This is what I've decided: All sims are the same. I don't care if you're building railroad empires, Caribbean resorts or large cities, all sims are the same. The interfaces will vary slightly and the gameplay may differ a bit, but, in the end, there's just no difference.
So, what would make you want to pick one over the other? For reasons of relevance, what would make you pick Zoo Tycoon over, say, Sim City? Personal interests. That's it. Well, maybe system specs, but mostly personal interests. Do you enjoy lions more than electrical power points? Are you more interested in tropical insects than in public transit systems? That's what the creators of Zoo Tycoon are counting on.
First, I must echo Bill Stiteler's amusement in this game's title. Zoo Tycoon. Want to know the definition of a tycoon? According to dictionary.com, it's "A wealthy and powerful businessperson or industrialist; a magnate." Now, I don't pretend to be an expert on business history, but I can say with some degree of certainty that no person has ever made his billions on zoos. Not the Rockefellers, not the Sultan of Brunei, and not Martha Stewart. Those who get into zoos tend to do so for their love of animals or for the betterment of the community, not to crush the common man on their way to their first billion. So, why Zoo Tycoon? Simple. The game's published by Microsoft. Maybe by convincing themselves that everyone is an evil businessperson at heart, it eases their conscience. What's next, Microsoft? Habitat for Humanity Volunteer Tyrant?
All that aside, I greatly enjoy zoos. I've been to some of the biggest this country has to offer, and my wife and I are members of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, having adopted over the years a colobus monkey, an ostrich, and a Kirk's Dik Dik (honestly, with a name like that, how could we not adopt one?). So, when I saw that Zoo Tycoon was being released for the Mac, I was pretty happy. Finally, a sim with subject matter that interested me. Zoo Tycoon did not disappoint.
First of all, I'm thrilled that Zoo Tycoon kept the system specs to a minimum. It's slightly less pretty than Sim City 4, but it's also much faster and still just as fun to look at. This is a sim game, after all; it needn't look like Aliens vs. Predator 2. With it's bright colors and detailed animations, it does just that. It has a carnival-type appearance that perfectly matches the content of the game.
The music is pretty good here, as well. Yes, it's your typical jungle beat music that seems to accompany all animal related media (as if every animal lives in the jungle), but that's fine, even if the music here is more like jungle music as recorded by El Debarge. It fades nicely into the background when it needs to. I wasn't quite as impressed with it as I was with Railroad Tycoon II or Tropico's music, but it's good enough.
The ambient sounds are where this game excels. The roars and chatter of the different animals are very well done, and it won't take too long before you can distinguish them...provided you can hear them over the din of the crowds (and the insanely loud toilet). Imagine being at a real zoo and being able to hear every exhibit and visitor at once, and you kind of get a feel for what this is like. It's frantic, but effective. Besides, the more noise you hear, the more money's rolling in.
Now, how about the game itself? The best news is that it's a bit easier to pick up than many other sims. The tutorials do a decent job of presenting the basic tools, and a quick read through the manual will help you understand some of the finer details. Beyond this point, most games leave you on your own. Not Zoo Tycoon. Here, you've got Zookeeper Recommendations to keep you happy. Let's say you've built a fence and put a bear in it. Why not? People love bears. But what do you know about them? What kind of grass do they prefer? What kind of foliage? Do they like to have toys? How about companions? It's a lot to worry about, but the Zookeeper does this for you. He not only tells you whether the animal's happy, but also how to make it happy. If you follow the Zookeeper's advice, a green happy face appears above the animal when you make the right adjustment to its habitat. If you make the wrong adjustment, a red sad face will appear.
The Zookeeper isn't the only method of receiving advice on an animal. The information panel can display Animal Facts which teach you about the animals and their habitat. By reading through this quickly, you can better plan out your exhibits to make sure your animals start and remain happy. Savannah animals, for instance, will want savannah trees in their exhibit. There's still some hit or miss, though, as many of the animals can be quite picky and will reject certain elements from within their own habitat.
Now, the better your exhibits, the more visitors you will attract. They need to be cared for as well, so you'll have to plan out an attractive zoo that offers not only a wide variety of exhibits, but also the various items humans need to be comfortable: restrooms, concessions, souvenirs, trash cans, etc. Visual items such as flower beds and fountains go a long way as well. Keep those humans happy to keep those dollars rolling in. You'll know how they feel, too. Messages occasionally pop up to tell you how you're doing, and you can click on individual visitors to see exactly how the feel about exhibits, concessions, restrooms and the like.
The money can be spent on new animals and items for their exhibits, but some of it also has to be funnelled into research. Only through research can you acquire some of the more exotic exhibits, such as reptile and insect habitats. Of course, the more you expand, the more help you'll need to keep things running smoothly. Your Zookeeper takes care of you, but you'll need to hire staff members to take care of the animals and visitors. Tour guides, maintenance workers and zookeepers are all necessary to keep your zoo running effectively. Like the animals, staff members can be named and tracked, so it's fairly easy to remember who's who...and more fun when you fire them.
his may seem like quite a bit, but there's actually plenty more. Animals sometimes become ill, for instance, which can affect other animals in the exhibit before they're healed. Fences become damaged and need repairing. Kids fall into the gorilla exhibit.
Okay, okay, kids don't really fall into the gorilla exhibit, but it'd be pretty cool if they did. Perhaps in a future expansion pack...Zoo Tycoon: When Animals Eat Children.
Despite everything going on, the game's fairly simple to manage. Unlike in other sims where early mistakes can cripple you later in the game, Zoo Tycoon lets you know pretty quickly if you're blowing it. If your animals aren't happy, you won't be allowed to adopt others until you improve the current conditions. If the visitors aren't happy, you'll see their numbers drop off. As long as you don't rush things, it's not too hard to build a profitable zoo.
Not everything is a breeze, though. It takes a few run-throughs to figure out on what type of land to build that giraffe exhibit or just how much space the wolves need. You can always demolish the fencing to increase an exhibit's size, but this costs money. Best to plan ahead. Oh, and if you're going to demolish the fence in the panther exhibit, make sure you first build the new one. Nothing makes your visitors unhappy faster than a loose panther. Well...except for the maybe the Mac users.
Zoo Tycoon has two modes of play: Scenario and Freeform. Scenario play presents you with different goals you must achieve in a designated period of time. This is what will keep you coming back for more after you've mastered the game. To master the game, you'll want to play in Freeform mode. Here, you can determine with how much money you'll start, then you simply build until you've constructed the perfect zoo or until you run out of money. Although I appreciated the challenge of Scenario mode, I actually spent most of my time in Freeform. My complaint about most sims is that they never give you a chance to just sit back and enjoy what you've created. Zoo Tycoon does.
With everything you can do in Zoo Tycoon, you might think that the interface would be messy. You'd be right, too, but in a limited degree. It's easy to find what you want, but hard to work your way around; I'd often close a window when I just meant to look at another. This doesn't harm the game too much, but it can get frustrating when you've got a hungry lion wondering where its food is.
Now, what I'm not sure about is whether my enjoyment from this game stems from the gameplay or the subject matter. I'll have to say both. It should keep novice sim players busy for a while, and parents and teachers should love this game as it teaches both biology and finance in a way that'll hold the attention of younger gamers. Sim veterans, however, may outgrow this one fairly quickly. In that event, Aspyr has you covered; they've just announced the Zoo Tycoon: Marine Mania expansion pack, which will also include Dinosaur Digs. Along with new scenarios, buildings and attractions, you'll get 20 new marine animals and 20 prehistoric beats. Finally, the ancient question will be answered; who would win in a fight between a giant squid and an ichthyosaurus, and how many t-shirts will the battle sell?
I guess, it doesn't matter, really. By the time your zoo tycoon builds an exhibit like that, you just know Bill Gates is going to buy you up and make your exhibit accessible only to Xbox owners.