In December 2013, when Japanese developer Athena filed bankrupt and vanished into mists of history, the news passed by quietly among people. During 25 years of existence, Athena wasn’t prolific company, creating a small number of weird games. Dedicated shoot-em-up fans may recall their name fondly, because they’re responsible for make-your-shmup tool Dezaemon series as well as several obscure SNES shoot-em-ups like Strike Gunner S.T.G. and BioMetal, the latter infamous for crazy 2 Unlimited soundtracks in the international version. Aside from those, they also produced something like Castle of Dragon and Super Bowling – time eventually proved these were better left forgotten. Then among their lesser known titles, there was J. J. Squawkers, Athena’s take on lighthearted arcade platformer distributed by Able Corporation. Likely an attempt to catch up with the similar trend like Data East’s Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja, but this quirky side-scroller failed to grow into bigger franchise, buried in oblivion with their middling games.
J. J. Squawkers doesn’t have much of story, other than brief crawl text telling the villagers fell into spells of some sort. The short intro where two birds get attacked with the house exploding to pieces is apparently why they’re going on rampage to beat up everything in their eyes, so fair enough.
You play as these two angry birds named Ani Karasukun and Ototo Karasukun (altogether standing for “crow brothers” in Japanese, by the way). Along with basic ability to run and jump, they have standard projectiles attack to shoot out the enemies or destroy the objects. Your default weapon at the beginning is a handful of tomatoes. You can exchange them with better weapons by picking up the item dropped by specific enemies; available weapons include pumpkins, watermelon seeds, screws and springboards with red sneakers. Each weapon differs from others about its usefulness; for instance, screws are thrown in straight direction until they meet obstacles or the end of screen, making it easy to deal with enemies far away. On the other hand, watermelon seeds can’t reach such a long distance, but they’re thrown in several shots simultaneously spread in various angles, effective against the multiple enemies approaching in wide range.
Regardless of which weapon you use, fighting the enemy doesn’t take so long because most of enemies are taken down in a single hit and others don’t have much health either, even including the bosses. That doesn’t make it too easy, however, as the game isn’t afraid to fill the screen with enemies constantly, along with occasional tricky platforming section. Enemies are usually spawned in various ways, coming from left and right, upside and downside, and a number of them have unique patterns to attack you, so you’ll be busy taking out the enemies while moving continuously to avoid getting hit. In other words, it feels like updated Ghosts ‘n Goblins with less overwhelming difficulty and tighter controls.
As much as it owes to earlier arcade platformers for its gameplay, J. J. Squawkers elevates itself above others thanks to its sheer eccentric taste throughout the whole game. Right after you start a game, you’ll meet a guy in white Mickey Mouse suit, passionately mounting to the tree without any attempt to harm you. By hitting him hard you can send him to the air, leaving goofy scream behind. J. J. Squawkers is full of bizarre moments like this, in the way like numerous constellations in outer space pop up as enemies to kill you, or it locks you into auto-scroller where you have to go around round-eyed boxes before they crush you to death. Confusing and amusing at the same time, it’s definitely more memorable than sending out a bunch of palette swap mooks.
All of these are translated into the game well because of its presentation. The visuals of J. J. Squawkers are pleasant to look at, delicately crafted with detailed pixel arts. Every stage has its own theme and objects are rarely recycled even within a stage. There’re interesting uses of colors overall, like the first stage whose background dynamically shifts its brightness as player advances, showing off the cycle between day and night. Karasukun brothers and other enemies are drawn well in the same manner, portrayed in cartoony style with colorful, fluidly-animated sprites.
Perhaps the amount of efforts put into graphics may be the reason why J. J. Squawkers is such a short game. The game’s split into only five stages, with the final one being merely a boss rush. Experienced players will have no problem consuming it in half an hour (not counting the “2nd loop”, which is basically the same game with more hostile enemies). Otherwise, built on competent gameplay and excellent presentation, J. J. Squawkers is a solid platformer recommended for those looking for a way to spend afternoon, and it’s easily one of Athena’s finest outputs.