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Zoo Keeper
System: DS :: Rating: Everyone :: Players: 1
Genre: Puzzle :: Released: 17 January 2005

By Michael David Sims
I like simple games. Not because they're simple, mind you, but because they're often deceptively hard and more addicting than the latest stylized, graphically intense, hype magnet. Think Pac Man, Tetris, Bejeweled and Lumines and you'll fondly recall wasted hours spent in front of the flickering screen attempting to master the high score as sweat beaded your forehead. With every pellet collected or line formed you inched closer to claiming the top spot on the machine itself, marking your territory with nothing more than the three letters your parents bestowed upon you at birth. With that, you would set the bar for everyone who would play afterwards. Even if you weren't present to see their many attempts, a little piece of you—those three initials—would be left behind as your legacy. If you were lucky enough, the next time you entered the arcade or turned on the handheld device, they'd still be there flashing your glory for all to see. But, with you back at the controls, it was now your turn to dethrone the king by besting your own high score.

And that's all those are about; racking up the highest score to see who's the best is a much easier concept to grasp than taking on the role of a Spartan bent on killing Ares or that of a freshly released convict looking for those responsible for his mother's death. In games like God of War and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the goal is to complete the game. Once that's over with, there's very little reason to go back—despite unlockable incentives that usually add little to actual gameplay. When it comes to Pac Man and any games that keep track of score, the objective isn't to beat the game but to trounce your buddies in an effort to prove who's best. And such is the case with Zoo Keeper.

If you've played the afore mentioned Bejeweled, you've all but played Zoo Keeper. The objective is to arrange three or more similar items to form a line (vertical or horizontal); once formed, said line disappears and more tiles drop from the sky to clutter your screen. You keep this up until either the timer has run out or your hand grows weary. That's Bejeweled; that's Zoo Keeper.

Despite their surface similarities, there are three differences between these two games. First and the most obvious is that the former has you lining up gems, while the latter uses cute little blocky animal heads. The longer you hang in there, the more animals that are added to the mix. Monkeys, hippos, elephants, alligators, pandas, giraffes, lions and rabbits are all there for you to collect. While it may not seem like a major divider between the two, the animals add personality to the game. Say you're neglecting the giraffes—which may not be your fault, because sometimes animals just don't line up for a long time; but say it anyway—they're expression will change to that of anger and later sadness. Not only is it a clue that you need to collect more of them, but it also makes them feel alive in a very Tamagotchi sort of virtual way. Because everyone has their heart torn when they hear a puppy cry or see a hurt animal, the subtle changes in their expressions helps to pull you into the game. And while it might seem silly to feel a pang of guilt for neglecting a virtual animal, it happens nonetheless.

The second difference here is the use of the stylus. Because this is a DS game, the touchscreen comes into play and actually makes everything much easier. While one could use the D-pad and buttons to deftly move the cursor around and rotate the animals, the stylus and your own hand-eye coordination make for a much more engrossing gaming experience. Because you're tapping the screen, pushing their little face into neat rows and columns, you come to feel as if you are the nameless zookeeper. Playing with the buttons, on the other hand, removes you from that and makes it all feel like what is—a game. And, personally, I'd much rather play a game I feel part of than a game that detaches me from the experience.

Critics and fans alike have panned the Nintendo DS, especially since the release of Sony's PSP. While some of the harsh words are justified (namely, that there's a lack of titles, especially those of the third-party variety), others are downright ignorant. The two systems are built for entirely different audiences. To say the DS is for younger gamers is what gets me riled up, because it's not. The PSP is for gamers on the go; gamers who want a complete multimedia experience will love Sony's machine. By now we've all heard about its capabilities, and either marvel at them or scoff at the price. The less expensive DS, on the other hand, is for gamers who want nothing more than a machine that plays games. And while they get that, the use of the stylus and touchscreen helps immerse the player into the world they see on the dual-screens. When you're forced to become an active participant in the game—such as in DDR, Donkey Konga, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Feel the Magic: XY/XX and even ICO (where you're forced to hold Yorda's hand throughout the entire game)—your engagement is held that much tighter and the experience feels deeper... even when playing a simple game such as Zoo Keeper.

Lastly, is the crazy, cigar shaking boss; he's an arrogant, demanding fellow that insists on reminding you just how lame and utterly useless you truly are after every screw-up. No matter how many points you rack up or animals you collect, he's never satisfied. Much as the crying/angered animal face gave personality to Zoo Keeper, this baldheaded little man breathes life into it. Though I can't say I've ever had a boss as mean or demanding as this one, several have come close. Once again, this grabs you by the ears and yanks you into the experience, and that's something I can't say about the classic that is Bejeweled.

Truthfully, I loathe comparing one game to another, mostly because it more often than not spells doom for the title that is being compared to the older of the two. However, in this case, I'm confident in saying that Zoo Keeper outshines its cousin in every aspect. And while some might find the core gameplay repetitive (and the graphics lacking), there are enough modes—Zoo Keeper, Tokoton, Quest, Time Attack and Two-Player (an added bonus is that only one copy of the game is needed for head-to-head play)—to ensure that you'll spend hours on end attempting to engrave your initials at the top of the lists of high scores.

Score: 8.0 of 10

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