Reviewed: December 4, 2005
Released: October 10, 2005
The “Tycoon” line of games may be incredibly popular in the PC world, but they have failed to make much of a splash in the realm of console gaming. Much of this can be attributed to the limitations of the console controllers – which do not fare too well with the point-and-click heavy interface necessary to perform the design tasks and constant upkeep required of the God-styled games.
If ever there were a non-PC gaming device that could handle the Tycoon games, then it would have to be the Nintendo DS – with its touch-screen and stylus input, it is the closest thing to a mouse that you are going to find.
So in a bit of an experiment, THQ has released Zoo Tycoon DS. A scaled-down version of the multi-platinum selling 2001 PC release, Zoo Tycoon DS features over twenty different environments, fifty different animals, a dozen and a half quickplay scenarios, as well as an all inclusive build-a-zoo free play mode.
Does Zoo Tycoon successfully make the transition over to the handheld market, or is this DS game a dual-screened dud?
The gameplay behind Zoo Tycoon DS is very much like any other society-building God game that has come before it – from Sim City to well…The Sims – the idea is to build and manage a successful and thriving society from the ground-up.
The society structure you manage in Zoo Tycoon DS is (obviously) a zoo – and your duties as zoo owner will see you doing everything from designing the landscaping and cages, to setting ticket prices and feeding schedules.
Your goal is to keep your animals, guests and employees secure, safe, and content. Your constant attention results in financial returns (i.e. money), which in turn allows you to continue investing back into your park – new animals, new exhibits, etc. – to lure more people in, and to continue the cycle. Even simple little details like restroom and concession stand locations play an important part in the overall success of the park, because if the patrons are not happy – well, then nobody is happy.
On paper, Zoo Tycoon sounds like it should be a fairly enjoyable and exceedingly cerebral exercise in strategy, right? Wrong. Zoo Tycoon has a lot of potential, but sorely misses the mark on nearly every gaming level.
The main problem is that the interface between the stylus and dual screens is so poorly implemented, that even the simplest of tasks becomes difficult and irritating. Let me give you an example:
In order to build a zoo, you need to put up fences to keep the animals in, right? Wouldn’t you think that the game would present you with a piece of land and allow you to either drag-and-drop or simply outline this fence directly on the plot?
Well, that is not the case with Zoo Tycoon DS, because the developers thought it was better to put the landscape on the top screen, a simple grid on the bottom screen. Then it is your job to try to select the right blocks from below and have them appear as fences on the top. While this may not sound like it should be difficult – due to the awkward isometric perspective and unresponsive controls, it becomes a real challenge.
And this whole problem with the perspective and controls is only compounded by the poor graphics (to be discussed later), which make it nearly impossible to distinguish individual objects and animals. There’s nothing like fumbling around in selection screens for ten minutes, only to find every single other set piece except for the particular one you really want, or trying to remember what animal is where because they all look the same.
It also doesn’t help that the game is so dull that you often are just sitting there waiting or something to happen. And when something does happen – it’s not all that noticeable, nor is it very exciting. Just watching these robotic droids marching through your little flea circus of a zoo, waiting for some prompt to update you on your progress.
Thankfully, the developers at included eighteen quickplay scenarios – which give you an already-designed zoo, an objective or goal, and a time limit to complete it in. You might inherit a zoo and have to make X amount of dollars in three months’ time, or some similar objective.
These scenarios definitely are a nice change of pace from the free play mode – but they do come at a big price…your zoo. You see, Zoo Tycoon DS only has enough room for one save slot on the cartridge – so if you decide to change modes midstream, you have to sacrifice the old save in order to start.
It is a decision worthy of the great King Solomon – do I trash two hours of frustrating work just to try my hand at the scenarios, or just keep on plodding along in the same old mundane free play mode? To the game’s defense, the scenarios are meant to be training you for owning your own zoo, so the developers intend for you to begin there. But who doesn’t want to just jump in headfirst?
But still, the awkward interface, the lackluster graphics, the boring gameplay don’t make for a very fun DS game. Seriously, I’ve had more fun and felt more intellectual challenge from my daughter’s Hello Kitty games.
This is one of the worst looking games I have seen in a long time. I know that squishing an entire zoo onto a three-inch screen is bound to result in some low-res visual quality – but this is like video game graphics circa 1995.
All the animals look identical, the objects are barely discernable, and all the people look like robots shuffling about – and that’s just the top screen, The bottom screen is a similar mess of touchable objects – and when designing from the grid, the isometric view is horribly jaggy, and the perspective makes it difficult to judge where the game is going to recognize your stylus tip touching.
Really the best thing about the graphics would have to be the game’s cover – which features a wonderfully grinning polar bear. Cheers to the graphic designer responsible for the bear – jeers to those responsible for the in-game visuals!
Is there sound in this game? Gosh – I didn’t hear any. Maybe that is part of the reason I kept dozing off. Zoo Tycoon DS does have a few obligatory jungle sound effects every now and then, but there is no music to speak of within the game, and any dialogue is in the form of written text.
You know, I was watching Animal Planet with the kids the other day and they were talking about how some zoos actually have multi-layered ambient environmental soundtracks running off of computers. These computers are programmed to produce completely non-random but non-repeating combinations of these environmental noises so the animals will never hear a pattern repeated and realize that they are actually in a zoo rather than on the savannah. Pretty interesting stuff, eh? What does this have to do with Zoo Tycoon DS? Absolutely nothing – I just figured that if you made it this far in the review, maybe you could learn something.
Personally, I would not buy this game, period. If there was any fun to be had it would be in the scenarios, and even those aren’t a lot of fun. There are potential hours upon hours of gameplay – but for the most part it is incredibly irritating hours that might find you throwing your DS in disgust. I would not recommend doing that. There are far better games to smash your DS over.
Zoo Tycoon DS is neither a very enjoyable, nor a very intellectual game. Aw heck, it is not even a game – it is a chore. And I do not like chores. If I were going to take care of an animal on my DS, I would rather have it be my Nintendogs. At least they are cute, and play a mean game of Frisbee.
Zoo Tycoon DS is a valiant attempt at porting the Tycoon games onto the DS, but it just doesn’t hit any of its marks. I think the developers were reaching a bit far when they figured that handheld gamers might embrace a long-winded God-styled strategy game. The DS system is just not designed with that type of gamer – or that type of game – in mind.