The Strange Case of Zoo Corporation

Have you ever browsed Steam for awhile and ran across those strange Pretty Girls games? You know, those games that take established simple games like Mahjong and Texas Hold 'em and promise cute anime girls in skimpy outfits as a reward for beating them? The company that makes them, Zoo Corporation, seems like a no name oddity creating cheap yet polished games for a very niche market, like a group of anime loving western devs doing their own sleazy anime games. Except if you bother looking at the in-game instructions for most of these games, you'll find them incredibly poorly translated. That and the Japanese voice acting makes it clear Zoo Corporation is more than they initially appear, even with all the strange shovelware they also produce alongside the anime titty games. What I wasn't expecting, though, is to find their name next to Saints Row: The Third, Metro: Last Light, and a connection to the creator of Tetris.

Let me back up.

The first inkling that something was weird about these games was a mixture of some character dialog and the different art styles between characters. It doesn't take long to notice that some characters don't feel like they fit with the others. It's especially noticeable in Pretty Girls Panic, where the last set of stages revolve around characters with no lewd art that look like they came from an artist inspired by the works of Key, plus the presence of a nurse character who has less detailed art then everyone else. She looks like she was made for a game not as bright and cheery as the one they're in. There's also the occasional genre smashing, like Delicious! Pretty Girls Mahjong Solitaire having multiple fantasy themed characters alongside the normal ones.

Japanese titles like this tend to hire multiple artists, but there's usually more an attempt to keep things with a common base style. The only common element here is that every character is posed like a character from a visual novel. There's also the quirk of the voice acting, which ranges from normal acting to oddly erotic or desperate tones. It took me awhile, but I eventually realized all of these characters come from different games – most of them hentai games. I can even name where two of these characters came from. In Pretty Girls Mahjong Solitaire, both Erina and Kanon come from games drawn by porn artist Ishii Akira, the first coming from “Moshimo Suieibu Komon no Tsuma ga Dekapai Niku Onaho to Shite Ura Site de Sarasareteitara” and the second from “Kimomen de mo Kyokon nara Kokuminteki Idol Group wo Harem ni Dekiru!? ~Gokujou Manko wo Hitorijime! Shasei Shimakuri Haramasou Senkyo♪~” (try say that three times fast). With this in mind, it starts becoming easy to see common hentai game design tropes in each character, from proportions to coloring and lighting style.

So Zoo Corporation is making games by reusing porn game characters and recorded dialog, and everything else they have posted on Steam would suggest they're just another sleazy company looking for that ever reliable anime titty audience, or they treat the Steam storefront like the Google Play store and just throw up whatever. But if you visit their website, things gets stranger. Their site design is very clean and corporate, with almost no mention of their work in gaming. In fact, when you reach to the first mention of their game work, right before it is a link to their work in the medical field. With a much as the gaming world has become so closed off, it's hard to remember when this used to be the norm. Companies used to dip their toes in the gaming market while focusing on a more promising field, but Zoo Corporation's toes were dipped far before their recent Steam activity. They didn't start with development, but publishing ...with one very strange exception before all of that.

Way back in 1994, the company partnered with publisher Spectrum HoloByte to create and release a Windows and DOS game called Break Thru!, which is normally attributed to the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, instead. Details are scarce, but Pajitnov apparently liked the game and endorsed it, while not really being involved heavily in its development. The game took a lot of notes from Tetris, so this made sense as a marketing move. Break Thru! got a lot of ports, but didn't manage to get many great reviews, and the most notable thing about it was a version releasing only through the Sega Channel service, a precursor to the modern digital marketplace.

From here, the company seems to have only dealt with publishing and localization in Japan. Of note, they've apparently helped localized not only the games I mentioned at start, but Bioshock, ArmA II, Farming Simulator 2009, Braid, Tropico 3 and 4, Chivalry, and much more. In particular on the list is Left 4 Dead, which might explain why they suddenly popped up on Valve's storefront so quickly and easily in 2015. The company suddenly had a presence on the Steam, publishing strange small titles and releasing their own titles with bizarre pricing (the second Pretty Girls Mahjong Solitaire has more content, but only costs a fifth of the price). Zoo Corporation's side work as a provider of ecchi games and budget titles is going to be an interesting footnote in the history of Steam, and one I plan to watch closely. You don't see stuff like this penetrate the more insular gaming world that often anymore, let alone find some success among that crowd.


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