Summer Overlord: Zoo Tycoon

Waiting patiently for his final year at college, Declan is in the midst of a four-month summer holiday. He is quite bored. Unemployed and at home, to stave off insanity, he is playing through fifteen management/tycoon games from the last decade in a series of articles in which he will attempt to become the ultimate Summer Overlord, master of routine and efficiency and pro hirer of vomit-sweeping janitors. Join him every Saturday on a journey which will take you through some of the best and the worst that the obscure genre has to offer. 

* * *

Zoo Tycoon. Hooray.

The Tragic Menagerie 

If you’re not a very cheerful person, Zoo Tycoon is probably best avoided. You see,  I had a sort of unfortunate epiphany playing this game. Having placed kilometres of iron bar and chain link fencing in my pretentiously named “Life Exhibition” zoo,  zooming out for a better look, I realised that I had essentially built animal prison. Animal fucking prison.  Rather than the benevolent, biodiversity-preserving hero who I imagined  my virtual zoo-building self was – also an egotistical billionaire in search of redemption after my business empire founded on sweat-shops in Thailand had slowly become a thing of shame – it suddenly became apparent that I was not only jailing child labourers in factories, but also locking away adorable penguins and warthogs for extra helpings from the capitalist machine. Coming to this realisation, watching my little polar bear plod around in his ‘exhibit’ with feral schoolchildren peering at him through gaps in the fence was no longer warming, but instead, depressing. Thinking that this zoo would bring me atonement, it had brought even greater shame. In a whiskey-fuelled rage, I released my lions from their enclosure – free at last! – and set them upon my guests, watching in dazed horror as all that I had come to love was destroyed in a cloud of dust and severed limbs. Amidst the din of screams and shedding a single tear, I wrenched a rifle from a nearby keeper’s grasp, placed its barrel to the bottom of my jaw and ended my life.

Zoo Tycoon is truly an emotional rollercoaster. If you thought the sweeping orchestral movements of Marty O’Donnell’s Halo soundtrack were powerful enough to tug the heart-strings, try building an American bighorn sheep enclosure with two glasses of red wine and a bar of Galaxy chocolate in you and you’ll be weeping like the metaphorical willow.

The Dinosaur Digs expansion adds Mesozoic creatures. And that's about it.

Shovelling Dung

I am, of course, kidding: Zoo Tycoon is incredibly boring and I’d find more enjoyment in blowing bubbles with my own saliva. It’s sad, actually. Ten years ago, I thought the complete opposite; I distinctly recall getting it for Christmas and hurriedly installing it on my granddad’s computer after plates full of turkey and cake, then no doubt sobbing as I was pulled away to go home. Nowadays, with that childlike sense of wonder confined to the vaults of history, it takes a good measure to get me excited, and, alas, Zoo Tycoon fails catastrophically in this department.

This is a problem that afflicts all management/tycoon games in some shape or form. Considering that the only thing that differentiates individual games in a very rigid genre is subject matter, for a niche game to appeal to a wider audience, it must not only work  at every level with ‘fun’ as its main concern, it must also have a unique style or approach, like humour or art design. With uniqueness in mind, Zoo Tycoon is as bland as unsugared Weetabix.

No Roar

Combine this wheaty blandness with the fussiest animals on Earth, and Zoo Tycoon’s appeal rapidly deflates. For all this game’s cutesy colours and sounds, never has the mass culling of threatened species seemed so appealing. As you plonk your animals down in their enclosures, it becomes increasingly obvious that Zoo Tycoon was designed with children’s education in mind: Lions need savannah grassland, chimps need rainforests, penguins need snow; fail to place the right foliage, shelters, or rocks and your animals will whinge to no bloody end. Whilst I appreciate challenge and balance, when your grizzly bear’s happiness hinges upon a mathematically precise covering of two types of temperate forest, careful planning gives way to monotony and frustration.

Pass me the oxygen, I can barely contain myself.

“Gray Wolf 4 is not happy”, says my advice bar. Why? Too much ‘trampled terrain’ around its shelter. Forgive me, but you are wolf: shouldn’t you be bathing in moose blood? But no, here you are, manicuring your claws and giving me a hard time because it is most unpleasant for you to walk through mud. What’s worse is that this ‘trampled terrain’ is something that you must manually see to, replacing it with fresh earth from the landscaping menu. If your exhibit is a veritable forest, Zoo Tycoon’s isometric viewpoint makes spotting this offending terrain infuriatingly difficult. Fail to rectify the blot on your exhibits’ palatial lawns  and your animals will write strongly worded letters of complaint, their happiness bars will drop to zero, and your guests – all scholars of Dr Dolittle’s animal mind-reading academy – will notice your giraffe’s or elephant’s angst and, like self-righteous little pricks, storm towards the zoo’s exit.

While this might seem like a relatively minor complaint, when there’s little else to do but wait for your zoo to accumulate enough money to build more exhibits and amenities, Zoo Tycoon’s challenges amount to little more than annoyances. Although the game offers scenarios, it is essentially the same experience every time. Even in freeform mode (a sandbox option allowing the player to build his or her dream zoo without objectives), I found myself unable to play for more than half an hour at a time.

Despite the forty species the game allows you to accommodate, Zoo Tycoon is lacking in substance: An ibex may as well be the same as a black leopard. No particular component in Zoo Tycoon is inherently broken, but the fact of the matter is that once you have set up your first exhibit and built your usual guest amenities, you have pretty much done all that the game has to offer. That’s really all there is to it. Of course, you can go about showing endangered species and beautifying your zoo with fountains and statues, but if you don’t have trouble reaching the bathroom sink anymore, this is unlikely to have you bouncing up and down in your chair in a hyperactive frenzy of anticipation.

Save or Delete

If you're creative enough, there is limited enjoyment to be had.

Zoo Tycoon has little to offer to an enthusiastic gamer. Its two expansions, Dinosaur Digs and Marine Mania, spice up your menagerie with extinct and aquatic animals,  but do little more than coat a very small cake with a mountain of icing. (Although, I admit, I did enjoy releasing a tyrannosaurus from its electrified pen and watching it snack on guests. That’ll teach them for complaining in a zoo with dinosaurs.)  Part of me feels like I’m missing the point. This is, after all, a game about building a zoo: should I expect much more? However, that argument fails to hold water when one considers a game like Rollercoaster Tycoon which takes a similar concept – managing a theme park – and turning it into an extremely compelling experience.

I’m going to make a sweeping statement and declare Zoo Tycoon a kid’s game. In my defence, the very box bears a ‘3+’ age stamp and a free ‘Kid’s Club’ cinema coupon now nine years expired which makes me not only feel old, but also slightly predatory. Aside from revealing stickers, the game itself is graphically simple and easy to grasp, with interesting animal facts for young, curious minds. With a sizeable imagination and genuine attraction to all things wild and sharp-toothed, for a ten-year-old the niggles that I found vexing will most likely pass off as challenging obstacles. They certainly did for me. However, I can’t help but think that this now decade-old game will feel redundant in the wake of its more attractive 3D offspring, Zoo Tycoon 2, which offers an interactive ‘zookeeper mode’ amongst other new, more immersive features.

In my case, Zoo Tycoon finds itself on the verge of an extinction event, staring into the abyss of uninstallation. Much as it pains me to retrospectively obliterate my gaming childhood, today it is an unenticing game that will find little positive reception in the wake of more sophisticated management/tycoon experiences.

<- Last week: Evil Genius                                                                              Next Week: Val d’Isere Ski Park Manager ->

One Response to “Summer Overlord: Zoo Tycoon”
  1. OnThatPage says:

    Damm i miss a lot this kind of games! RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 and its expantions were amazing for me, and of course, there is no doub´t that SimCity franchise too. Today we don’t see new games of this kind, the closest thing is “From Dust” that i waited in vain for new trailers or info on the E3. I hope that someday they will come back !

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