game a second chance, then - but I am selfishly interested as to why I remember liking it when it's so obviously awful. And, rather fittingly, I suspect my reasons are every bit as awful as the game itself.
Firstly, I really do love Urban Champion because it's the one fighting game I can get my feeble head around. There are only four types of punches in Urban Champion (along with a block) and so, with nothing to remember, you can essentially succeed by sheer persistence. The idea of measuring your progress by tying it to how far down the sidewalk you've managed to knock your enemy actually strikes me as kind of smart, but there's nothing smart about my appreciation of the rest of the game's mechanics: I loved the game back in the mid-1980s because I could play it well enough to win it regularly - and because endlessly pummelling somebody was a strangely refreshing experience for a nine-year-old in a house filled with bigger brothers.
Secondly, I'm now fascinated by the idea that, in Urban Champion, the West is seeing its culture reflected back at it. Urban Champion may have been an adaptation of Boxing for the Game & Watch, but I like to hope it was also a clumsy, if telling, lunge at the American audience. You guys like punching each other in the head outside barbers' shops, right? The dark windows of the buildings suggest recessionary Detroit, the passing cop cars belong in Chicago rather than Kyoto, and as for the neighbours who lean over second-storey sills and chuck flower pots if you're losing and confetti when you've won? That kind of thing is practically written into the US constitution.
Its thematic weirdness is actually one of the more genuinely interesting aspects about Urban Champion, in fact. It's a Nintendo game from before even Nintendo itself truly knew what a Nintendo game should be. The company had Super Mario, a Lewis Carroll-tinged platformer with smiling clouds, and was hard at work on The Legend of Zelda, an epic fantasy adventure about a cute pixie: maybe mob violence was what was missing from the portfolio. Nasty aggression aside, Urban Champion doesn't even feel very much like a Nintendo game. Movement is sluggish, the animation is horrible, knockbacks take forever, and collision detection is iffy. Its most Nintendoish flourish comes when you break off the fight to act all innocent as that cop car blasts past - and, frankly, even that isn't particularly Nintendoish.
Ultimately, though, I love this terrible game because, for a long time, I had to love it. Back in 1987, I bought Urban Champion for around £40, which was pretty much a year's worth of pocket money. (It also, given the game's limited move-set, meant that I was paying roughly £10 per punch.) For that kind of expenditure, I had to enjoy myself, particularly when there were mocking parents hovering: parents who already weren't sure about whether video games were a good thing or not.
"So this is what you guys do for fun, then?" my mum would ask uncertainly, as my sister punched me down the street. "Oh, yes," I would lie. "You probably can't tell, but there's really quite a lot of nuance to what you're watching." "Think of it like chess," my sister would chime in. "It's not about the moves, it's about predicting what your opponent's going to do, and countering it. I hear Bobby Fischer's a big fan."
I'm not sure if we were very convincing, but even that seems sort of fitting. There's something terribly self-defeating about Urban Champion - and not just because, in a game of palette swaps, you're literally punching yourself in the face most of the time. This wasn't just my first fighting game, in other words: it was my first taste of video game's peculiar take on Stockholm Syndrome. Games were there to be defended from people who didn't understand them - and the worse the games were, the more strenuous our defences became.