Taming the High Score on Taito's Zoo Keeper

Jason Bennett,

February 18, 2021 5:50 PM

Bryan Wagner captures a MAME world record but he isn't ready to turn in his animal catching net just yet

In his original iteration in Detective Comics, Superman would leap tall buildings in a single bound. Bryan Wagner achieved the arcade equivalent of this feat with Taito’s classic Zoo Keeper where he maneuvered the game’s protagonist Zeke to a new record score of 78,117,500 points, vaulting past a 10 year old record to the top of the Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) leaderboard for the title. In doing so, Bryan has the community buzzing with a Superman-worthy display and the promise of more to come.

Bryan is no stranger to the classic gaming scene. Beginning in the early 2000s, he has travelled far and wide to compete at a range of arcade events, including the annual Funspot tournament in Laconia, NH. Over that time, Bryan has accumulated nearly 100 leaderboard scores on arcade, console, and pinball. But like many retro gamers, Bryan honed his skills closer to home during his youth.

“In my area, there wasn't a big arcade,” he explained, “just smaller arcades and the occasional game or two here and there. I visited every one I could, whenever I could,” which included splitting time between the local pizza parlor and skating rinks in town. 

While the lights and sounds of video games played their part in grabbing his attention, Bryan also found a new outlet for his natural interest in problem solving.

“I have always liked anything of a puzzle type nature,” he said, pointing out his enjoyment in solving a Rubic’s cube at the age of 12 and his love of DIY [Do It Yourself] as an adult. “Whether it's a crossword, trivia game, cards, figuring something out/how it works has been a lifelong enjoyment.”

That natural curiosity kept Bryan interested in video games long after his favorite arcade haunts closed. Bryan arguably made his biggest mark in 2003 with Data East’s BurgerTime, a game where the player maneuvers a chef who variously avoids and lures walking weiners and eggs onto burger buns and patties to make a series of gourmet offerings. Beginning at the Funspot event in May 2003, Bryan captured the world record with a score of 7.9 million and continued to push it ever higher, reaching 11,512,500 points in 2008. 

Bryan Wagner at Funspot [Source: BW]

More recently, Bryan has traded in his proverbial chef’s hat for an animal-catching net.

“After learning that other players were getting back into Zoo Keeper,” he said, “I decided to have a go at it myself.”

Even by the imaginative standards of the 1980s, Zoo Keeper stands out as a somewhat quirky concept. 

In the game, the player is engaged in constant battle with the zoo’s animals, who are yearning to escape the confines of their brick enclosure. Fortunately for them, their efforts are aided enormously by their ability to eat through bricks. If the player isn’t quick enough to make repairs, the animals escape and run along the perimeter of the zoo. Catching animals sends them back inside the zoo, where they immediately begin to eat the walls again. 

In addition to catching and repairing, the player is able to jump over the animals to avoid death. However, unlike the plucky Mario from Donkey Kong, the game’s character Zeke can get some serious air time, virtually flying back and forth over the rushing escapees before returning to earth. It is these gravity-defying leaps over the herd at its largest extent that holds the key to attaining a high score on the game, but it’s a skill that doesn’t come easily. 

“After banging my head against the wall for a few months last year, I decided to analyze my games and see where mistakes were being made,” Bryan said. “I also read on-line every post I could find, and watching any available on-line game play helped too. Even watching videos of people getting less than 15 million scores, can drive your thinking process down avenues unexplored.”

Bryan’s research, along with valuable counsel from other renowned gamers such as Greg Bond and John McAllister, led him to a tried and true lesson: that “watching tape” of his game play to analyze why things happen was the way to perfect his technique rather than brute forcing game after game and hoping for a better outcome.

“Zoo Keeper is a very unusual game,” Bryan observed, reflecting on the prevalence of classic games that provide a predictable or repeatable set of game play circumstances. “You never know what will happen - it's chaos mixed with the unknown. It challenges you differently every time. One game you can score 7 million, and the next you score 37 million.”

Then earlier this month, Byran lined up the game he was hoping for - a MAME run with that most crucial of ingredients, a record-grabbing jump - twice. 

The game awards points for jumps on an escalating scale, going from 15,000, 30,000, 60,000, 120,000 points, and so on. To really push your score, a player has to try and foster conditions for a jump that sails over all the escaped animals. Bryan pulled off such a feat, nailing two jumps in a single round with an eye-watering amount of points - one worth 15 million, and the other 30 million.

Eat your heart out, Mario: Zoo Keeper's Zeke pulls in a 30 million point jump for the win [Source: Brian Wagner]

In comparing his record with his previous arcade outings, Bryan shared “this is the first MAME game that I have a record on, so it’s different in that aspect. It was easier to get this record at home versus the arcade BurgerTime and Rolling Thunder records. However, Zoo Keeper and all its chaos is one record that I think I am more satisfied to have because the game is very unpredictable, and very unforgiving.”

With his verified MAME score of 78,117,500 points, Bryan passes by John Petric at 59,829,000, who holds credit for the first verified 30 million point jump in 2011 and also sits atop the arcade leaderboard at 63,061,100 points. But with Bryan’s plans to acquire an arcade Zoo Keeper cabinet in the near future, it’s safe to predict that competition - and the world record score - will be growing by leaps and bounds once again.

To see the complete run of Bryan's world record game, please visit the Twin Galaxies Records Archive.


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