Unlicensed titles on the Nintendo Entertainment System are often some of the most fascinating to discuss, less so for the actual games and more for why they exist. Nintendo’s draconian third-party publisher policy only allowed developers to make a mere five games a year in addition to close observation from Nintendo’s staff. Also, companies were allowed only to make games exclusively for them and not develop for other hardware. This gave Nintendo an immense amount of power over Sega, whose Master System floundered in comparison. A few companies didn’t want to bind themselves to Nintendo’s contracts though, and made their own games that came in cartridges markedly different from the typical gray boxes. Companies such as Tengen and Color Dreams developed their own titles that evaded Nintendo’s seal of quality and somehow reached stores, though these companies often met legal action for their unofficial skullduggery. British company Codemasters was one such developer, making not only unlicensed games but also accessories for the NES – their most famous product likely being the Game Genie cheat code device, marketed in the US by Camerica. Many of Codemasters’ NES games were also published in the US through Camerica, coming on snazzy gold carts that looked slightly different from the conventional cart build.
Camerica’s releases were of varying quality but still found minor success, particularly their Quattro series of four games in one cart, their ports of the famous Dizzy adventure-platformer series, and their racer based off of the Micro Machines toyline. While not the most fascinating game on all the NES, The Ultimate Stuntman was a fair example of what non-Japanese developers were capable of on Nintendo’s system without having any actual Nintendo input. The premise is as straight as you can get in any action game or movie: Scientist Jenny Aykroyd (no relation to Dan Aykroyd) is kidnapped by Dr. Evil and Ultimate Stuntman is called in to save her. Thus, the Stuntman travels through eight levels of high-octane action to save Jenny and destroy Dr. Evil before he holds the world ransom for one billion dollars (note: the previous ten words are complete bunk).
Ultimate Stuntman has at least six different types of gameplay styles to it, some of which are akin to each other, but the diversity is nonetheless impressive to a certain point. Nearly every section is placed under a time limit save for the boss fights, so the focus is non-stop action where even breathing is a costly penalty. Your lifebar is represented by five squares at the upper-left corner, and most attacks deal either one or two hits, so you can’t take too much punishment. The game starts off on an overhead car-based shooter akin to Spy Hunter, albeit a fair deal faster and generally more insane. Your vehicle shoots out a standard cannon that fires as fast as you can push, and you can also hit a turbo boost limited by the counter in the upper-right. Lots of hazards impede your progress like boulders, fences, rival cars and motorcycles, and there are points where you must hit a ramp to jump over an oncoming barrier. You can pick up extra boosts or health, snag clocks to increase time, power-ups that upgrade your gun to fire two then three shots simultaneously, sub-weapons in the form of odd large football-shaped projectiles which spiral around, and even bonus lives if you’re lucky. At the end is a blue truck which fires bullets and dumps barrels on you, and vanquishing this vehicle enables a bonus round where collecting a certain quota of coins without hitting obstacles earns you an extra life.
The next level is a platformer where Stuntman grabs his gun and fights against all sorts of creatures ranging from lowly slimes and spiders to robots which charge and shoot at you. Not only must you survive to the end of the level, but you can only reach the exit if you collect a certain amount of keys strewn about. Do your best to find keys as you progress, as if you reach the end but are missing one particularly elusive key, you will have to backtrack to find it, and the time limit is likely to conquer you before you can return. The third phase is considerably influenced by the classic Nichibutsu arcade game Crazy Climber, where you have to guide Stuntman up a tall building while avoiding rats, electrical currents, deadly balloons, and other improbable jeopardise before the clock times out. Getting to the top initiates the big stage boss fight, which is against the fearsome “Techno Beast” for the first level. These bosses usually have weak spots upon which you must focus to ensure that you destroy them before they kill you.
You are introduced to a new style of play in the second level, where you must pilot a glider over green fields and avoid crashing into the terrain while shooting at and dodging enemies. Playing out like most vertical shoot-em-ups, these segments have an interesting twist of perspective where you can crash into obstacles if you’re too close to the ground, but staying up around the top of the screen allows you to pass over most objects. It can be a bit tricky to get used to this perspective, and there is no way to stay on a particular horizontal elevation without vertically realigning yourself, but it gets slightly easier to deal with once you get used to this odd view. This level ends with an obnoxious large bird which spits fire and hovers close around you, but beating it moves on to another hang glider level, this time scrolling horizontally. These parts play out like typical Gradius-style shooters, and in addition to your normal shot, you can also drop bombs for targets situated below you. After this is another climbing sequence, this time going up a mountain, and the gruesome Mega Slug awaits you at the very top.
Afterward is a boat chase styled in a similar fashion to the car segment from the beginning, albeit considerably more evil. A greater number of obstacles await you and you’ll have to hit lots of ramps, making sure you don’t land on a not-water surface and end up dying instantaneously for having done so. You must fight a sea dragon at the end of this race, a tough scaly serpent which spits out fireballs en masse. After this comes another platformer level, this time taking place on a harbor with many precarious pitfalls that can instantly drown the Ultimate Stuntman, whom despite his badassery, apparently does not know how to swim. Surviving another climbing level gets you to the terrifying Sand Yeti, a monster which is exactly what it says on the tin. After that and yet another bomb disposal level, you head to an overhead hang glider segment which… looks exactly the same as the one from the second stage. You even fight the same large bird midboss at the end of it, and the horizontal hang glider stage right after doesn’t really offer much new besides a tougher stage layout. The boss you fight at the end is even the same as the Techno Beast, only tougher.
Despite Ultimate Stuntman‘s faults at play, the game does at least offer decent visuals that are incredibly colorful and fitting, if nothing too technically advanced. The most impressive looking bits are the giant bosses which are reasonably well-animated and take up a massive chunk of the screen. The Mega Slug in particular is interesting to watch as it slides back and forth with its gruesome writhing tentacles. However, the real height of this game’s design is its music, which contains one of the most upbeat and driven soundtracks ever unofficially produced for the NES. It rings with a faint quality of the C64, the classic home computer popular in Britain for creating music with, and whose games often came with impressively designed chiptunes. If the overhead vehicle sections don’t cause one of your limbs to dance out to the music, that’s probably for the best as it could otherwise screw up your concentration, but it’s tempting!
Ultimate Stuntman is technically a somewhat mediocre game, but it’s fun to start and at least offers decent appearance and music despite how shallow it turns out to be. That being said, it’s a good game to examine to see what got to the production phase without Nintendo’s overwatch. Camerica and Codemasters at least fared somewhat better than the infamous powder blue cartridges of Color Dreams and Wisdom Tree, rightfully lambasted as some of the worst unlicensed poop to somehow be released for the NES. Speaking of licenses, Ultimate Stuntman is at least an okay game compared to some movie-licensed titles, like literally anything released by LJN. If you wanted a game where you can play as Arnold Schwarzenegger and don’t mind that he’s not actually Ahnuld, you can do worse than Ultimate Stuntman.