Platform: Nintendo DS
Rating: E (Everyone)
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Developer: Success Co./Buddiez, Inc.
Release Date: 01/18/2005
The Nintendo DS is turning out to be quite the motherlode for puzzle games. While Mr. Driller Drill Spirits has already hit the market, and titles like Wario Ware: Touched! and Meteos are a ways off, puzzleheads can get their fill in the meantime with the latest braintease to hit the system, Zoo Keeper. The game was originally released in Japan on the Game Boy Advance and PS2 as Zooo, but this’ll be the first time US gamers can get a piece of the action.
This is where my tagline comes in. The promotional materials for Zoo Keeper claimed it has a “highly relevant plot involving an actual zoo keeper. Well, no shit. I didn’t pick up this game expecting it to be about chocolate and spaceships. Anyway, the animals at a local zoo are rioting, because the cigar-chomping owner is a jerk. So you get hired by this guy to capture all the animals and put them back in place. Cheesy, yes, but c’mon, this is a puzzle game. Stories in such titles have never been their strong point, and were never designed as such. Tetris never had a story, after all. Adding a silly story to a puzzle game is a nice touch, and in this case, it actually works.
ZK‘s graphics may be simplistic, but they’re extremely effective.
The “cubist” style applied to all of the animals and characters really makes the game stand out. Sure, they’re cutesy and brightly colored, but who cares? It gets the point across. You’re well aware at all times which animal is a lion, or a panda, or a rabbit. The game may not have fancy 3D-rendered characters or 60fps animation, but it doesn’t need it. The graphics convey all of the information that they need to, and they pull it off brilliantly.
Sound effects and digital speech? Good. Background music? Bad! I swear, ZK has some of the most irritating background music I have ever heard. While the tunes in some of the secondary gameplay modes aren’t as bad, the main theme is enough to make your eyeballs twitch. I turned the volume on the DS all the way up, and put the system next to my roommate’s ear with that damn music playing, and he nearly had an aneurysm. Destructive symphonies aside, the sound effects are fine, and the digital voice work is decent. Granted, it only consists of a female voice announcing each gameplay mode and menu item, but it reminds me of the computer in Star Trek. Good stuff. The best part about the sound overall is that the music, sound effects, and voice can be individually toggled on or off to suit your tastes.
Playing the game couldn’t be any simpler. To capture animals, you need to line up three or more matching ones horizontally or vertically. Using the stylus, you switch a pair of animals to match them; if they don’t match, the animals will return to where they were. This control scheme is identical in each of ZK‘s gameplay modes, but the objectives you must accomplish in each are quite different.
Normal mode is just your standard ZK game. You capture a set quota of animals, then you move on to the next level. Time Attack mode is more of the same, except you try to get the highest score possible within a certain time limit. Totokon 100 mode is Normal mode on crack. Here, you need to capture a hundred of any single animal in order to get to the next level, but there’s a catch: the number of other captured animals stays constant. So if you nab a hundred lions, you’ll jump to the next level, but if you also had ninety-seven monkeys, the instant you get three more, you’ll level up again. This can make the action quite frantic. 2P mode is self-explanatory; you wirelessly link up with another DS user, and try to eat away the other player’s time by capturing more animals than them. Only one game card is needed, which is always a plus. Finally, we’ve got Quest mode, easily the best of the bunch. Here, the owner of the zoo gives you ten missions, and at the end of each, he’ll award or subtract points based on your performance. Some of the missions are fairly simple; for example, capture twenty lions while capturing as few of the other animals as possible. Later, they get a lot more difficult, like getting thirty chains, or capturing each type of animal only once. While the ten missions are always the same, you’ll need different strategies each time you play in order to succeed.
While there’s no unlockable characters or second quests, ZK is just as replayable as any other puzzle game. You’ll try to make it to a higher level, you’ll try to make it to the high scores board, you’ll try to beat your top scores. Since it can played in either short bursts or for long periods, that only furthers the replay value.
The difficulty in ZK gradually ramps up, as would be expected in a puzzle game. The randomness of the boards can sometimes be a thorn in your side, though, especially when time begins to run short. That’s all part of the fun, right?
If you’ve ever played the online Flash game Bejeweled, then you’ve played Zoo Keeper. The only difference is that there’s animals instead of gems! Luckily, ZK excels with the various gameplay modes and quirky graphics. It’s a very rare example of a simple clone that manages to surpass the game it was based on. That alone saves this game from getting the dreaded zero originality rating.
ZK is one of those games where you plan on playing for maybe five to ten minutes, and two hours later, you’re still playing. At face value, it doesn’t seem like it would be all that addicting, but once you try it, you can’t stop. ZK will definitely keep you amused.
This is a tough call. I’m a firm believer in “don’t knock it until you try it” when it comes to games, and ZK is no exception to the rule. Some gamers may roll their eyes at the colorful, cubical graphics, or even lump the game into that stupid “kiddie” category. But I guarantee that if you just sit down and play the thing for a little while, you’ll have a newfound appreciation of ZK, regardless of whether you decide to eventually buy it.
Ignition Entertainment deserves a sharp bitch-slap. It’s not for releasing ZK in the US. It’s not for providing DS gamers with a great puzzle title. Oh no…it’s for charging $39.99 for it. I realize that Ignition is a smaller publisher, but forty beans for a DS title is still ridiculous, especially for a simple puzzle game. It’s not like they even developed the game themselves, nor was the budget for the original developers that monstrous anyways! Sadly, the hefty price tag is likely to turn away a lot of gamers. Let’s hope that future DS titles don’t decide to follow suit…