Release Date: February 4, 2008
Zoos are fun. So is the Nintendo DS. I thought I should start off with this fairly obvious formula to make it clear that Zoo Tycoon 2 for the DS should be a winner: Zoos + DS = More fun that you can shake a stylus at.
Unfortunately, the devil is in the details, and the equation ends up being far more complex: Zoos + DS + poor graphics + tedious minigames + simplified tycoon game = a slightly above-average portable management sim that's not ideally suited to the system.
That's a far less sound bite-friendly quote that the publishers won't be in a hurry to put it on the box. It's also far too long to read comfortably as an opening gambit, so let's get on to what makes Zoo Tycoon 2 so ... slightly above-average.
The object of Zoo Tycoon 2 should be pretty obvious from the title: It's one of those video games that says exactly what it does clearly on the box. You build, manage and maintain a successful zoo, just like in the PC original and first DS game. You have to deal with everything from balancing the books to deciding how much to charge for snacks — and of course deciding which exotic animals to bring into your zoo to attract the most visitors to get the biggest return on investment. The game provides a story mode with challenges escalating in difficulty, as well as a free play sandbox mode, where players can make the zoo of their dreams without the time constraints. The challenges are all pretty easy for tycoon game veterans but are enjoyable enough (if a little repetitive) while they last, and the younger demographic that tend to favor the DS will find this a perfect entry point to the tycoon sub-genre. The more time you spend and the more research you carry out, the more exotic animals you'll unlock, meaning there's always an incentive to carry on. That said, as far as tycooning on the move goes, the developers have done a pretty good job at managing to convert the core mechanics while struggling against the limitations of the DS' design.
Despite the developers' best efforts, the game remains very much a ported PC franchise; it's slightly startling to see the "Microsoft Game Studios" logo upon booting up the system. Okay, the first Zoo Tycoon was ported to the DS to universal disappointment due to it steadfastly refusing to use the stylus (corrected in Zoo Tycoon 2 to great effect, pleasingly), but the game is best experienced on PC. It took me a while to figure out the reason for this, but then it hit me: Despite not being obsessive about graphics in games, that's the cause here. Zoos are supposed to be full of amazing sights and photo-worthy opportunities, but on the DS, the graphics are so bland that it may as well be "Pencil Museum Tycoon" for the inspiration that can be drawn from the visuals.
Said visuals are functional at best. The screen is just too small, and that means the majesty of the unique and varied characters of the zoo are represented by pixely stick men and pixely stick animals. It does the job, just about, but it's hard to get excited about your park when your creatures are all so crudely represented. To be fair, the small screen never makes Zoo Tycoon 2 difficult to play; it just makes it that much harder to suspend your disbelief, which is something that has always been key to the series. If you can't be excited about the latest animals in your collection, then why should the little stick men who pay to see them? There are more detailed graphics when interacting with the animals one-on-one, Nintendogs style, but for reasons I'll get into later, these aren't scenarios you'll want to return to once the novelty wears off.
As mentioned earlier, the first attempt to transfer the exciting world of zoo management to a handheld felt rushed and disappointing. No stylus support meant that the DS' massive potential to capture strategy games was lost almost instantly, and it's great to see that the developers have taken note and added it this time around. Control-wise, it works absolutely fine despite the lack of mouse buttons to navigate panels of icons. The menus feel a little overwhelming at first, but with a tutorial to explain all of the micromanagement, you'll be dragging and touching in no time at all.
Of course, it wouldn't be a DS title if the developers didn't decide that "functional" and "effective" were enough for the console's unique control system, so we also have a load of "fun" minigames to give an outlet to those of us who can't get enough of scratching, prodding and rubbing our touch-screens. Basically, if you want to keep your animals happy, you have to click each one, feed and clean it. Cue a Nintendogs-style stylus fest. It's sort of cute the first time, a bit tedious the second time, and for the rest of the 20-odd animals in your zoo, it feels nothing short of a complete chore. Fortunately, it's optional, and you can employ keepers to do your dirty work for you, saving you the chore of manually keeping your animals happy. Spare a thought for them, though; the styli they hold must be enormous, so make sure you have a generous health insurance policy for your employees.
As for the sound, animals growl, howl and wail to punctuate an inoffensive background track of jungle-sounding rhythms. It's not going to win any awards, but with the exception of Phoenix Wright and some first-party Nintendo titles, music on the DS is usually a case of damage limitation (the cost of getting the speakers fixed after stuffing them with cotton wool, usually), and Zoo Tycoon 2 does this fine. It's not outstanding, but the sound gets the job done without causing any offense in the process.
There is a multiplayer mode that works rather well, but it's fallen into the usual trap of requiring both players to own the game. The two-player mode works with both players building a zoo against a time limit, and the winner is the one with the highest value when the time's up. It's undoubtedly fun, though you do feel a little disconnected from the other player, which is never a great multiplayer experience. It's a shame the majority of players will never get to play it due to the lack of a single cartridge option. You can forgive it because it would have been a huge download and a great deal of explaining time, but it's my job to be critical and in an ideal zoological world, download play would be possible.
The DS remains the perfect match for PC strategy ports, and there's nothing in Zoo Tycoon 2 that disproves it. Zoo Tycoon was never an amazing game on the PC, and the transition to the small screen has lost a little depth, a little character, a little challenge and a lot of graphical magic. If you're desperate to tycoon on the move, Theme Park is a better bet, and if you want the best strategy experience, you're better served with the turn-based Advance Wars or the real-time Anno. Against this opposition, Zoo Tycoon 2 is a solid fourth bet, and it's likely to drop further down the pecking order as more developers learn that the DS can be a haven for deep strategy on the move.