We take a good look at one of the few puzzle games out there for the Nintendo DS. Is Zoo Keeper worth the price of admission?
If you have any prior video game history or knowledge bottled up inside of you, then Zoo Keeper will remind you of more than a few different puzzle games from your past. Depending on your internet prowess, it may also remind you of some popular, free Flash games. What you may not know, however, is how much the notion of simplicity and clarity in game design can make a lasting impression. In Zoo Keeper's case, this is especially true because of its confident, streamlined package.
If you wanted to boil the game down to the actions demanded of the player, then Zoo Keeper requires only slight physical coordination with the DS stylus. The option to use the directional pad and buttons exists, but the liberation of getting to pinpoint your next move instead of dragging the cursor to it is far superior.
In the opening moments of play, a grid of animal heads appears on the touch-sensitive screen just begging for you to pair them up. The cursor at your pen-tip is limited to swapping pieces left to right and up to down (never diagonally), and all the while you will fight a time-based gauge on the side of the screen. The goal is to string together congruent combinations of three or more animal icons. When achieved successfully, the stacked heads will dissolve and the gravity-ruled pieces above will slide down into play. Thus, the cycle begins anew.
In the world of white on black, I'm sure that sounds quite plain. But funnily enough the game does an incredible thing to prevent this from happening: It relies on its production value and clean presentation to heighten how drawn-in the player becomes. The graphics are saccharine thick, vivid, and fun. It makes concentrating on the action enjoyable and if you spend enough time with it, staring at the screen starts to feel like you're staring at candy. Even the top screen, which does nothing but show your bonus point incentives and a nice piece of stylized art, beckons a quick glance when you can afford to take one.
But back to the game for a second, it does fall a bit short in the depth department, largely due to that pesky, limited cursor. You see, since you can only shift pieces in an effort to clear them, as opposed to strategically aligning them for later, you have to truly rely on what's coming down the pipe and the combo of the moment. It does give the game a heightened tension in higher stages, but there are definitely times when the limitation will shine through even to the casual participant.
Generally speaking, Zoo Keeper wraps itself up neatly with a variety of simple game modes. There is the namesake "Zoo Keeper" mode, in which you clear a specific number of animals to move on to the next stage. As almost per requisite, there exists a time-based mode, which has you fighting a six-minute clock for a high score. One of the more bizarre scenarios is "Tokoton 100", where in order to progress through stages you have to clear 100 animals of each type.
Then there's "Quest" which can easily be mistaken for "Zoo Keeper" mode strung together by some neat story sequences. In reality, it stirs light objective-based puzzling into the mix. The sessions begin as they always do but now you'll need to omit certain animals, only chain a few types, or single a specific animal out for your clearing purposes. This mode rewards and penalizes you with points, so make sure you follow directions. Lastly is "VS." mode, which can be generously transmitted with one game card to another DS unit.
Now, while the technical execution of the mode's wireless multiplayer gaming has almost zero snags, it's here that Zoo Keeper's thin, luck-infused gameplay starts to show its shallowness. The matches are blatantly too quick and inconsequential for their own good. Sure, they can be short bursts of great fun, but sometimes the luck of the icons and power-ups will dictate the entire match in a matter of seconds. The lack of true skill or even reflexes for the core game mechanics will make you wary of playing with a friend for a second time.
It is also in VS. mode where you will discover just how maddeningly loopy the music can become. In fact, prolonged sessions in any of the modes will force you to educate yourself on how to quickly mute the background audio.
But the bottom line is that the game is inherently fun and it will call you back for some serious repeat play, as a single player experience, that is. You may think of it as a castrated form of Tetris Attack, like I did initially, but the infectious qualities of the game will prove something: even though it's not nearly as timeless as some of your favorite puzzlers, this little animal-themed gem still has merit. A potential sequel or knockoff of the Zoo Keeper premise could have a prosperous future in this portable market, but only at a more fitting price.
What's Hot: Simple, quick, and clean puzzle action with a presentation and style that services it well.
What's Not: Not enough depth or strategy.