Pop goes the animals.
Nearly every one of you reading this review has spent hours playing Tetris. Invented by Alexey Pajitnov, it was simple, addictive, and took the world by storm. And since the Soviet government swiped and sold all the rights to the best-selling puzzle game, it probably kept the communists in power for at least a couple more years.
For those unwilling to pay the CCCP license for stacking blocks, it also spawned dozens of copycat, gravity-fed games over the years, like Columns, Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo, Dynomite, Doctor Mario, Money Puzzle Exchanger, Bust A Move, and more.
One of the latest to become popular is the (partially) free online game Bejeweled, which you can play here, or here, or here, or even here. There are also several freeware clones of Bejeweled like Jeweltoy and Perfect Mineral. If you happen to not like gems, you can play it with fruit, treasure, Xmas decorations, funny balls, gears, or crop circles.
Which brings us to Zoo Keeper - yep, you guessed it - a Bejeweled clone featuring animal heads.
Like most decent games in this genre, the gameplay is simple and addictive. Using the DS stylus and the touchpad, you can swap any two adjacent animal heads with the goal of lining up 3 (or more) in a horizontal or vertical row. Doing so will make the row disappear, leaving a gap for more animals to descend from the endless pile of animals in the sky. "Chaining" together strings of completed rows as the animals fall into place will get you bonus points and put some time back on the descending Timer of Doom. Do well, and when time runs out, you can put your name on the high score board.
Zoo Keeper also contains some sort of plot in which an arrogant zookeeper orders you to recapture his rioting animals. It's all told in fascinating Engrish; let's just say that a game of this type doesn't really lend itself to a deep backstory.
There are five ways to play, most of which are nearly identical. In the standard mode, you are given an animal capture quota for each level. Succeed and you'll advance to the next level where the points are higher but the timer runs out more quickly. Tokoton mode is exactly the same, except the quota is always the same: 100 of each animal type. Time Attack mode is exactly the same as standard mode with a fixed six-minute timer.
Quest mode tries to differentiate itself, at least. The capricious zookeeper assigns you 10 tasks of varying difficulty, such as "chaining" a certain number in a row. He then awards or deducts points. Some of these tasks are more inspired than others, though. "Hit the button and get a random result" isn't exactly well designed. Ran out of ideas, did we?
Clearly the most interesting mode is 2P Battle. You only need one copy of the game - have a friend whip out his DS and he can download Zoo Keeper and play against you wirelessly. The goal here is to pop animals and steal from you opponent's health bar until it runs out. Power-ups will randomly appear that can be beneficial to you (i.e. restoring some of your health) or detrimental to your friend (i.e. removing all the color from his screen.) Mwahaha!
The multiplayer seems decent enough, but is ultimately hampered by the random nature of Zoo Keeper. I've been playing for days, so I challenged fellow revolutionary Mike, who had never played, to a Battle. Based entirely on the luck of what new animal heads fell and whether or not he got a powerup, he managed to win nearly half the time. The only slight advantage I had was that I was faster at spotting animals to pop.
The big problem is that because of the small grid and the fast pace, trying to line up or organize a series of chains is (literally) a waste of time. You're better off just going as quickly as possible, although that clearly doesn't always pay off. Curses.
There's not much to talk about in the way of graphics, since the entire game is comprised of little animal heads lined up in a grid. The upper screen shows the "lucky animal," which is worth extra points and has a minor seizure every time it's captured. The sound is worth mentioning only because the background music is the most irritating MIDI of all time and you'll quickly scoot to the options menu to disable it.
Zoo Keeper is an addictive little puzzle game that makes great use of the DS stylus, which finally doesn't feel like a gimmick. Unfortunately, the price of admission to this zoo is a whopping $40. That's an awful lot of dough for a flash game you have been able to play for free for the last two years, although admittedly without animal heads. [Edit: Perceptive readers have pointed out to me that you can play with animal heads. In fact, you can play Zoo Keeper itself in its original flash form right here and save your money.]
Are you kidding me? For a mere $20, I can get Katamari Damacy. For $40, I can pick up both Grand Theft Auto 3 and GTA: Vice City for my Xbox. I could have recommended Zoo Keeper for $10 or possibly even $15, but at full price, this is a complete rip-off. Puzzle games are great to pick up and play when you have 10 minutes to kill, and the Battles, although mostly random, are good fun. But as far as I'm concerned, Zoo Keeper doesn't do anywhere near enough to justify a top-shelf price tag, and has in turn priced itself right out of the market.