Back in the summer of 1994, I hatched one of the finest plans of my adolescent youth – to borrow Theme Park on Mega Drive from a school chum just before the end of term, meaning I wouldn’t be able to return it until after the summer holidays. And so, that blissful summer was spent constructing 16-bit tourist trap theme parks. Let’s Build a Zoo reminded me of that simpler time, featuring a similar visual style. The only difference is that instead of playing it on a 14” bedroom TV, it’s displayed on a 50” TV in the living room. That’s progress.
The cute and colourful 16-bit style art direction is mildly deceptive, making you initially think this is a simple affair; a game that could have existed in 1994. This isn’t quite the case as it isn’t a typical management game, but rather a micromanagement one. Every single aspect of how the park is run, right down to the bus routes, is under your control. This makes for a surprisingly deep and multifaceted experience. Not to mention one that constantly demands your attention – turn away from the screen for too long, and you’ll discover that your rabbits have bred like, well, rabbits.
There is a degree of flair to the simple visuals too. The engine can cope with hundreds of visitors haphazardly milling around your zoo at once, and the park soon grows in size once additional plots have been purchased. Zooming in and out with the analogue stick is intuitive. Sadly, there is much in the way of hidden detailing – as seen in the recent Two Park Campus.
It starts off simple, as you’d expect, with a step-by-step tutorial. Cast aside expectations of a zoo filled with elephants, giraffes, and other exotics – you’ll need to invest a good dozen hours to reach that stage. Instead, this venture begins with what can only be described as a ‘petting zoo’ with smaller animals such as rabbits, geese, and pigs. Shops, attractions, facilities, and decorates must be researched – and a generous number of tokens are provided each day – while acquiring animals is far more complex than just opening a menu.
It seems developer Springloaded was keen to stress that animals aren’t on this planet just to be bought and sold – one of a few morality virtuous themes present. Instead, animals have to be traded with other zoos from around the world or taken in from adoption centres. Random events can also result in new arrivals, such as responding to an SOS after a forest fire. Trading turns out to be quite time-consuming, as most zoos only want rare breeds or variants. This is where DNA splicing and breeding programs come into play. Breeding pairs can be taken ‘backstage’ – meaning they’re no longer on display to the public – and the chance is there to produce a rare new breed. This process takes around 30 minutes, more or less setting the pace for your growth and expansion.
DNA splicing is an odd inclusion, and one I didn’t necessarily care for. Essentially, hybrid animals can be created – random critters with snake heads, for instance. While it does lend a slight ‘gotta splice ‘em all’ slant to the proceedings, and younger gamers may get a kick out of it, it does dilute and distract from the core experience somewhat. In short: I didn’t want these monstrosities in my zoo.
I do also wonder how younger gamers would cope with the more sinister aspects. While far from morbid, Let’s Build a Zoo is a little bleak in places. When animals die, they’re carted off to the incinerator – operated by a chap that enjoys his job a little too much. It’s also possible to invest in meat processing, glue factories, and leather workshops – although these greatly impact your morality. Making positive choices unlocks more green solutions, such as recycling centres – which can make a small amount of cash while increasing publicity.
One of the most surprising ideas is the ability to invest in new industries – features that don’t emerge for some time. Essentially, zoos can become self-sufficient – crops can be grown (lending a Harvest Moon/Stardew Valley twist) to feed animals or sold for a profit, while water towers and wind farms cut bills. Farms do, of course, take up valuable space. The zoo demands your attention constantly even when at its smallest, so you can imagine how demanding the experience becomes once extra layers are applied. On top of this, once additional decorations start to unlock you’ll likely want to redesign entire areas with new themes, even if it does mean saving up cash.
This is what makes Let’s Build a Zoo so compelling and engaging – there’s a magnitude of gauges to fine-tune to ensure maximum profits, happy visitors, and healthy animals. Visitor’s thought bubbles give some indication of how you’re doing (amusingly, even if your entry fee is dirt cheap, some will still moan it’s too expensive) while at the end of a week a performance breakdown is provided. Adding to this, there are tasks to complete too – each with a cash reward – and these can be tracked or hidden off-screen. Even the recruitment process allows for micromanaging – after an advert has been put out, it’s then a case of waiting for applicants before negotiating pay. One of the only real downsides is that there is quite a bit of waiting; that and the cursor can easily become obscured.
Let’s Build a Zoo throws a lot of ideas into one big pot – it almost seems as if barely a single idea from pre-development was left on the table. Farming, moral choices, DNA splicing, trading, breeding, a colossal research tree to explore – all these ideas and more, most of which are gradually introduced. While this may sound like a recipe for disaster, the result is something comforting and moreish. A digital trail mix with both sweet and savoury, able to satisfy all kinds of tastes.
Published by No More Robots, Let’s Build a Zoo is available now on all formats. It debuted on PC in 2021.