Zoo Keeper is (probably) my second favourite 'pure' arcade game.
It has to form a queue behind City Connection of course, but Zoo Keeper has a place in my heart alongside it. As I said when talking about Hect and Jaleco's paint-em-up, I'm usually not very good at this kind of play-until-you-die kind of game, almost always crapping out two or three rounds in. Not that I don't enjoy them, but I can never get into The Zone as is often said. That's not to say I'm good at Zoo Keeper either, but it is absolutely a game I understand and appreciate better than others like it, to the point where at Play Expo Blackpool 2018, I may or may not have had to play the game repeatedly just to keep my high score at the top. Actual fierce competition goin' on there! Very unexpected from me, I usually only get this salty about Metal Slug high score tables.
Before we really get started though, we need to talk about the history of Zoo Keeper and where it came from, because while it is indeed a Taito game, it's not exactly the Taito you're thinking of. This one comes to us courtesy of Taito of America Corporation, who didn't just prep Taito of Japan's releases for the US market (or those of other companies, like Technos' Double Dragon and Toaplan's Twin Cobra)- between 1981 and 1984, the US branch's headquarters in Elk Grove Village, Illinois actually developed a total of eight games, which really stand apart from the output of their Japanese branch. These definitely feel more like the kinds of games Bally Midway and Williams were making around the same time (indeed, Colony 7 was worked on by Randy Pfeiffer, who used to work in the pinball division of Williams) and as such they're pretty interesting from a historical perspective. To the point where many moons ago- so long ago I need a Wayback Machine link for this one- I put together an entire look at their catalogue, which includes a link to a news report looking at their offices (including a marquee for a fake game, Toasters & Chainsaws).
Anyway! To get specifically to Zoo Keeper, we're fortunate in that a large part of its development has been documented over at dadgum.com by John Morgan, one of the programmers for the game. It's a fascinating read, and a little look into how the company ran itself (such as the time they completely bullshitted some news crews by leading them to the farthest office of cubicles and calling the area DEEP THOUGHT where 'the heaviest thinking took place', among other things) so we won't recount the entire tale here because it's quite lengthy, but Morgan tinkered with the original concept a lot (including breaking his stopwatch out at location tests) before creating Zoo Keeper as it was released in 1983 (in spite of what the title screen says). It started life as King Crab, where as a crab you'd defend yourself against tadpoles that hatched from eggs in the middle of the screen, eventually morphing into a game about a zoo keeper, Zeke, trying his best to keep rampaging animals at the zoo, including snakes, rhinos and lions, under control while having to rescue his girlfriend Zelda along the way. While the scenario may sound a bit more sensible than crabs fighting tadpoles, Zoo Keeper is anything but a sensible, down-to-earth game. It is 100% arcade madness, the kind that could only exist in that 1983 sweet spot (i.e. seconds before the American market crash, which we'll get back to), so let's see what's going on at the zoo, then.
How does Zeke go about rounding up those animals and saving his girlfriend? In strange and roundabout ways, friend. Similar to other American arcade games of the time such as Tron, Journey and, uh, The Amazing Adventures of Mr. F. Lea, Zoo Keeper has three different screens (ooh, this game's old enough, so can we call 'em boards? Let's do that!), each with their own rules and objectives. Unlike some of those examples and more sophisticated ones from the same year like Major Havoc and Krull, here there's definitely one 'main' type of gameplay, with the others showing up after every two main boards for variety and to give you a hand in racking up high scores and extra lives. That 'main' board, called the bricks board from here on out, has Zeke running around a rectangle surrounding a zoo cage, laying down a wall below his feet as he goes. Each board starts with a few animals inside the rectangle of different kinds- starting with slow ones like snakes and elephants, moving on to rhinos and camels, peaking with the vicious and lightning-fast lions- that bash through the walls Zeke makes, eventually breaking out and running the same circuit as Zeke (not necessarily going around the same way, though) and brushing them kills poor Zeke off. Zeke can leap over the animals (and can change direction mid-jump, which is pretty essential) but otherwise his only defence is the frying pan- uh, I mean, the net, which spawns according to the timer at the top of the screen (alongside points items like clovers and strawberries) and sends animals back into the pen while it lasts. The objective is simple- survive until the timer at the top runs out and you move on to the next board, with bonuses awarded for animals successfully kept inside the pen.
For the first few runs of the bricks board, you could be mistaken for thinking Zoo Keeper is solely about keeping those animals in the pen at all times, so there's less threat to you outside. Zeke is a nippy guy, so bricking them in as soon as possible seems doable. By the fourth bricks board, things start to get a bit out of control, and the sixth bricks board is when any thoughts of keeping up with the animals all the time bolts the gate- the lions will just tear through your bricks like paper. You do get more nets per round as you advance, mind you- later rounds have all the item drops being nets, in fact- but the concept of keeping them all in becomes a forlorn hope (probably why there's no 'perfect' bonus, common at the time). Thus, Zoo Keeper becomes a balancing act of jumping over as many animals as possible, all the dang time, while using the nets to cram as many of them back into the pen as close to the end of the round as possible to squeeze all the points you can out of the round (lions in particular are worth 30000 at the start, but get increasingly more valuable as you make it further and further). The more animals you leap over at once (assuming you safely land!), the more points you get, starting off small- 500 for two animals, 2,000 for three- but eventually becoming absolutely ridiculous, upwards of 30,000, 1,000,000 (!) and even 30,000,000 (!!) per jump. You are, of course, permitted to pop-off if you land such a jump, like so (flashing and loud noise warning on that one, but worth it).
This is the big risk-reward of the game- making those incredibly dangerous and daring jumps for all the points as long as you can figure out how to stick the landing. The thing is, the amount of animals is very chaotic, and yet it is still very possible to gauge your jumps properly. Each animal runs at a certain pace (with some variance between animals of the same species) and as they're introduced fairly steadily, you can quickly learn their paces and judge whether you can make a jump quickly. Difficult, but possible, and very satisfying, especially since the game slows down so much (something we'll get back to later). The controls allowing for mid-air direction change really helps you in this regard. More advanced strategies include utilising the net to make all jumps safe (something made easier by the helpful chime that tells you your net's about to run out) and, as explained by LordBBH during the BONGO-LYMPICS (13:30), keeping a small area of the pen uncovered so that the animals will leave all going the same way around the board, making sailing over their heads much, much easier. It is very much a game that's easy to learn, difficult to master for points (my scores are terrible, for instance, and I tend to cark it around Round 7, so I have much to learn) and relies a little on improvising a strategy based on what the animals are up to. One thing that may throw people off is the controls, because as you move around the board, you have to change direction for corners, but there's a slight amount of leeway- holding Left on the top of the board, for instance, takes you just a little bit around the corner but you'll need to hold Down shortly afterwards to keep going. This takes some getting used to, something exacerbated at home as Zoo Keeper is one of those arcade games that relies on a four-way joystick rather than an eight-way one (similar to Pac-Man), meaning diagonal inputs simply won't register at all. Break out the SNES pad instead of the fight stick for this one! It eventually becomes second nature though, and you'll soon be sailing over animals like it's your job.
The other two board types play quite differently, with their own quirks. The first one, appearing after every two bricks boards, is the coconuts board, where Zelda has been kidnapped by some cheeky monkeys, sat at the top of a screen full of moving platforms. The second one, first appearing after the second coconuts board then after every coconuts board from then on, is the escalator board, with Zelda at the end of a series of escalators and conveyors that have animal-spewing cages on them. Weirdly, this a kind of 'bonus stage' as clearing it gets you an extra life (there's no extends otherwise). While the 'bonus round' is difficult but not particularly involved (albeit aggravating at times- you have to clear it to progress, and it gets tough), the coconuts board is another place where Zoo Keeper's risk-and-reward design comes in, as there's a lot of points to be had there if you have the chops for it. Bonus items that appear on the penultimate set of platforms are worth a lot more than they are in the bricks boards, and you can milk points by jumping to the top platform, jumping down, then jumping back up which skyrockets the points you get until it's 300,000 a jump. Again though, this comes at a cost, as the screen will slowly be filling up with more coconuts, and messing up the landing (by jumping instead of walking off, which can send you tumbling to the bottom) can lead to ruin. Not an advised strategy, because it's probably worth more to try and jump over the animals in the bricks boards, but if you want to wring every last point out of the game, you've got the option.
Upon clearing Round 10 of the bricks board, every second coconuts board will stop showing where the platforms are, leaving you to guess based on previous patterns- John Morgan says this was actually a bug, but was turned into a feature for extra challenge, they even brag about it on the flyer! The only other thing about the coconuts board is that you have to commit to jumps- Zeke can still change direction, but if you miss a higher platform, he'll bounce a little when he hits the ground, which can throw you off a little. Otherwise, it's a neat if challenging break from the main bricks boards, and there's a certain amount of technique to it (you can 'short hop' and instantly hit the platform above you with careful positioning and timing on the joystick input, similar to platforming in The Fairyland Story). In any case, after clearing the escalator board after Round 10, the game will repeat the bricks boards from Rounds 7 to 10 and the matching coconuts and escalator boards forever, leaving it up to you to see how far you can go, and for how long you can keep those zoo animals under control before Zeke carks it.
So, that's what appeals to me about Zoo Keeper in a mechanical sense, but the other big pull is in its presentation. Specifically, Zoo Keeper comes across as an arcade game so wild and untamed that it's barely holding itself together, like it's about to explode or keel over, and I love it. The slowdown, which becomes very prevalent from the fifth cage board onwards, is not only beneficial (obviously, slowing things down allows you to see what you can jump over successfully) but also turns the game into something just barely hanging in there, just like the player, and things like the invisible platforms 'feature' of the later coconuts boards only add to this. It has a lot of charm too, as the pixel art itself does its job pretty successfully, with abstract but still-recognisible forms for the zoo animals, and there's nice little touches like the animation of the monkeys on the coconuts board, the variety of different items to grab such as rainbows, clovers and comically-oversized mugs of root beer, and the curtain lowering on Zeke and Zelda on later rounds of the elevator board to give 'em some privacy as they reunite. Additionally, the sound effects are amazing, with each animal having their own unique and identifiable sound in the end of board tally (that sound like no animal on Earth, of course), jaunty little jingles for the start and end of boards, and all sorts of weird and bizarre noises used for things like grabbing items and whacking animals with the net. The sound of Zeke laying down bricks is one that will either deeply, immensely satisfy you or drive you completely bonkers, so your mileage will vary on that one, but this makes for one loud, ridiculous, over-the-top arcade game... Which is exactly how I like it. Unfortunately, this came at a time when no-one really gave a rat's arse about the potential problems people with photosensitivity might face with video games, so screen-flashing and wild colour-cycling is definitely used with wanton abandon here (especially from Round 7 onwards, where the screen border will constantly change colours) making it unsuitable for some players (some people streaming the game have to crop the border to mitigate the problem). Not the only golden era arcade game with that issue, sadly.
The ultimate fate of Zoo Keeper is very much tied to the time it was released. It came out in 1983, and while it apparently did fairly well- the number three game of the year nationwide, and the conversion kit flyer boasts that it was 'ranked high on the charts since June'- it could've been much more. As John Morgan explains it, "Unfortunately, this was right at the time when the whole arcade market took one huge dive, so the game only sold a fraction of what it would have if completed just a year earlier. As Keith [Egging] said, 'The cash box is a cruel mistress!' It is indeed" which is a real shame. Further limiting its reach were some other circumstances surrounding its release- it doesn't look like it got a proper release in Japan, unlike fellow Taito of America game Qix, and while there was work done on an Atari 2600 version, there was otherwise no home port until 2005 (!) with its inclusion in Taito Legends (but not in any of the Japanese Taito Memories sets, so it's never had any kind of Japanese release). I can't provide a full picture of how the game was received by the public back in the day, but Electronic Games from October 1983 wasn't too kind to it, singling it out as part of a 'cute sells' gold-rush spawned by Pac-Man (?) and that it's just a 'mildly interesting diversion'. In contrast, C&VG from November 1983 was far more positive-sounding even if they just rattle off the mechanics with little else. It certainly has an audience in certain circles, in particular the arcade gaming corner of Twitch, where it was (at the time of writing) recently featured in The BONGO-LYMPICS tournament of weird arcade games, among luminaries such as Big Kong and Money Money. For me, Zoo Keeper is not a high-score-chasing game I'm necessarily good at, but all I really need to say is when grabbing screenshots for this article, I found myself saying "Alright, one more go" more than a few times, and it's quite frankly a miracle this ended up releasing on time at all. I would've just kept playing it if I had the option. That should say it all, right? With its devil-may-care attitude to presentation, some compelling score mechanics and solid controls, Zoo Keeper is, well, a real keeper, a true golden age classic, and comes highly recommended.
For being a chaotic day at the zoo, Zoo Keeper is awarded...
In a sentence, Zoo Keeper is...
A fantastic bit of arcade nonsense.
And now, it's that time, folks!
We mentioned some home ports, so let's get to those. There's really not a lot to cover here, seeing as only one was properly released.
First, the phantom Atari 2600 version. This was advertised on page 13 of Atari Age Volume 2 No. 5 for March / April 1984, advertised as being made by Atari themselves and launching for the 2600 at some indeterminate date in the future. Then it disappeared, never to be seen again. Since then, no prototype has ever surfaced, but bits and pieces fortunately have- animations for the game by Courtney Granner who worked on Pengo for the Atari 2600 as well as Moon Patrol for the 5200 were preserved on VHS, and sound and music data by Robert Vieira were preserved in binary format, able to run in Atari 2600 emulators. All that's missing is, well, the actual game. However, dedicated Atari 2600 fans cannot be stopped- a homebrew port of the game is in development at the time of writing by Champ Games, and it looks pretty solid considering the hardware. Maybe when it's finished, this page will have some info on it, but let's wait for now.
The actually-officially-released home version- the only one- is just a straight emulation on Taito Legends for the PS2, Xbox and PC from 2005. There's really not a lot to say here, it's just emulation and seems to keep the slowdown in-tact but is missing some of the flickering. Probably the most notable thing about its inclusion here is it's one of eight games across the Taito Legends collections (Colony 7, The Electric Yo-Yo, Jungle Hunt and Tube-It on Taito Legends, Pop n' Pop on the Xbox and PC versions of Taito Legends 2, and Space Dungeon on Taito Legends: Power-Up) that do not appear on any of the equivalent Taito Memories collections in Japan. Amusingly, the sparse instructions provided refer to the animal net as a frying pan. It's not just me, it really does look like that!
Next, notes on some of the options in the service menu.
The first is the Free Game option. This setting allows you to adjust how many games need to be played before the FREE GAME item appears on the first invisible coconuts board- it actually has its own jingle that you won't hear anywhere else! Needless to say, grabbing this gives you a free credit so once you get a game over, you can have another go. Not the most operator-friendly setting in the world, but that's why you can switch it off completely... And the flyer offers a dire warning about the free game setting being "prohibited or otherwise regulated by various state or local laws or regulations" and that "the manufacturer specifically disclaims any responsibility for the operation of this feature in any jurisdiction where it may not lawfully be operated". That's Taito of America there, decidedly covering their asses. Probably for this reason, this setting is disabled by default.
The other one of interest is the Location Name setting- the first time you boot up a Zoo Keeper board fresh from the factory, you'll be prompted to enter the name of your arcade or location (if you like- you can just skip it). This is a neat little touch, as it'll display the name you enter on the high score table to give a personalised feel to things. More arcade games could do with this kind of feature, honestly, only a few other examples spring to mind (personalising the burger bar message in Alien Storm, custom team names in Arch Rivals). Oh well!
Finally, here's something kinda weird. Someone at Taito of America was really attached to ol' Zeke, as he's referenced in further works... Sort-of.
To start, in 1984, Taito of America released an electromechanical game called Ice Cold Beer, intended for an adult audience in bars and the like. It's a pretty interesting game honestly, requiring you to slide a marble in the holes on the board in numerical sequence by tilting the bar it's on up and down from the sides. In the same year they released a 'family friendly' version called Zeka's Peak, pictured above via The Arcade Flyer Archive. I mean... They both have moustaches, yes, and share a name, but is it meant to be the same Zeke from Zoo Keeper? Or is it because Zeke happens to rhyme with Peak and that's the easiest joke to go for? Amusingly enough, there's a video game version of Zeke's Peak on Steam that replaces Zeke with a cute penguin mascot. Hard times, eh? In any case, at first I wasn't convinced of the connection, so I just kinda brushed it off.
Then, however, I found the US flyer for another 1984 game, The Tin Star, again on The Arcade Flyer Archive, and this one was developed by Taito's Japanese branch- an odd arena shooter with a Wild West theme that reuses the dial control scheme from their earlier hit, Front Line. What's interesting is the ad copy on the back says that The Tin Star is, in fact, "Zeke's latest adventure, this time as a sharp shootin', rootin' tootin' Sherriff" adding his full name here is Gitalong Zeke. While the player sheriff in the game looks nothing like our intrepid zoo keeper, the artwork on the flyer does indeed show an old man with a moustache. Were Taito of America trying to make Zeke their mascot? A true Mr. Video who'd try his hand at all genres? I mean, there are worse mascots to have for your company, I suppose... Alas, Zeke did not become much of a star in the end, but at least he tried.
I was hoping to end this on a shot of the high score table on that Zoo Keeper machine where I had to fight my way back to 1st.
... I couldn't find it, so you'll have to make do with this crap score for several years prior.
A disappointing ending? It can only be from Gaming Hell!