The technological constraints of old video games often led to some highly creative experiences.
In logical or narrative terms, these games would often make very little sense whatsoever, but taken from a strictly abstract, mechanical perspective, they had the potential to provide extremely compelling, addictive experiences.
One such example was 1983’s Zoo Keeper, a game developed by Keith Egging and John Morgan from Taito’s American division. This game clearly drew influences from a number of popular Eastern and Western games such as Qix, Donkey Kong and Frogger, ultimately leaving it as a rather intriguing and underappreciated title with a strong sense of its own identity.
Zoo Keeper’s premise has its protagonist Zeke attempting to rescue his girlfriend Zelda (this was the ’80s, remember) from a zoo in which the animals have escaped. Conveniently, Zeke is not only a zookeeper, he is also a dab hand at rapidly constructing brick walls and leaping like an athlete, making him an eminently suitable candidate for the job that is apparently at hand.
There are three main types of level in Zoo Keeper. The most frequent involve animals emerging from the centre of the screen and attempting to escape onto the rectangular plane that Zeke is able to run around. As Zeke runs, he constructs walls beneath his feet, with additional “layers” of wall being added each time he runs over them, but animals damage the walls each time they bounce off them.
The goal in these stages is simple survival until a timer at the top of the screen expires, though attaining high scores requires you to ensure as many animals as possible are enclosed by the walls at the end of the level. Animals that have escaped can be pushed back into the centre by collecting a net, which is always one of three items that appears on the playfield at a set interval on the timer bar, but Zeke loses a life if he touches an escaped one; this can be avoided if no net is available by jumping over them.
These stages are about area control in a vaguely similar way to the earlier Qix; indeed, Zoo Keeper was available as a conversion kit for Qix machines, further emphasising the connections between the two. There’s a different focus, though; while in Qix you have to play aggressively in order to capture as much of the play area as possible, in Zoo Keeper you’re primarily playing defensively in an attempt to hold back the tide of angry animals.
The second type of stage you’ll come across is a simple platformer. Zelda is at the top of the level being held hostage by a monkey flinging coconuts at Zeke, and in order to get there you’ll have to traverse numerous moving platforms while ensuring you don’t get hit by a coconut or fall off the bottom of the screen. These levels play like a cross between Donkey Kong and Frogger, requiring careful timing and observation of patterns in order to succeed.
The final type of stage you encounter in the game is positioned as a “bonus” stage in which you can earn an extra life, but completing it is mandatory to proceed; here, Zelda is once again out of Zeke’s reach, but this time at the top of a set of escalators. To reach the escalators, Zeke must jump over animals that are continually bursting out of their cages and land carefully in the right place to reach the next floor, then the process must be repeated until you reach Zelda.
After all this, you just keep going until you can’t last any longer; as you progress, things get more difficult in various ways. In the zoo keeping stages, challenge is added by starting the level with less pre-existing wall or even no wall whatsoever, while the platforming stages get more complicated and the escalator stages feature more and more floors to traverse.
Like most old arcade games of the era, Zoo Keeper doesn’t really have an end or a point to it; it’s purely a game about chasing high scores and seeing if you can survive a little bit longer than you did last time.
And dear God is it addictive once you get your head around the initially baffling controls in the zoo keeping segments. It’s satisfying to play and evocative of a simpler time with its muffled, bleepy synthesised music before and after games, its blocky but clear graphics, its gorgeously crunchy sound effects and, of course, its simple to understand but tough to master mechanics.
Zoo Keeper remains a strikingly enjoyable game today because of its uniqueness; it was highly original back in its day, and it is one of the few arcade games from a high-profile manufacturer that didn’t find itself imitated by an endless parade of clones and knock-offs. It’s immediately recognisable through a combination of its unusual play style and energetic, colourful, pulsating visuals; witness its attract mode and it’s obvious that this is a game just itching to be played. And Jeff Minter fans will be right at home.
It has, however, remained largely unknown since its original release due to a combination of factors. It released in 1983, which was just in time for the “great video game crash” — though according to designer John Morgan it was at least the number three arcade game of that year in the US — and it also never received any ports to home systems, despite development being underway on an Atari 2600 version.
Today, of course, we’re in a much better position to be able to archive and emulate previously all-but-forgotten experiences like Zoo Keeper. And you really should! It’s a potent reminder that game designers have always found ways to buck the popular trends of the era to create something altogether unique. And, well, it’s just a damn fun game in its own right, too.
More about Zoo Keeper
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