Release Date: January 18, 2005
When I first saw Zoo Keeper, I assumed it would be another mediocre puzzle game, rushed out to help fill a rather large void in the DS library. Still, I was anxious to have another game to play, so much so that I picked up a Japanese copy of this one. After a bit of poking around, I figured out that it's essentially a clone of Bejewled, with a minor twist or two, and a slew of game modes.
The basics of the game are pretty simple to learn, but like any good puzzle game, are quite difficult to master. The game board is an eight by eight grid filled with animal heads. You can switch the position of two adjacent heads, but they won't stay switched unless the move you make matches up three or more of any one animal. There are eight different animals, although at early levels they only put seven into the mix. You can play with either the stylus or the dpad, both of which are very intuitive. You can tap or hold the A button to lock onto an animal, and then tap a direction to switch, or you can simply drag an animal in any direction with the stylus.
As you match animals, more random animals take their place, dropping in from the top of the screen. Your timer refills with each match you make, with the larger matches of four and five animals filling it considerably more than the basic three animals. You can also chain together matches into combos, by quickly matching another set before the new animals fall into place. You move on to the next level by matching up a given number of animals, starting with three of each for the first three levels, and then one more per level. Each new level gives higher points per set, and a bigger bonus for moving on to the next level, so it's definately in your best interests to avoid neglecting any one animal. If you happen to end up with just one animal type that you need to move to the next level, their face will change from the normal happy look to a much more angry look. If you happen to run out of possible matches, the board will clear and be replaced with a new random layout, as well as rewards you with a few points, based on your level.
I personally started with the dpad, fearful that I would scratch my screen up, but after an hour or two of practice, I was frustrated with how long it took me to move across half of the screen for my next move, where fractions of a second can make or break a combo. Just like using a mouse on the pc, the stylus is many times faster, and most players will want to switch to it after a short period.
There are a couple of powerup items as well, though not as many as in the two-player mode. You start with two Binoculars, which you can use by pressing the B button or the L trigger. This will make any animals that can be matched up bulge for a moment, and can be a life saver when you're down to only one or two matches and you just can't see them. It would have been nice to have the R trigger work for this as well, for the left-handed stylus users, but it wasn't an issue for me.
There is also a tile that rotates quickly through each of the animals, and if you tap it, it clears all of the animal heads that match what it stops on. It's definately hard to get it to land on exactly what you need, but it can save you when you get desperately short on time and frantically matching animals.
In the normal game mode, you simply try to score as many points as you can without letting your timer run out. You progress through levels as normal, with no fancy twists or special conditions. In Tokoton 100, you level up each time you match 100 of any one animal. Your animal count is kept from level to level, so if you play fairly balanced you'll go for quite a while before getting a level-up, and then gain four or five levels in under a minute. This mode can easily last for half an hour or more, so don't start it up if you're short on time.
Quest mode expands a bit on the games sparse story, although it's still not exactly a thrilling concept. There are ten different stages, each with a unique objective, like match twenty lions, or match one set of each animal type without matching two of any one type. Time attack gives you six minutes to get as many points as you can, although you can still fail if the timer bar runs out.
I had a blast with the two-player mode, once I managed to convince my friends to play. Zoo Keeper only needs one game card to link up, however there's no option for more than two players, sadly. In two-player mode, you don't have levels to progress through, and your combos not only refill your timer bar, but also drain your opponent's bar. There's also a couple of extra power-ups, which affect the other player's screen. The paint bucket will turn their screen to black and white for a short time, and the Zoo Keeper icon turns one of the animals at random into the heads of your cigar-smoking boss. The binoculars work slightly different here as well, showing up as an icon in your grid, which activates when you tap it. The clear block shows up here as well, working exactly the same as in the single-player mode. Players battle it out for the best two out of three, winning a round when the other player runs out of time. Between rounds each player has to click on Ready to start the enxt round. The winner can pick to play again once it's over, and it often ends quickly.
Overall, Zoo Keeper is a very solid puzzle game, with nothing major to complain about. It's not something you can play for weeks and weeks on end, but rather a game you can play for three minutes or three hours and still have a blast. With it's one-card multiplayer, it's definately a game worth adding to your DS library, or at least pestering a good friend to own it...