One of the most addictive handheld games in ages is an essential DS purchase.
I've had my sleep disturbed by no small number of games. Back in the days before GameFaqs, perplexing Zelda block-puzzles used to trouble me so much that hypothetical solutions would often come to me in my dreams; the PS2's Gitaroo Man proved so brain-infesting that every noise sounded like the Mexican insanity of level six; on occasion, I've even been unable to close my eyes without seeing lines of Pikmin marching around in my head.
The monster of all games for messing with the mind, though, has got to be Tetris. A good few hours of it will render almost anyone unable to look at anything for more than three seconds without seeing falling blocks settle on it. Zoo Keeper, as a handheld puzzle game, has far more in common with it than with the other aforementioned examples.
You may already have seen Zoo Keeper in its online Flash incarnation, but I can assure you that with the DS' touch screen it is an entirely different experience - one that will leave you red-eyed and muttering as you frantically try to make neat lines out of all the little animals cavorting around in your head.
To explain Zoo Keeper's premise briefly for those who have not previously encountered it, it's a picture-based puzzle game in which players must use the DS' stylus to arrange a grid of brightly-coloured blocks with a vague resemblance to zoo animals into lines of three or more. Doing so 'captures' the animals and causes them to disappear, dropping the blocks above them down a line and creating possibilities for further captures. Quick block-switching using the touchscreen makes the game an absolute joy to control, rendering lightening-quick combos which would be next to impossible in the game's online iteration easily achievable.
The game is relentlessly bright and cheery, which only adds to its synthesthetic effect. Normal Zoo-Keeping consists of a series of twenty increasingly difficult levels, with climbing numbers f captures for each animal necessary to move on to the next one. Tokoton mode is much the same but requires a hundred captures to move up a level making for some really ridiculous score possibilities. Time Attack is fairly self-explanatory, and Quest mode provides the player with a series of ten quite random challenges such as 'Capture 15 more giraffes than pandas; or 'Drop this block to the bottom'.
What all of this adds up to is a ludicrously addictive, brain-infesting game which will steal hours of your life once it gets its hold on you. Its seductively simple method of play draws you back for one more go time and time again, and then two hours later you'll be celebrating a new high-score, hopped-up on Pepsi and bright colours. Two-player mode, too, is excellent, requiring just one cartridge (no Atari Classics nonsense here) and providing an intensely competitive and addictive experience.
The key to its appeal is arguably that it is always very, very fair. Your zoo-keeping antics are timed, and on the later levels even a few seconds of hovering indecision as you search for a possible threesome of animals can be very costly. If time starts to run out and the animal blocks start to rumble before collapsing entirely, you know it's because you haven't spotted a three - not through any injustice of the game itself.
The only exception to this rule is the Quest mode, which proves unbelievably frustrating on numerous occasions. Your degree of success depends entirely on what grid you start with, and if it's something inconvenient and affects your performance it can wipe out up to seventy percent of your score in one fell swoop - most frustrating when you're on the second-last challenge with a score of ten thousand points.
Happily, though, it is unlikely that any player will spend much of their time in Quest mode. Instead, they'll be happily switching blocks in Normal mode without giving it a thought. The game's lasting appeal easily rivals Tetris, and Zoo Keeper is easily the current-gen puzzle game equivalent of that Russian masterpiece. So suited to the DS' touchscreen control that it's unimaginable to perceive playing without it after an hour or so, Zoo Keeper is addictive, simple and fluent enough to merit a place in the console's as-yet small list of absolute must-owns. And with the extra-cheap price tag, you've no excuse not to procure it.
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Zoo Keeper (Nintendo DS)
Assorted gameplay clips. (640x480, 1.6Mbps)