Though many console game players may have never heard of it, there's a superpopular puzzle game out there called Bejeweled. It's appeared in numerous forms on the PC, as well as on PDAs, cell phones, and even the Xbox (via Microsoft's fledgling Xbox Live Arcade service). Like most puzzle games, it's a natural fit for handheld platforms like, say, the Nintendo DS. That's where Ignition Entertainment's latest puzzle game, Zoo Keeper, comes in. Zoo Keeper is a shameless clone of PopCap Games' pervasive puzzler, but it replaces jewels with animals and includes a few different modes to choose from. And like the game it gets most of its ideas from, Zoo Keeper is a surprisingly addictive puzzle game.
There's a bit of a story to Zoo Keeper, but as you'd expect, it's extremely thin and not at all relevant to the action. You play as a zoo keeper. You must keep the animals orderly by lining them up in rows of three or more. The game gives you an eight-by-eight grid full of different animal heads. Your interaction with the board is limited to swapping one animal for any animal that's directly adjacent to it. The catch is that you can only make a move if it lines up three or more of the same animal in a row, which causes them to disappear from the board. With those tiles gone, everything else drops down, and new tiles fill in the holes at the top. In the main mode, your only enemy is time, and it's constantly running out. However, by making moves, you can stack more time onto an onscreen meter. Additionally, if you're having trouble seeing any matches, you can click on a pair of binoculars for a quick hint, though these hints are limited. If you find yourself in a spot where there aren't any possible moves, the board clears, you're given a bonus, and a new board is thrown up in its place so you can continue. While you can play Zoo Keeper with the D pad and buttons, this is one game that really plays much, much better with the stylus.
The crazy thing about Zoo Keeper is that it's extremely simple...even simpler than most other puzzle games, which tend to test your reflexes when the difficulty ramps up. Zoo Keeper moves at a much slower pace. You don't have to worry about blocks dropping on you here. It's just you, your stylus, and the board. The only time things get hectic is when the clock nearly expires, which causes the board to shake to let you know that you're almost through. But despite this relatively low-impact gameplay style, Zoo Keeper is really addictive. It's not much of a surprise, especially considering how good Bejeweled was at roping in players from all walks of life, whether they played games previously or not. But it's still worth noting that Zoo Keeper can be hard to put down once you've gotten into it.
Aside from the normal mode, there are a few different variants to choose from, too. Tokoton 100 mode changes the level-up rules a bit. Time attack gives you a limited amount of time to score as many points as possible. Quest is a 10-stage mode, and each stage gives you a different task to complete. Two-player mode, which works with the Nintendo DS one-card multiplayer functionality, lets you compete against another player. When you do well, you remove time from your opponent's clock, and the match ends when one player runs out of time.
Graphically, Zoo Keeper is a one-screen game on a two-screen system. The upper screen is used to show your score and a large picture of the "lucky" animal, which gives you double points for one of the game's animal types. It's bright and colorful, and the blocky animal designs are stylistically interesting. The music and sound effects also contribute to the light atmosphere.
When you look at Zoo Keeper strictly as a DS game and ignore the outside world, it's a great puzzle offering that looks nice and offers play that can be really habit-forming. But when you realize that Zoo Keeper is basically a clone of a game that you can download for free for the PC or for various PDAs, it's slightly tougher to recommend. Still, if you're on the go and you're after a good, strong DS puzzler, Zoo Keeper's definitely worth it.