Puzzler Essentials: Zoo Puzzle

You’ve almost certainly played Zoo Keeper at one point or another over the years.

Originally developed as a Web-based game by Tokyo-based animation studio Robot Communications, Zoo Keeper was subsequently ported by developer-publisher Success to a variety of platforms over the years, including Nintendo DS, 3DS, Game Boy Advance, iOS, Android and PlayStation 2.

The latter of these, inexplicably rebranded to the even more generic-sounding Zoo Puzzle (or, more accurately, the questionably punctuated Zoo “Puzzle”) in Europe by publisher 505 GameStreet, is the one we’re primarily concerned with today.

Your first impression of Zoo Puzzle (as we shall refer to the PS2 version hereafter) will almost certainly be that it is a Bejeweled clone. PopCap’s classic first came out in 2001, several years before the first Web-based appearance of Zoo Keeper, so it’s highly likely that the newer game drew a certain amount of inspiration from its spiritual predecessor. But a little deeper investigation reveals that this is far from a simple reskin.

While Bejeweled was simply about scoring as many points as possible by swapping gems around to make horizontal or vertical lines of three like-coloured tiles, Zoo Puzzle has a somewhat different focus. In fact, thanks to its several different game modes, there are a number of different ways you can focus your experience, each of which plays subtly differently while maintaining the same easily understandable mechanics.

Zoo Puzzle’s main mode presents you with a grid of stylised animal faces and challenges you to erase a particular number of each type of animal by incorporating them into a match. Reaching this “quota” for all of the animals erases the whole board and moves you on to the next level, where the goal is increased by one and your scoring potential is increased. As you progress, the difficulty is increased not only by the rising quotas, but also by the addition of an extra type of animals to match. You keep playing until your time runs out; like the original Bejeweled’s timed mode, running out of valid moves on screen simply presents you with a new board rather than ending the game prematurely.

Several of the other modes provide a twist on this formula, including playing against a fixed time limit, attempting to reach a target score as quickly as possible or having to capture a hundred of a single animal rather than filling a quota of all of them. There’s even a two-player mode in which you cooperate rather than compete, which is a nice change to the usual fare in puzzle games.

Probably the most significant challenge comes from the “Quest” mode, which presents you with a series of ten tasks to accomplish while otherwise playing the game normally. These range from the simple (capture a specific number of a particular animal) to the complex (achieve a specific number of chains, or cause a special tile to drop to the bottom of the board) and are all time-limited. The game continues even if you fail one of these tasks, but obviously for the best possible performance you’ll need to work out the best ways to accomplish your goals. This isn’t always easy, as this type of puzzle game always has a certain element of randomness to it, which can sometimes make tasks such as setting up chains as much a matter of luck as it is about skill and strategy.

Probably the most noteworthy thing about Zoo Puzzle from a modern perspective is its aesthetic, which has aged beautifully. Or, more accurately, it hasn’t aged at all, since its simplistic, stylised graphics are utterly timeless, clearly representing what they need to with minimal detail but an obvious sense of personality about them. The different animals are not only different colours but very obviously different shapes, too, not only making it possible for colour-blind players to enjoy the game, but also allowing you to identify possible moves by the silhouette of tiles as well as their colours.

The stylish graphics are wonderfully complemented by some distinctly “retro” sound design, featuring some cheerful music that varies by mode as well as some delightful old-school blips, bleeps and burbles highlighting accomplishments such as combos and chains on the board. Just like with its graphical presentation, Zoo Puzzle doesn’t overdo things on the sound front, and as a result still sounds just as fresh today as it did back when it was originally released — although when playing longer games, it might have been nice to have a few more music tracks on offer rather than looping the same one over and over!

Zoo Puzzle’s core concept may be completely unoriginal, then, but “match three” gameplay became popular for a reason: it’s easy to understand, but flexible enough to overlay additional mechanics on top of to create distinctive experiences.

Zoo Puzzle demonstrates that very ably; the simple addition of the “animal quota” system to the main gameplay gives the action a rather different focus to Bejeweled, and consequently gives the game a different sense of pacing, too. Whereas Bejeweled could often feel like a battle of endurance — that and hoping your luck would hold out so you wouldn’t see that fateful “NO MORE MOVES” display for at least a few more turns — Zoo Puzzle is, regardless of game mode, more clearly split up into bite-size “levels”, allowing you a moment’s respite from the puzzling action when you successfully accomplish a goal. On the other hand, Zoo Puzzle’s unforgiving timer does give the game a certain frantic feeling that the comparatively sedate Bejeweled lacked even in its timed mode.

In short, it’s a fine puzzler that still holds up well today and is well worth your time, whether you choose to seek it out on one of its original platforms or indefinitely extend your next few toilet breaks by installing it on your phone or tablet.

I’ll always have a soft spot for that PS2 version, though, because although puzzle games are ideally suited to handheld gaming devices and smartphones, there’s still just something nice about playing a game like this while relaxing on the couch in front of the TV.

More about Zoo Puzzle

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