Retro Review: J. J. Squawkers (Arcade)

Had enough of Mario's turtle-stomping ways? Is the Sonic series just not colourful enough for you? Put your home consoles away- for a very bizarre slice of platform gaming pie, you'd better have a gander at the arcade-only J. J. Squawkers.

Released in 1993, distributed by Able and developed by Athena (known mainly for their shmups such as Daioh and, when some members formed Warashi, Shienryu and Trigger Heart Excelica), J. J. Squawkers is, on the surface, your typical 90s platformer. As Ani (P1) or Ototo (P2) Karasukun (you'd think they're parrots, but Karasu is Japanese for raven, so...) you must resore peace to Pastachioville by beating up pretty much anyone or anything that gets in your way over five (technically four- one's a boss rush) side-scrolling stages. As far as the basic mechanics go, they're mostly lifted from Capcom's Ghosts n' Goblins series- both games have just two buttons (jump and shoot- that's all you need, right?), similar weapon systems (in lieu of things like lances, torches and arrows, the Karasukan brothers get to use tomatoes, watermelon seeds and giant screws), a focus on being mobbed by enemies, and a fairly high difficulty curve (both games start you off with two hits before death, but luckily the Karasukuns don't lose their pants after getting hit). Just make your way to the end of each stage in one piece to fight the boss monster, then move on! Both games also have a second loop, but you'll still get an ending in Squawkers if you just beat the first one (and it's considerably shorter, too) so those scarred by GnG's 'fake' ending need not worry.

J. J. Squawkers doesn't really see fit to add too much to the well-established formula, but it does have its own feel- in particular, while still difficult (the boss rush is very chaqllenging, especially considering there's only six bosses!) the game is considerably more lenient towards the player, with frequent checkpoints and instant respawns when fighting a boss (or when in two-player mode, as long as one player is alive at all times), so if the first stage of Ghouls n' Ghosts made you feel a bit faint, you might feel a bit more comfortable here. More notable is the fact that the game is a lot faster and looser than Capcom's venerable platformer series. Karasukun moves quickly and can alter his jumps mid-flight unlike old Arthur, and the game goes at a frantic pace throughout. It gives the game a nice, free-flowing feel, but it's probably the game's main flaw- it's a little too fast at times, making it difficult to keep up with what's happening, especially since enemies rarely attack in groups of less than three. It doesn't happen too often, fortunately, but there are some sections that feel overwhelming at that speed (which is why the odd spot of slowdown is actually welcome) especially a few sections in Stages 3 (the missile-spewing contraption) and 4 (the very last stretch where your only platforms are small meteors). It's a shame because aside from this, the game is as solid as a platformer can be- it flows nicely, the weapons give you a bit of variety (especially the less-common drops, like the parrot-helper and the one that makes your weapons ludicrously powerful for a while) and the generous checkpoints keep you playing, even if some stretches are a smidgen too fast/hard.

Nonsense Fantasy

All that said, the mechanics aren't the focus of J. J. Squawkers, as odd as that sounds- they're not the main reason to look into the game. No, you'll want to play J. J. Squawkers because it is an unashamedly ridiculous video game (backed up by solid mechanics) with every scene crammed with bizarre and well-animated enemies complimented by vibrant, near-psychadelic backgrounds. One of the very first enemies you encounter, for instance, is a man in a white bear suit violently humping a tree. Admittedly this is as bizarre as it gets, but the rest of the enemy roster is certainly a colouful bunch, including dustbin-lid-throwing rats, mini flying elephant-like bugs, and my personal favourite, the entire cast of Stage 4- they're all based on the signs of the Zodiac (it's a space stage, you see- get it?). Even the parts of the game that focus on pure platforming are a bit oddball, like the auto-scrolling part of Stage 3 where you get pushed around by multi-coloured blocks with massive googly eyes and the mid-air section that has you flying on plastic swans. Hell, the most boring part of the game- the boss rush that makes up the entire final stage- gets an over-the-top background to makes things more interesting (it looks like a rainbow's been sick all over the screen, and the background becomes more warped as the boss rush carries on). It adds a lot of charm and appeal- it certainly grabs your attention- and makes it a wonderful-looking game, one of the most vibrant you're likely to see. It's a sign that it came from the same era of arcade gaming that gave us the likes of Violent Storm and Ninja Baseball Bat Man... Just like those games (and, as far as I'm aware, every other Athena game) it also never received a home port- the SNES/MD would not have been able to handle it. It's a good thing projects like MAME exist so games like Squawkers don't get left behind, eh?

Gameplay Footage:

Seriously, this game is bonkers

J. J. Squawkers is one of those games that shows that even the most solid game can be made even better by some eye-catching graphics. Just a quick look at some of the screenshots here show how impressive the game's presentation is, and the smooth animation makes it look even better in motion. It certainly leaves a lasting impression! Under its kooky exterior, though, lies a great Ghosts n' Goblins clone that does things a bit looser and wilder than the game it'd based on. While it does have a few faults (it might be a wee bit on the short side even for an arcade game, and some sections are a bit too tough) it's otherwise a great little platformer, something to pick up and play for a few minutes for a brief but enjoyable spot of video gaming.

Last Updated ( 10 April 2012 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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(Link to this comment) Retrodreaming 2012-12-27 11:22
Great little game! Made me fire up Mame and download it! :D

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