Let’s Build a Zoo reminds us why tycoon games were once an industry monolith, but also why the genre couldn’t stay at the top forever. Morality mechanics, plenty of animals, and an appealing visual style all make this Zoo one you want to visit, but some tired systems and a slightly clunky Switch control scheme means you might not stick around for more than a few breeding seasons.
In 2022, the tycoon genre is something of an enigma. With the big hitters like the Roller Coaster series watered down beyond belief for mobile titles, games like Mini Metro and Tracks opting for zen-like puzzle-based gameplay over transport management, and the Two Point games still spiritually linked to their inspirations. Right now, there’s no guiding light for the genre to look up to, and no developer that has truly reimagined the peak of early noughties tycoon titles in a way that feels fresh.
That’s why it’s not a surprise to find that Let’s Build a Zoo for Switch isn’t trying to break the mould either, but instead perfect the formula that the tycoon genre thrived on when the latest Nintendo handheld was a colour GBA and flatscreen TVs still weren’t flat. It’s in many ways a nostalgia simulator, with gameplay, visuals, and even the tongue-in-cheek irony-laced worldbuilding calls back to the heyday of the zoo/park/hospital tycoon.
The premise then is pretty simple, as you start the game with a pile of cash, an empty plot of land, and a few contacts in zoology. From here, you develop facilities and animal pens, take on staff and train them up, and swap animals with a worldwide zoo network to increase the number of rare breeds in captivity. All of this is in effort of creating a fantastic zoo, sure, but also to finish the tasks you’re set by those associated with the park, from creating new bus routes, to breeding rare varieties of pig.
One of the gimmicks, for lack of a better word, in Let’s Build a Zoo is that CRISPR technology is a large part of the future of your park, regardless of whether you want it to be or not, and after you garner a few different species of animal in your park, the cross-breeding commences. It’s a fun idea to have a pen belonging to a duck-pig and a horse-goose, but it doesn’t provide much to the gameplay besides a clear differentiator between this zoo game and others, and it feels like there could be more from the crossover species, or if there is and I haven’t found it yet, it could come earlier in the game.
There’s also the matter of morality, which at first feels like a strange way to incorporate a Fallout 3 mechanic into a tycoon game, but slowly reveals itself as one of the defining factors in Let’s Build a Zoo. I say Fallout 3, but the best way to think about the morality split in this game is to compare it to Stardew Valley, in which the moral path you take either promotes clean living and social equality, or selling glue and meat from the livestock you keep and kill in the park. It’s also pretty black and white here, with your zoo either a force for good or a hive of evil and no room for any grey in between.
The morality factor doesn’t just affect how people think about your zoo, but how you can continue to develop it. I, a goodie-two-shoes in full effect, went to make my zoo a hub of clean energy, using the research board – the in-game mechanic for unlocking new decoration, facilities and features for your zoo – to try and forge a path to recycling bins and wind turbines. I will credit the developers here for how they introduce the research concept early on as a fundamental in making your zoo the place to be, and you need to interact with research regularly if you want to expand and continue to make healthy profits.
The nuts and bolts of Let’s Build a Zoo, the animals and park management systems, are basically what you’d expect them to be. I’m sorry if that’s a cop-out for those looking for a long, discursive explanation of how it works, but it’s a tycoon game, and if you’re reading this, I assume you know how it works. Remember to feed, water, and mildly engage with your animals, and everything will be fine. The slight issue here is that before you can unlock contraception, some animals like rabbits breed like, well, rabbits, and their constant growing in numbers means that you regularly get an alert related to low water, food, or physical enrichment. The latter, enrichment, can get pretty annoying with the frequency of requests for more play items, so it’s best to try and get as many toys as you can in the pen early on.
While titles like Two Point Campus try and push the tycoon genre ahead visually, Let’s Build a Zoo is happy to make like Stardew Valley and stick to a 16-bit-inspired design that looks like it could have come out in the genre’s early noughties pomp. Better still, the technological advancements mean that the visuals maintain that retro look while feeling much cleaner, adopting the hybrid visual style that is something of a hallmark of games published by No More Robots. Even at their tiny on-screen size, the animals are cute, and that’s all we can really ask for.
Unfortunately, away from the visuals, the Let’s Build a Zoo Switch port shares the tycoon/business simulation genre’s longstanding pitfall in struggling to find a way to make the controls feel as efficient as possible on console. The cursor is particularly hit and miss, sometimes sluggishly crawling across the screen, and this only gets worse as your zoo gets busier, with the small white box that shows you where you’re hovering over often invisible beneath the swell of footfall around the horse enclosure. I also couldn’t figure out how to rotate the zoo itself, which feels strange when the option to rotate facilities is clear and obvious, making it all the more annoying that I can’t physically see whether my paths are connecting to where I’d like them to go.
There’s also menus, the endless menus of a tycoon game, which are as present here as they are in any of the big hitters you might remember from your childhood. I was struck by how similar a lot of the organisational mechanics, like feeding animals and hiring employees feels markedly similar to RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, with no real innovation or attempt to differentiate the mechanics from how they’ve been done a million times before. Like I said earlier, I’m more than happy to have rose-tinted glasses forced on my head when it comes to the pixelated visuals, but I’d rather have left the clunky, neverending menus back in 2004.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that these issues are largely representative of the tycoon genre, and Let’s Build a Zoo is certainly playable. It’s just making little effort to look to the future. There are some exceptions. With another cheeky lend from the Stardew Valley formula, your zoo progress saves at the end of each day, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but creates a gameplay loop that is almost guaranteed to have you playing two or three more days than you intended before popping your Switch into sleep mode just so you can get that black snake and finish a task.
Overall, Let’s Build a Zoo is two things, a tribute to the tycoon games of the peak PC era, and a Stardewification – that’s a word now – of the tycoon genre, with cosy game mechanics shoe-horned in through the morality pathways and adorable animals. While it is a bit of a disappointment not to see more effort at innovation, with some of the mechanics feeling a little lost in time, and the controls still need a little refining for Switch in future updates, Let’s Build a Zoo reminds me why I spent so much time in the world of tycoon games, and why I still hold hope for them in the future.