Zoo Tycoon impresses you immediately with its animals. The authentic and adorable behaviors they exhibit make Zoo Tycoon an endearing game that fosters an appreciation for the diversity of creatures with whom we share this planet. Unfortunately, Zoo Tycoon's interface makes the work of building and managing your zoo really feel like work, diminishing the pleasures to be had in creating a great place for people to observe and interact with the animal kingdom.
You spend some of your time with Zoo Tycoon in what's called zoo view, controlling a zookeeper who can run about the zoo grounds on foot, or leap into cute buggies that look like tigers or zebras and go careening about on four wheels. The buggies are fun to drive, and come complete with hand brakes you can slam on to make wild turns and leave tire tracks in your wake. And don't worry; you can't hurt anyone, no matter how recklessly you speed about in your elephant buggy. It's also in zoo view that you can interact with animals, holding out fruit or vegetables to be plucked right from your hands by elephants, giraffes, or antelopes; spraying hippos, rhinos, and other animals; or playing monkey see, monkey do with lions, tigers, or chimpanzees (which are not monkeys). The first time a giraffe slowly lowers its long neck to grab that apple from you is magical, and it's fun to just watch meerkats stand about in that adorable vigilant pose of theirs or observe bears as they go down a slide.
But the game's other view, called tycoon view, is far more practical for accomplishing the sorts of things you need to spend most of your time doing. In this overhead view, you place new exhibits and edit existing ones, as well as adopt new animals; build concession stands, restrooms, zookeeper centers, and other facilities; and beautify your zoo with all sorts of statues, fountains, topiaries, and other decorations. Placing new exhibits is a breeze, and you never need to put too much thought into designing the layout of your zoo, if you don't want to. Pathways automatically spring up to connect any new exhibits to the existing zoo.
There are benefits to spreading things out in a sensible way, though; guests may not be thrilled if all of the food options are on the far end of the zoo, for instance, or if one section's collection of animals puts the variety of animals on display in another section to shame. Monitoring this stuff is easy; at any time, you can "ping" anything from the social satisfaction of animals to your guests' satisfaction with entertainment options, and you get a quick, at-a-glance indication of how these wants are being met across the zoo so that you can easily spot problem areas. Zoo Tycoon also notifies you about problems as they spring up--animals falling ill from neglect, guests complaining about the lack of food options, or what have you--so it's easy to prevent any trouble from getting too out of hand.
But while it makes some actions easy, the interface makes others needlessly time-consuming, and since you need to do the same sorts of things over and over again in Zoo Tycoon, this becomes a serious source of frustration. New exhibits typically require an assortment of amenities--feeding stations, cleaning stations, toys, and the like--and you need to click through a few layers of menus to select and place each of these things, each time you create a new exhibit. Similarly, you might know that you want three Malayan tigers to populate your new tropical exhibit, but you can't just go to the list of available Malayan tigers, select the three you want, and watch as they're dramatically helicoptered in. Instead, you need to select Edit exhibit, then Animals, then Adopt new animal, then Tigers, then Malayan tiger, then choose a single tiger, three times over. As you go through these motions again and again, you rapidly start wishing that the game had a smarter, more streamlined interface.
The three modes of play let you approach Zoo Tycoon as either a leisurely experience or a somewhat challenging, goal-oriented one. Freeform mode gives you unlimited money and lets you build the zoo of your dreams, though you can't just go hog wild and build all the biggest exhibits with all the most exotic animals immediately. As you expand your zoo, your zoo's fame level rises, slowly giving you access to new exhibit types, species, and facilities. With unlimited funds, though, there are no impediments; you can eventually feature those scimitar oryx you've got your eyes on, but it'll take a while.
Challenge mode starts you off with limited funds and requires you to manage your zoo smartly if you're going to stay afloat by hiring staff, attracting crowds with advertising campaigns, and so on, though these concerns are introduced at a manageable pace, and the in-game notifications offer plenty of guidance, making this an accessible management simulation that never overwhelms. Campaign mode is similar to Challenge mode but presents you with scenarios that have specific goals you must complete within a time limit. All three of these modes can be played cooperatively online with up to three friends, and only with friends. There is no online matchmaking or even an option to host or join a public game, which makes sense given the family-friendly nature of the game and the way players need to cooperate and communicate to build a zoo that all players are happy with.
There's a lot to like about Zoo Tycoon. Wandering the grounds of your zoo and interacting with animals can be a delight. And the game presents its concepts in a way that's accessible to players new to management sims, but still makes building a successful, flourishing zoo a rewarding achievement. It's just a shame that the game forces you to spend so much time bogged down in its clumsy interface, when all you want to do is build a better zoo.