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December 13, 2005

REVIEW: Zoo Tycoon

Music is very important in my family. We love to sing and dance and frolic about. Tra-la-la!

When we pop a CD into the player during a road trip, we usually listen to recent additions to the children’s music scene. However, we also like to go old school on occasion, and two of our favorite CDs are 1969’s Peter, Paul & Mommy, and 1993’s live follow-up, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, by famed folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary (as you probably guessed).

The two Peter, Paul & Mommy CDs focus less on songs of protest for hippies (though one of the songs on PPM2 is We Shall Overcome), and more on their wonderful songs for the flower children of said hippies, with classics like Marvelous Toy, Day is Done, Puff the Magic Dragon, and of course...

Daddy’s takin’ us to the zoo tomorrow,
Zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow.
Daddy’s takin’ us to the zoo tomorrow,
And we can stay all day!

We’re goin’ to the zoo, zoo, zoo,
How about you, you, you?
You can come too, too, too,
We’re goin’ to the zoo, zoo, zoo.

My wife and I love to take our kids to the zoo, so we’re lucky to have the excellent free Lincoln Park Zoo here in Chi-Town. But when we don’t have the time for an outing, or, say, it’s 36 freaking degrees below zero, we play Zoo Tycoon on our PC.

Zoo Tycoon is presented from an isometric perspective, which, in layman’s terms (the rockinest terms!), means that you view the action from a 45-degree angle. If your view is blocked, all you have to do is click on an arrow to rotate the camera. Your kids should get the hang of it in about 2 seconds.

You start out with plenty of choices (animals, zoo location, zoo size, foliage, terrain, fences, etc.), and the more you play, the more the menu expands, as the unlockables (animals, etc.) are made available. However, since we don’t bother with the task-based part of the game (we’re all about freeform), there are probably many other goodies that we haven’t unlocked. So I guess you could say that the game we play is more “Zoo Creator” than Zoo Tycoon.

In that vein, there is a very easy money cheat in this game; just press “shift” and “4”. For some reason, though, as soon as you press the two keys on your keyboard, all of the exhibit fences start to disintegrate in various places. So if your kids might be upset by seeing their hard work getting ruined, then be sure to augment your coffers before building the exhibits, or at the very least, before populating them. In our case, my kids love to watch the animals escape when the fences start to fall apart.

As with Roller Coaster Tycoon 2, which I reviewed a few months ago, what’s so compelling for kids about Zoo Tycoon is that they get to create, and then enjoy the fruits of their labor. And like RCT2, Zoo Tycoon is a game that my kids will ask to play every couple weeks, including yesterday.

One nice feature for kids is that when you do something the animals like (e.g. get their terrain/foliage mix just right), every happy animal immediately rewards you with green smiley faces, and when you do something that displeases them, you are greeted with a series of angry red frowns.

Speaking of angry red frowns, my kids like to conduct the occasional “social experiment.” One time, they’ll shoehorn 75 elephants into a small exhibit, and the next time, they’ll place a pride of hungry lions into the zebra/gazelle habitat to watch the ensuing Darwinian hilarity (nothing graphic - just a short chase that ends in a cloud of dust).

Although it’s “just a game,” your kids will soon learn an object lesson about animal cruelty, as a message will pop up on the screen that says that their animal adoption/purchasing privileges have been suspended because of their actions. The only way to get them back is to make your animals very happy over a specified period of time.

So let’s say you’ve been playing the game for a while, you’ve stopped tormenting the animals, and you’ve finally created the perfect zoo of your dreams.

The elephants are stomping across the savannah,

The giraffes are relaxing in their extra-tall shelter,

The sea lions are taking turns splashing in the saltwater pool and sunning themselves on the rocks,

And the chimpanzees are bounding happily across the jungle gym you purchased for them.

So what do you do now?

What new worlds can you conquer?

Well, not so fast, hot shot, because seeing as this is a “God game,” there’s always plenty to do, and your little world is busy unconquering itself as you read this sentence. Animals get sick, die of old age, have babies, and of course, poop. Boy howdy, do they poop.

But my kids’ favorite maintenance activity is far less dramatic (or icky). The animals walk around a good little bit, especially in high-traffic areas like the water hole. And in so doing, they trample the terrain, which is probably why the phenomenon is called “trampled terrain.”

When we don’t have the time to create a whole new exhibit, we make a mini-game out of finding and repairing the trampled terrain. Sometimes you are given a clue, when the animals aren’t as happy as you think they should be. You make sure that they’re well fed, not too crowded, have others to play and mate with (no, not graphically. Eeeewww! Gross!), and that the terrain/foliage mix in their exhibit is just right. At that point, there’s usually just one answer - trampled terrain.

Your kids may not be an enthralled as mine about the terrain and the trampling thereof, but my point is that you never know what seemingly trivial aspect of a game will resonate with your kids.

As I was writing this review, I asked my daughter why she liked the game so much, and her answer was. “It almost feels like you’re a real zookeeper.”

‘Nuff said.


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