Just to answer a couple of questions that might have occurred to you when you clicked on the link for this review: yes, Zoo Tycoon came out almost a year ago, and no, I’m not reviewing a special re-release or gold version of the game. So why bother reviewing it at this late date? Well, the answer is equal parts because I was just interested in playing it and so figured I might as well review it, and because the game is notable enough in its genre (with a second expansion pack on the way) that we should have a review of it on this web site just to keep the web site complete. I’ll also be looking at both expansion packs in the upcoming days, so soon Game Over will be your one stop shop for Zoo Tycoon information.
Zoo Tycoon was developed by the appropriately named Blue Fang Games. It is, not surprisingly, a sim-style game where you run a zoo. However, it doesn’t tread any new ground. If you’ve played other sim or tycoon games then you’ll be right at home with Zoo Tycoon. Typical activities include building attractions, keeping guests happy with food stands and bathrooms, hiring staff to keep the zoo running smoothly, and researching topics so you can add new things to the zoo. If those activities sound familiar, they’re exactly the same things you do in Rollercoaster Tycoon, and in fact Blue Fang Games studied Rollercoaster Tycoon carefully and didn’t stray far from its mold.
Of course, Zoo Tycoon differs from Rollercoaster Tycoon in one important way: its attractions are animal exhibits rather than amusement park rides. The problem is that Blue Fang Games made creating those exhibits far too easy. Not only does the game give you broad hints about what each animal likes, but when you put things in an exhibit (like trees or rocks), a smiley face appears above the head of the animal if it likes the addition; otherwise an unhappy face appears. So there isn’t need for exploration, and there isn’t any challenge to creating a good exhibit. It would be like playing Rollercoaster Tycoon and knowing how to make each ride exciting without it being too exciting, every time.
Plus, oddly, exhibits are all basically the same. You’d think it would be totally different to create acceptable environments for polar bears, alligators, and kangaroos, but it’s not. Each animal needs a certain type of terrain (water is considered a terrain), one or two types of foliage, plus rocks, a shelter, and maybe a toy (like monkey bars for chimpanzees). That gives a lot of combinations, but making an exhibit simply means picking the right terrain and filling the floor with it, picking the appropriate tree or bush and plopping it down, and so forth. So the process is identical, and the only real difference between the exhibits is visual.
Luckily, Zoo Tycoon is pretty good at the visuals. I don’t know that its graphical quality is the greatest, and it could have used an extra zoom level to see things better, but its variety is excellent. There are over 50 animals in the game, and other than a few here and there that are simple variations of each other (like bengal tigers and white bengal tigers), the animals all look and behave differently. And so you can watch chimpanzees play on their monkey bars when they’re happy, or throw things at the zoo guests when they’re upset; you can watch elephants roll around on the ground or play with a log toy; and you can even watch camels pretty much just stand around and do nothing.
In fact, watching the zoo is probably the best part of the game, because not only are the animals interesting, the guests are interesting as well. Zoo Tycoon’s guests are much more detailed than what Rollercoaster Tycoon had. There are adults and children, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they take pictures, blow bubbles, and bang on their chests in an acceptable imitation of Tarzan. And while they don’t turn green and puke, you can “accidentally” let animals out of their cages, and then watch the guests run around in terror. (There is even a special lion mauling animation, but guests don’t actually die. They just get really unhappy at you. Wimps.)
The problem is that while watching the zoo is fun, there isn’t a whole lot of strategy to go along with it, and so playing the game isn’t necessarily fun. I already mentioned that creating animal exhibits is easy, but caring for the animals is even easier. Just assign a zookeeper to an exhibit and you’re done. The zookeeper handles just about everything, and the only decision you have to make is whether to keep or sell offspring. (And usually you want to sell, just to keep the exhibit from getting too crowded if nothing else.)
That leads to Zoo Tycoon’s biggest flaw: that caring for the animals is so easy it’s almost trivial, and that all the difficulty (and strategy) in the game comes in trying to make money and in trying to keep guests happy. Since Zoo Tycoon is a game about animals, those difficulties should be just the opposite. It should be difficult and interesting to deal with the animals, and the money and guests should be more of a side issue. Plus, it doesn’t help that most of the scenarios that come with the game require an annoyingly high guest happiness level while being more than a little lenient about the animals. It’s no fun to spend 5-6 hours on a scenario, only to lose because you could only get the guests to a happiness level of 92 rather than 93.
And so Zoo Tycoon has definite pluses and minuses. It’s family friendly (pretty much the only way animals escape is if you let them), it’s fun to watch, and it’s even educational. For example, when you play you might learn that polar bears really have black skin, and that moose eat up to 130 pounds of foliage per day. But the game is also a little repetitive, and it’s lacking in strategy, and the scenarios can take forever to play. So take those things into consideration when you decide if you want to play.