When I was a child, nothing worked better to control what little homicidal impulses lay within than building a zoo inexplicably filled with dinosaurs, all of them housed in inescapable pits and dropping visitors one by one into them. There would be screams as guests tried to run from velociraptors and T-Rexes. This was the main pleasure I, and many others, derived from the original Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs in 2002, and one of the reasons that zoo-building games are so much fun compared to other tycoon games. Nature is chaotic, trying to house it can be chaotic, even more so when you deliberately remove the fences.
In the beginning, the best example of a zoo game was Zoo Tycoon, the first game released by Blue Fang in 2001. This game set the template for every other successful zoo game, giving players a wealth of animals to house and make happy by adjusting their environments. It also made you contend with the business side (this was before unlimited money) and try to please your customers, who were often obnoxious and demanding no matter what you gave them. Thankfully the lion’s fence was easy to delete.
In the beginning, the best example of a zoo game was Zoo Tycoon, the first game released by Blue Fang in 2001.
Not only were players able to build the zoos of their dreams, but also play God with the lives of guests, making it doubly fun. Zoo Tycoon also defined the two expansions which would recur in many other zoo builders – the addition of prehistoric life in Dinosaur Digs, and the chance to build an aquarium with Marine Mania. Both of these enhanced the original enormously and made the game and its sequel Zoo Tycoon 2 the hugely enjoyable, albeit often slow, challenge they became known for.
Zoo Tycoon 2 pretty much improved everything, allowing for more in-depth gameplay, more animals, and gave the game its needed 3D graphics. In terms of modern gaming, few have topped it for its enjoyable experience. It balanced the business side with the educational, emphasising the needs for conservation while also allowing players to make safari parks and even bigger aquariums. Strangely, the only downside was that the dinosaurs didn’t work nearly as well in 3D, and look ridiculous compared to their original counterparts. That being said, they knew how to rampage in displays of violence only Jurassic Park Operation Genesis, the zoo builder for fans of that franchise were offered, could match.
It balanced the business side with the educational, emphasising the needs for conservation
Other examples in the genre that have worked well included Wildlife Park 2, which graphically was on par, offering a whole different set of animals and staffing approach to Zoo Tycoon, but lacked the same level of depth and replay value. Other examples, My Free Zoo and Zoo Park try but often feel more restricting and stifle player’s creativity. And of course, zoo builders on the phone have been done, but they never capture the magic or mania of the original games that gave players the true freedom to build what they wanted, and more importantly, let them destroy all they had built for the final apocalyptic adrenaline rush. In order to improve and remain fun, zoo builders need to be as open as Zoo Tycoon, improve the graphics and allow for the impulses of the player, be they to make something aesthetically pleasing, a nurturing home for animals, or a death trap for guests waiting to happen. Let players play god and they will continue to be content.