Release Date: October 10, 2005
Ah, the tycoon game – staple of the PC gaming scene for years. Beginning with Railroad Tycoon oh so long ago, the list of games with the word "Tycoon" in the title has increased exponentially over the years. Prison Tycoon, Mall Tycoon, Pizza Tycoon – you name the business, and there's probably been a tycoon game created about it. One of the most well-known of the tycoon games is Zoo Tycoon, and its premise is simple: start up a zoo, populate it with animals and lay it out so that your visitors will come in droves and pay tons of money to look at the latest in endangered species. The Nintendo DS is the first handheld recipient of a tycoon game, and Zoo Tycoon just happens to be it.
When you think about it, who hasn't really wanted to be a zookeeper at some point in their life? Animals hold a natural attractiveness for adults and kids alike, whether you like the big animals like lions or tigers, or the small cute ones like rabbits or koalas. Well, taking this natural attraction a step further and allowing a player to control an entire zoo from the look to the lions is a great concept for a game. Anyone who is even remotely interested in animals would be drawn to Zoo Tycoon DS, and that is certainly a benefit to the developers.
At first glance, you'd think that an older PC game would be a great fit for the DS, and for the most part, you'd be right. The touch screen and the stylus are a great replacement for a mouse, and there's really no need for a lot of typing, so the buttons would work well as a replacement for anything the keyboard would do. Unfortunately, the developers made some serious errors when deciding how the players would make use of the tools at hand. When making an enclosure for one of your animals, you have to drag the stylus across a grid on the bottom screen while watching on the top screen to see where it's going to appear.
The problem with this is that you don't just draw the fence -- it's got to be a rectangular shape, and it's got to be under a certain size. It's also unnecessarily difficult to combine different types of fences together, and the touch screen doesn't see to be as reactive to the stylus as it should be, making it more of a chore to place objects than it should be. A much better solution would have been to overlay the map on the touch screen and allow you to draw the fences and walls on the actual map instead of being forced to draw on a grid.
For all the problems the interface gives you, at least there are some tutorial scenarios that will give you an initiation into the way the game plays. First you'll have to build yourself some enclosures that you can populate with the various animals. After deciding which animals to buy, you'll need to make sure that the enclosure has the correct environment for the animals you have living there, or else their happiness will plummet and you'll end up with some big problems. Once you've got that figured out, you'll need to make paths near the fences so that your visitors can get a good look at the animals. Of course, with visitors, you'll need gift shops, restaurants, restrooms, trash cans, and everything else to accommodate earth's messiest animal. Once you've got your zoo up and running, things take a dramatic turn for the better. Watching your zoo progress and your visitors and animals happily linger is quite satisfying. Hiring your zookeepers, maintaining your park, and making sure everything is running in tip-top shape becomes your focus.
Although the gameplay can be a lot of fun, the graphics are incredibly bad. The game is colorful and the menus are clear, but those are the only good things you can really say about the graphics. There are three levels of zoom, but the closest level is still too far away to give you a really good look at your animals or the people. Most of the animals look like blurry globs of pixelated garbage. After staring at the horrible graphics on the small screen for a while, you'll begin to go cross-eyed. It's really an annoyance that cannot be avoided. There's some pleasure to be taken in seeing the zoo you created, but when it looks so bad, you won't want to be looking at it for a long time.
The sound is better than the graphics, but not by much. Music is rare but sounds pretty good when there is some, and sound effects are sparse and simple. The animals do have some good sounds though, and it's pretty simple to know what animal you're dealing with just by the sound. If you're coming into this for an audio extravaganza, prepare to be let down. It does little to enhance the ambience of the game, but at least it's decent. Most likely, you won't even notice the sound effects too much and you'll turn the volume down to listen to something you really like.
There are a ton of scenarios to play through, each with a goal to accomplish. During the scenarios, you can earn cards as an extra, and you can also unlock new animals for your zoo, as well as new buildings and other items. The scenarios are pretty fun, but there's also a freeform mode that allows you to pick a map and a starting amount of cash and get to building the best zoo you can. This mode doesn't have time limits, and lets you have the freedom to do what you want with your zoo. You can play this mode for a long time, but it does become a bit boring without any real imposed goals.
There is nothing about Zoo Tycoon DS that really stands out as excellent, well done, or polished. There are several things that approach the level of greatness, but unfortunately, the developers didn't take it up a notch to get things right. It's sad to play a game that you know could've been so much more, and even notice what could've easily been improved, but wasn't.
If you've ever played this game on the PC, you know that it's a pretty good-looking game that is easy to control and fun to play. It has a lot of options for customization of your zoo and is enjoyable for long periods of time. If you're looking for this same experience on the go with your Nintendo DS, you should think closely about it, or maybe rent the game first. There is some redeeming value and fun to be found in this cartridge, but it could've been so much better, had the developers really taken the time to get the interface right and improve the graphics a whole lot. As it stands now, it's a slightly below-average PC strategy game that's been hacked up and stuck on the Nintendo DS.