Zoo Keeper Nintendo DS Review

Trends have shown that it's the bottom touch screen on Nintendo's DS that never gets enough use. Gameplay is usually reserved for the top screen and developers are baffled as to what to do exactly with the systems most unique feature. Enter the highly addictive "Zoo Keeper," a basic graphics swap of a popular online flash game that just seems to be made for this system.

Those who have lost hours of their lives with "Bejeweled" will be able to instantly pick up the console and play. It's a bit different than most puzzlers in that there are no screens to clear. In fact, it's always completely filled. All players are required to do is swap tiles (featuring very abstract animal art), two at time, to create rows of at least three either horizontally or vertically. When cleared, piece fall from the top to fill in the holes.

The only enemy here is time. As players progress through the levels, the timer on the left side of the screen begins to countdown quicker. The only way to move it back up is to clear spaces. In the highest levels, only clearing three tiles seems meaningless. You'll need massive chains to continue on. The stylus makes this play much faster than with a mouse, though if interested, you can use the d-pad and buttons.

To keep things a little more interesting when compared to an online flash game are some game modes, the biggest being multi-player. It only requires a single cartridge (convenience at its best) to play as both players make moves to cut down the others timer. Two out of three declares the winner. It's a shame that solo-players cannot play against an AI opponent, especially considering how much of a solitary game this is.

Normal is a basic game that asks players to capture so many of each animal to move up a level. That quota is raised each time you progress. Tokoton is nearly the same at first glance; it just requires that 100 of an animal be captured for a level up. Each time that goal is reached with each critter, it's another level up. This can be very fast paced with numerous levels being reached in rapid fashion. Point freaks will likely find a home here.

Quest has players going up against an overly cruel boss that throws 10 challenges at the player (always the same) to earn points. You can multiply points if these are played well, but you'll lose significant ground if you fail. Time attack rounds things off, giving players six minutes to earn as many points as they can. It would be nice to be able to set how much time you have, though that's a minor quibble.

Being an exact copy, "Zoo Keeper" carries over the major "Bejeweled" flaw. Combo strings are simply based far too much on luck. Clearing a section of three blocks only to see more fall into the proper space for points is hardly skillful. The top screen on the DS had potential to alleviate this by showing at least a row or two of the blocks that are about to fall, which would let players line up their attacks. Instead, all that goes on up there is some basic animation of the "lucky" animal. In other words, the one you should look to clear for double points.

The other two problems with the gameplay are small complaints. First, there is no penalty for making a wrong move. When stuck, instead wasting a precious help tile (given to players after passing certain point barriers), all you need to do is randomly slide the stylus across the screen in hopes of finding something you're not seeing. That's usually all it takes to break the game wide open.

Finally, there are moments where there are no moves left to make. If you were saving up some special tiles, they're lost as the computer drops an entirely new set. It's no fault of the player since they have no control over what is dropped. It's like penalizing the player for something they didn't do wrong.

There's not much to look at in "Zoo Keeper." All of the tiles are very abstract, hardly even identifiable until you can see them in full glory on the top screen. Intermissions are brief during the quest mode and always feature the boss pointing at the keeper with a text balloon to report on the performance or explain the upcoming challenge. It's not really important what it looks like anyway, as long as the tiles are separated well. They are, so any complaints are negligible.

About the only area where the title completely loses it is the sound. Beyond a few clean voice samples, there is nothing here that doesn't prove to be annoying after a short time. The music is not only monotonous (looping in maddening fashion), but hardly uses the capabilities of the system. The sound effects are only there to give the player some other notification that a move was made. With all the animals, you would expect a few animal noises, no? Thankfully, anything that's annoying you can be turned off in the options menu.

Even though all you really do is move tiles on the four basic directions, "Zoo Keeper" remains relentlessly addictive. It's a game that pulls you in for far too long, enough so that when you finally do look up a clock, you'll be shocked as to how much time you just wasted. It's not a game for those who enjoy the mental challenge of something like "Tetris," but a perfect game for someone just looking to relax for a couple of hours. Or days. Make that weeks.

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