When everything goes well and you aren’t stressing over the timer and finances (even if perhaps you should be and just don’t realize it yet), there’s a lot to love about Zoo Tycoon. It’s possible to sweep over the landscape you shaped from high overhead, panning and zooming in and out. Pressing the appropriate button seamlessly drops you to ground level, where you can zip through the crowds in a cart, or walk slowly and gawk at wildlife as animals wander around their enclosures, bathe, eat, or just play. Pedestrians start feeling fake the minute you pay much attention to them, but the fuzzy main attractions are thoroughly convincing, with proper attention paid to nearly every whisker. You can even build points of interaction with animals, which lets you get up close and personal as you hand fruit or vegetables to a hungry giraffe or make faces through glass at a chimpanzee or tiger.
Sadly, the number of unique animals you see the most of is lacking. There’s a high headcount, but also a few questionable omissions (otters, penguins, kangaroos, and, perhaps most egregious of all, pandas), and the only wild cats in sight are tigers and lions. Smaller enclosures feature a variety of other interesting options like parrots and snakes, but it’s hard not to wish for more.
The game’s bigger issue, however, is poorly planned navigation. It’s difficult to even figure out how to get a game going with friends—who can play online in your zoo if you invite them from the correct screen—and far too much of the core experience amounts to menu diving while you ignore the pretty visuals. You’ll have to access the top level of a menu tree to bring up options for a given exhibit, for example. Then you must indicate whether you want to deal with animals or with the structure itself.
Suppose you want the latter. You next are asked to specify a station for general care, an enhancement for the animal’s amusement, or an interaction point for visitors. Incredibly, menus sometimes go a couple of layers deeper than that, making for a convoluted experience. Most choices feel like they could have been merged into only one or two screens and the game would have been better for it. Over the course of however many dozens of hours you spend with the game, the chores you must perform definitely live up to their name and that’s a real shame.
Capturing the feeling of actually being at a zoo is nigh on impossible in video game form. The smell alone... oh man. But Zoo Tycoon does an admirable job at least orienting its players with the logistics of running one, dropping in some well-researched facts about the animals to boot. Though the interface will pressure you and you'll find yourself wondering where all the panda bears have gone, there are many enjoyable hours to be had here.