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26th Mar 2019 | 122 views
Game: Zoo Tycoon: Complete Collection.
Developer: Blue Fang Games
Videogames that try to simulate certain aspects and activities tend to have a very estrange relation with that they simulate. On the one hand, they have to be close enough to said action to be worth the name of simulation, otherwise the selling point is mostly lost. On the other hand, many aspects of reality that do not translate particularly well to gameplay should be removed to improve the experience, even if it takes the form of acceptable breaks from reality. After all, The Sims would be a completely different game if, instead of paying your bills by clicking on the checks, you had to fill your taxes with painstaking detail. A good simulator will have all the fun aspects of the activity being simulated while also streamlining the aspects that are not particularly suited for an enjoyable experience. After the success of Roller Coaster Tycoon in 1999, a lot of similar themed videogames would try to capitalize on its success, with the business management simulation becoming a well populated genre to this day. One of the most interesting offerings of those days is Zoo Tycoon.
Zoo Tycoon was originally released in 2001. Developed by Blue Fang Games and published by Microsoft, the game received two expansion packs, Marine Mania and Dinosaur Digs, both in 2002, plus an Endangered Species pack. The game was re-released in 2003 as a complete pack, which is the version I’m reviewing. Before starting, a bit of warning. Considering the game has never had a re-release for modern platforms, this games tend to be rather wonky on modern computers, but by fidgeting with the compatibility settings I was able to get it to work to a pretty decent standard. Still, while I haven’t found any problems related to the age of the software during my playthrough, I cannot guarantee that such a thing won’t happen in OS above Windows 8.1.
The game itself is quite simple in its approach. You are a zoo manager that have to create successful and sustainable zoo models. You have a patch of land, usually barren, a bit of money to start your zoo and a selection of animals, commerces and general attractions to get people to come to the zoo and enjoy the animals (while spending as many of their dollars as possible). The more success you have in that regard, the more access to new structures and animals you will be able to use. And that’s pretty much it. Keeping the business together is a rather taxing activity, though. Making the animals as happy and healthy as possible, increasing the efficiency of your employees, checking which of your commerces is doing right and which one should be moved or substituted for another, designing the layout of the zoo to keep the visitors from getting lost, making the appropriate repairs, handling the budget for investigation and advertisement… All of this elements are expected on a zoo simulator, and are done quite well here. They never feel like they overtax your attention, and with the ability of different speed settings for your playthrough, you can use all the time and attention you want. With that said, once you get used to the rhythm of the game, you may find the game loop somewhat repetitive and tedious. Many critics and players have complained that, once the structure of the zoo is put into place, you only need to react to whatever problems appear, and that might turn your experience from an active creative role to a more passive caretaker, with most of the actions of the game being quite automated. While that is one of the criticisms of the game, I’ve never found myself really falling for that, although that might be because I’ve always focused my attention on the campaign mode, rather than the freestyle mode.
There are two forms of gameplay in Zoo Tycoon, Freestyle and Campaign, both being quite self-explanatory. Freestyle gives you no objectives and no time limit, and thus leave you free to do whatever you want with your zoo. Campaign mode puts you in the shoes of a zoo manager, solving different scenarios and problems for zoos all around the globe. Suffice to say, the campaign mode is the one part of the game that might get the most of the player’s time and attention. After a couple of tutorial levels explaining you the different gameplay mechanics (something especially important once we deal with the contents of the expansions), you are given a series of missions. You have a set amount of time, space and resources to get the zoos working in optimal form, and when time runs out, you must have accomplished all of the goals set, or is game over for you. In theory, all of the goals are rather simple: win certain amount of money, have certain amount of animals, have all animal and/or guest happiness over certain level, make your zoo as popular as possible… The first couple of levels will not tax the majority of players due to their simplicity, but as the game progresses, the game’s difficulty goes from easy, to fair to really unfair. See, one of the biggest problems of the game is the overreliance of animal happiness as a goal. This element is quite tied to their enclosure, and if it’s not pixel perfect for them, it won’t go over certain level. You can choose their pen’s vegetation, rocks, layout, terrain, toys (only for some animals), exposure to the visitants, water level for those that need a tank to live… But without a reliable way to know how much one element affects the overall score, it becomes a hair-pulling problem on later levels. You have access to a rough view of the elements that affect negatively the animal’s happiness, but you can’t see how much they affect them positively, and that’s a huge problem. You can have an animal’s happiness within their enclosure to 80, and the game will tell you the cage is absolutely perfect for them, while the mission is asking you for 85-90 and you have no idea what are you doing wrong, because the game tells you you’re doing nothing wrong. As such, savescumming becomes almost unavoidable once you reach medium level stages. You get an enclosure to the adequate level of happiness, you better make sure you save and keep it that way. And that’s nothing compared to higher levels of difficulty, when the game asks you to get certain endangered species to breed, something quite random at the best of times. To be fair, you can increase the odds of that as much as possible, but in the end, if the animals don’t want to breed on a timely manner, you will lose anyway. Maybe it’s just me not being that good at the game, but considering how painstakingly detailed some of the walkthroughs and guides for this game are, I’m sure I’m not the only one finding this problem. Also, whoever decided that dinosaurs and ancient mammals would be able to destroy the vegetation within their enclosure, forcing you to constantly pay attention to the amount of trees and foliage there is within them, is evil and wants us to not play with dinosaurs. The best way to solve that is to surround the trees with rocks and the fence itself, but come on, the game is already quite finicky with this kinds of details, let me design the enclosures however I want, dammit.
At least the game offers you a wide variety of animals to take care of. There are around 100 animals in total, including those of the expansions. Some animals are incredibly easy to maintain (the camel, the gazelle and the lion are a godsend at the beginning of the game) while others are incredibly hard to keep happy (the panda, the tyrannosaurus rex, the mermaid and the big whales take an unholy amount of resources), but without risks there are no rewards. The rarer the animal is, the more visitors will attract, and that means more money. Plus the game offers you different rewards and prices for accomplishing different objectives. Get an endangered species to breed, you get a grand and a trophy. Get all animals very happy, you get a trophy. Get a certain amount of different species, you get a trophy. That affects the prestige of your zoo, but usually is only useful when it comes with a substantial private donation. Money is always good, considering the amount of expenses a zoo can have.
Once you have the animal part settled, the business part takes over. You have to find a balance of how much space you dedicate to selling merchandising and food, how much to shows and small attractions, and how much to the animal enclosures themselves. You have three different sources of income (not counting the plethora of cheat codes): ticket sales, merchandise/food selling and private donations. Ticket sales is fairly straight-forward, people pay to enter the zoo, you automatically charge different amounts for adults and children, though we should’ve been able to manually establish each of their ticket prices individually, and not automatically like the game does. The more you charge, the less people come, and viceversa, although don’t expect to getting massive amounts of tourism if you offer free access, after certain thresholds it stops being noticeable. Private donations are managed by the already mentioned rewards, plus to certain popular enclosures. The bulk of the money will come from your food and entertainment posts. Restaurants, gift shops and other attractions will be quite big sources of money, as well as other structures. In particular, the carrousel is the safest of all attractions, and the dung store (yes, there is one) will automatically give you 50$ for each pile of animal dung you clean up. The only caveat is that it stinks, so you better put it as far as possible from tourists. With that said, the customer’s satisfaction can be quite finicky. Keep the roads clean and with enough empty trash cans, make a park with picnic tables and pretty vegetation and make sure there are enough bathrooms around, and it should be fine. Again, the minmaxing aspects of the game will bite you in the ass here too, because you have to deal with so many customers at one point, and it’s impossible to make everyone happy, so reaching certain happiness thresholds is quite impossible without trial and error and savescumming. The frustration levels can make you try and recreate a horror movie by deleting all enclosure walls and letting the animals lose. This will immediately sink your zoo’s reputation, but seeing the annoying customers run from a T-rex or a lion can get the same level of cathartic relaxation than erasing the ladder from the swimming pool in The Sims.
I should mention the content of the expansions as well. Marine Mania adds marine animals, with different gameplay and maintenance needs, while Dinosaur Diggs goes full Jurassic Park and adds… dinosaurs. I’m pretty sure the makers of Jurassic World have played this expansion, because the similarities are plenty. Both also offer more decoration and services, but overall their purpose is to add more missions and animals. A particular element of note is aquatic spectacles, which can be very profitable under certain conditions, but it’s only accessible to a handful of species (seals, dolphins, orcas, otters and white sharks of all things). An interesting thing to take into account, but otherwise not that big of a game changer.
The presentation is… a bit dated. The game is based on 2D sprite graphics, and sometimes the level of pixelation of the animals, the enclosures and the terrain can be annoying, especially when you are preparing animal terrain and you are searching for that pixel of wrong land type it’s annoying your animals. It never becomes game breaking due to the game offering you options to unsee different elements so you can work undisturbed, but nonetheless it’s an annoyance you have to deal with. The developers show a lot of sense of humor as well, with certain dates showing different environmental gags, such as witches flying during Halloween, or Santa Claus flying on Christmas.
This kind of game was both ahead and behind its time. Just imagine how good this game could be nowadays, with mod integration adding thousands of different animals, businesses, decorations and missions, to get a neverending experience. However, a very hands on/off approach to gameplay combined with the need to minmax absolutely everything in the campaign gets quite annoying after a while. Campaign mode is too demanding, while freestyle is not demanding enough for my taste. In the end, though, I do think this was a valiant effort that has aged a lot comparatively due to the improvements gaming in general has suffered throughout the years.