Zoo Tycoon was a gentle sim which spawned a number of expansion packs and then a much improved sequel. In this review we take a look at the series overall and highlight the improvements made in Zoo Tycoon 2. These games are educational, fun and suitable for the whole family.
Zoo Tycoon Franchise
The Zoo Tycoon series is a lot of fun and it offers simple business simulation gameplay with an educational twist. The original Zoo Tycoon was released in 2001 developed by Blue Fang Games and published by Microsoft Game Studios. It wasn’t a big hit with critics but male and female gamers of all ages loved it. Two expansion packs followed the next year, Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs and Zoo Tycoon: Marine Mania and they offered lots of new animals for Zoo Tycoon. Then in 2004 Blue Fang improved on the original with the streamlined sequel Zoo Tycoon 2. Several expansion packs followed and eventually in 2008 they released the Ultimate Collection which bundled them all together.
The basic gameplay is the same throughout the series. Your mission is to build a thriving zoo which attracts loads of visitors and makes big profits. In order to do that you will need to have plenty of animals. You also need to keep them happy and healthy so the visitors enjoy seeing them. In addition to the animals and their enclosures you have to hire staff to keep the zoo running and build amenities for the visitors. Finally you need to beautify the park to maximise people’s enjoyment.
This is all typical stuff you’ll find in any of the top tycoon games and the gameplay suffers from the same problems. The big difference with the Zoo Tycoon series is the focus on animals and their welfare. Each animal has a fact file which provides textual information on their preferences. You can build enclosures from segments of fence but you must choose the correct type for each individual animal to ensure they don’t escape. You also have to try to create something of a suitable size which is always a challenge because you have limited funds. The next step is to ensure the terrain within each enclosure suits the animal, by adding something they like you’ll get a happy face icon and something they don’t like gets an unhappy face icon. In the original game this was a tedious exercise as you added individual patches of sand or grassland, rocks or trees trying to find the perfect balance to keep your animal happy. In Zoo Tycoon 2 they fixed this and allowed you to add suitable biome terrain which automatically applied the correct mixture of terrain types.
Keeping your animals happy will result in them frolicking and maybe even breeding and both are good for your zoo. Apart from getting the terrain right you’ll need to keep them well fed, keep their enclosure relatively free of poo and give them some toys to play with and a shelter they like. The AI staff in the game, like with most tycoon games, can be infuriating. In some enclosures cleaning up the poo seems to be a full time job for your zookeepers.
All of the Zoo Tycoon games feature a choice of modes. There is a campaign or scenario mode which hits you with a series of simple missions and there is an open freeform mode which allows you to focus on building your own zoo. The second game also added a challenge mode with limited resources so you would have to make sure you turned a profit. The options for building your own zoos and experimenting are unlimited and so the games have a lot of replay value. There is also an educational aspect and they were lauded for teaching children about different types of animals. Many parents played through the games with their kids and found they provided a fun learning experience.
The first game was basic in terms of visuals with blocky buildings and awkwardly modelled characters and animals. The textures were not very detailed if you zoomed in although players would spend most of their time with a wide view. The animations brought things to life nicely and gave the animals some character. The overall presentation had the typical cute sim style and was slightly cartoonish. The second game represented a major improvement in graphics and models and textures were much more detailed. There was an even greater range of animation and they added the ability to walk around your zoo in first-person and get a look at the animals close up. They still didn’t look great up close but the visuals were vastly improved from the original game.
The sounds of Zoo Tycoon were always part of the fun and each animal has a unique call or roar. Hearing elephants trumpeting and lions roaring as you scrolled through your park added to the atmosphere. The background murmur of content visitors would add clues as to the popularity of your zoo. The sound quality was improved for the second release but there were some sound effects which became grating over time, particularly the voices of the visitors.
The original game only required a 233MHz processor, 250MB of hard drive space, 4MB graphics with support for DirectX 8a and 32MB of RAM. I never played it on a machine with that low a spec and so it always ran smoothly for me. The sequel was beefed up significantly but by today’s standards it is still undemanding. For Zoo Tycoon 2 you needed a 1GHz processor, 1GB of hard drive space, 32MB graphics with support for DirectX 9 and 512MB of RAM. For big parks it would occasionally slow down on a minimum spec machine but for the most part both games were stable and reliable.
The Zoo Tycoon series lacks the depth or challenge to satisfy hardcore gamers. It is a gentle and relaxing game to play and for me that is part of the charm. The appeal of animals is universal and the series can be enjoyed by anyone. Zoo Tycoon 2 is a much better game than its predecessor and the developers listened to the feedback from the first release and made improvements in all of the right areas. The educational aspect adds to the appeal and if the franchise has somehow passed you by and you like a bit of tycoon gaming then you can grab Zoo Tycoon 2 for a budget price.