Added 27 December 2002. Last updated 28 June 2004: added link to Zoo Tycoon Tips.

Zoo Tycoon

Maybe it's a sad commentary on the human race that most of our computer games revolve around beating, destroying or conquering enemies/peoples/lands. Or maybe it's simply a reflection of our competitive urge - after all, you have to beat something in a game, don't you? Nevertheless it is interesting that one of the most enjoyable games I have played is the entirely pacifistic Microsoft offering, Zoo Tycoon.

Although it has become fashionable and almost mandatory to knock Microsoft and Bill Gates in particular, I have to say that this is really quite good. The game can be installed quite quickly (in less than 10 minutes, even on a non-cutting edge PC), and after restarting the PC you can then run through a tutorial (or tutorials) showing you how to perform the basic moves of the game. After that you can start either one of the scenarios or a so-called "Freeform Game", where you pick your own site and just keep playing ad infinitum should you so wish. The scenarios are graded in order of difficulty, and you cannot leap ahead: they must be played in order. This is actually a good thing, as the harder ones are quite difficult.

Each scenario involves meeting a certain objective, such as restoring the popularity of a rundown zoo or breeding at least two big cat species in captivity. To pile on the pressure, you normally have to achieve the target within a certain timeframe, say 12 months or two years. Funds aren't unlimited either: you start with a certain amount which is there to be spent on capital projects such as animals or exhibits but also on the ever-present (and usually increasing) overheads of salaries and maintenance. It is almost mandatory to build such items as gift shops, food outlets and compost outbuildings in order to raise revenue. Some of these things, which animal purists might decry as tacky, are also necessary in the game to meet the needs of guests (as are of course toilet facilities and benches to sit on), and in that sense the game is realistic: after all, I find I can't even go round London Zoo (not the world's biggest in size) without a sit down and at least an ice cream or cup of tea. Little things like exhibit signs and waste bins also help towards improving the zoo's approval rating. A helpful HINT here: pausing the game allows you to build stuff while freezing the clock, thus helping you not to lose those valuable days and weeks.

What about the animals themselves? Obviously these are the most important part of achieving your goal, but they can't just be bought and shoved into a crummy little enclosure (if you do do this, animal welfare organisations will picket your zoo and the national board of zoos stops you buying any more animals until you clean up your act). Firstly, you have to spend money building a suitable enclosure, which means checking on the type of habitat that the animal lives in (don't worry, the game provides the necessary info). Some animals are fairly easily satisfied in captivity, especially the smaller ones, but others (especially some of the big cats) can be fickle and demanding. Also make sure that you choose the right sort of fencing, or discontented captives will find their way out and possibly terrorise or even kill visitors, with a resultant plunge in popularity. Space is also important, especially for big creatures such as elephants. From a zoological point of view, incidentally, the available species are almost all mammals, with only the saltwater crocodiles to represent the reptiles, unless you buy the reptile house building. You can also buy an aviary (for birds) and insect house (for invertebrates). Further animals can be downloaded from the Microsoft website if you have the game.

Staff are quite important too, unless you want your animals to starve or walk out through rotting and collapsing fences. Zookeepers can be allotted to an exhibit or exhibits to feed and take care of the animals, while maintenance workers empty the bins (watch how quickly unsightly rubbish soon litters the paths if they don't) and more importantly maintain the fences to make sure the animals don't escape. If you start getting a lot of visitors you may also want to hire a tour guide or two to better organise them.

Zoo Tycoon is not only a clever idea: it's also fun to play and great to look at, with human visitors mingling among the exhibits at the same time as staff go about their chores and the animals themselves display their behaviour (typical or otherwise) within their pens. Buoyed by the success of the game, Microsoft went on to offer two expansion packs (so far) as follows....

Dinosaur Digs

Maybe I wasn't the only one to complain about the underrepresentation of reptiles, or maybe someone at Microsoft's game partners Blue Fang just liked the film Jurassic Park. The latter in any case seems to be the inspiration for this expansion pack, which allows you to stock your zoo with genetically recreated dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. However, it's far from a walk in the park, if you'll excuse the pun. The dinosaurs are quite expensive, not just to recreate but also to house, the biggest ones requiring large acreage and high-voltage fencing to keep them secure and happy. Be warned that angry dinosaurs (the notorious theropods such as Allosaurus or Tyrannosaurus rex) will attack workers or the general public, so you may want to spend money on a dinosaur recapture team. In fact successfully housing and breeding the giant carnivores is one of the hardest challenges in Zoo Tycoon.

Marine Mania

Marine animals (apart from penguins, Californian seals and polar bears) were also neglected in the basic game, but this is amply redressed in Marine Mania, the marine/aquarium extension to Zoo Tycoon. Apart from granting you the ability to add huge water-filled tanks containing such creatures as sharks, killer whales or dolphins, the new attraction in Marine Mania is the ability to add a "Show Tank" where suitable species can put on a show (playing with a ball, jumping up in front of a crowd, etc). An interesting addition to the pantheon of Zoo Tycoon creatures is the giant squid, not least because no-one has even seen one in its natural environment, let alone in a zoo. Maybe Microsoft know something we don't?

If you enjoy Zoo Tycoon and want some hints on play, click here.

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