PedigreeBased on the PC series of the same name, the Zoo Tycoon games are rooted in the business / construction simulation titles that proved to be very popular in the 1990s. These types of games include the SimCity series and its numerous spinoffs, Theme Park, and the Civilization series. These sorts of titles usually appeal to those who take gaming very seriously; perhaps you could say "connoisseurs" of gaming. Thus, a certain level of quality and depth is expected.
Publisher THQ is neither fully innocent nor consistently guilty as a shovelware publisher. Developer Blue Fang Games is an interesting case in that the only games they've ever created are those in the Zoo Tycoon series. This game marks their first appearance on the DS, and one of only two games ever created for Nintendo's portable (the other being Zoo Tycoon 2 DS).
It's worth noting that while neither of the two PC Zoo Tycoon titles were excessively praised nor bashed, they have won numerous awards relating to its family-friendly play. I can't vouch for the prestige of any of these awards, but it's always interesting to find a disconnect between critics and award organizations.
The Critics Said ...Nintendo Power gave Zoo Tycoon the sole positive review. They claim that it "faithfully reproduces the ZT experience, from building exhibits and guest facilities to managing cash flow." I haven't played the original, but I can't imagine the series being this successful if all of the games are similar to this (more on that later). Statements made by other critics seem to fit the shovelware definition to a tee. A few snippets from the critics: "the forced or rushed feeling of this title," "tedious gameplay," "unwieldy controls," and "it will bore you into hatred."Game Informer pleasantly noted that the game is "about as much fun as giving an elephant a suppository." Gee ... a simple "I didn't like this game" would have worked just fine.
- Microsoft!? Publishing shovelware? For shame. I had no idea that they had anything to do with this title, as their name and logo are suspiciously absent from the box cover. Usually, a well-known publisher will smear their logo all over the cover of a game to convey quality to potential consumers. That should tell us something right there.
- These controls are just ... bleeh. The DS is a perfect system for simulation games, as the touch screen and second screen are wonderful for managing the unconventional controls needed to manage a robust entity. But here, the layout is just confusing and awkward. Since only the bottom screen is touch-able, most games will momentarily swap the menu and the main screen view to give a user greater control when placing objects / items. But with Zoo Tycoon DS, you have to move the map, not a cursor, in order to align where you'd like something placed.
- Furthermore, the in-game menus seem finicky. Options don't always get chosen, and maneuvering through the user interface doesn't always react the way in which you'd expect it.
- The graphics leave much to be desired. Characters and items look really murky and uninteresting. I guess they were going for a semi-realistic look on the PC and didn't bother to change its appearance for the DS. Theme Park had cute, pixely sprites that transferred to the DS wonderfully. Additionally, there appears to be some weird lines appearing on the main screen when moving the perspective to a different position. I'm no expert, but I'd assume that it's related to the downsizing of the PC original's graphics to the relatively small resolution of the DS. Perhaps Blue Fang Games should have considered a graphical retooling.
Silver LiningThough I complained a great deal about the controls, perhaps it's just me. If today's little kids are anything like the way I used to be, then they'll suffer through a surprising amount of bad controls if the main focus of the game is appealing enough to them. I don't know how many times I rented Bart vs. the Space Mutants despite its hideous controls. Just thinking of the "dash and jump are the same button, now do a running jump!" controls gives me the shudders. But I loved The Simpsons so much that I braved it. Perhaps young animal lovers can get a kick out of this title.
Our DeductionI'm not one to describe fault where it doesn't exist simply for the sake of this column. Indeed, many of the games we've covered are not shovelware at all. It's a shame, really. This game is best described as unfortunate. It's got Microsoft's deep pockets behind it, so I can't imagine the subpar product being completely due to budget strains. There's no real reason why a game like this can't be good, let alone simply "acceptable." The concept is there, the framework has been on the PC for years, so there's no reason why this game should devolve into shovelware. Sure, the original wasn't extremely spectacular and fans of this genre can be picky, but a few minor tweaks to the controls could have allowed Zoo Tycoon to just miss the shovelware classification. A graphical overhaul could have boosted it even further.