Petting Zoo (iOS) review: Charmingly entertaining for both kids and parents

Petting Zoo, Christoph Niemann's quirky iOS picture book app for kids, includes hand-drawn animations and charming surprises.

Lynn La

Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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Christoph Niemann, a visual columnist at The New York Times and an illustrator whose works appeared on the cover of several magazines covers including The New Yorker and Wired, launched an iOS app recently called Petting Zoo.


Petting Zoo (iOS)

The Good

<b>Petting Zoo</b> contains uniquely hand-drawn animations and has a minimalistic, intuitive interface.

The Bad

At $1.99, Petting Zoo is pricey for an app that will never receive additional chapters.

The Bottom Line

Petting Zoo is a quirky and absolutely charming app, but because it's structured more like a picture book, pass it up if you're looking for a traditional level-intensive game.

For kids, but has wide appeal
Aimed toward children ages 4 and up, this app is categorized under games, but it's more of an interactive picture book than anything else. Each drawing constitutes as a chapter, but there is no overall narrative story that takes place. Instead, it simply contains 21 of Niemann's hand-drawn animals that each react in different ways to five swipe movements (up, down, left, right, and center tap).

"Nothing is computer generated," Niemann told CNET. "Essentially, the feeling I wanted to create was a simple drawing that the moment you put your finger on it, something happened that was surprising and fun."

And it certainly is surprising.

Petting Zoo (iOS)
Don't worry, the giraffe doesn't bite. He only wants to clean your mobile screen from the inside out. Lynn La/CNET

Though not meant to hold an adult's attention for long, Petting Zoo has a handful of moments that made me actually chuckle out loud. It's more than just blowing a lion's mane from side to side (though there is that). The first time you go through it, you never know what an animal's reaction will be. And often, the results can be delightful.

For instance, there are animals that turn into musical instruments, a butterfly that holds its own against a cat, and a break-dancing Dachshund that if you aren't even remotely tickled by the way its small elbows look while it's doing "the worm," proves you have a heart of stone.

Keeping the user experience simple
These succinct visual punchlines are not without work, however. From its conceptualization to its release, the app took about a year to complete.

A trip to the Petting Zoo for iOS (pictures)

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For every animal (or "chapter") included in the app, Niemann estimates that there were at least seven or eight movements and actions that were scrapped. In that same vein, these animals had at least three fully animated, but ultimately rejected, sequences under their belts.

"The one that really broke my heart was the earlier version of a cat," said Niemann. "You put your finger on the iPad and leave it there. It hunts your finger, and you drag the cat along this line, and it could hang on your finger. It was so much fun, but no one could figure it out."

Though he said many of his toughest decisions involved weeding out fun but unintuitive actions from the app, it pays off.

Petting Zoo keeps user action consistently easy and natural -- even when it departs from the general horizontal, vertical, and side-to-side finger movements -- all without any written direction or tutorial.

There were two incidents, however, that I was unsure of. One chapter consisted of some sort of digging mole (a Diglett with arms and legs?), and I didn't know how or if it was supposed to interact with the spiders hanging above it. Another involved two monkeys and a floating soccer ball. At one point, I made the monkey on the left duck down, enabling the ball to hit the other monkey on the back of the head. I didn't know how to repeat this action again, and whenever it did, the occurrence seemed random.

A single creative entity
During my time with it, it became easy to see how the app could hold a child's attention, and with these hidden sequences, it could lead a kid to an unexpected and pleasant discovery. The app also comes with a few setting options including turning off transitions (I don't recommend this, since the segues between chapters are just as entertaining as the chapters themselves), music, and hints.

Petting Zoo (iOS)
The dainty butterfly shows the jumping cat exactly who's boss. Lynn La/CNET

According to some iTunes reviews, users have experienced some technical issues. However, I personally didn't experience any unexpected quits or stutters with the app, and it didn't freeze on any particular chapter.

The app requires iOS 4.3 or higher, and Niemann said it is just a few weeks away from launching on the Android platform.

If you're looking for additional chapters with future software updates, however, don't hold your breath. This lack of replay value for a $1.99 app may be disappointing (and pricey) for those who are used to 99-cent games that have a seemingly infinite amount of levels. But again, it's easier to think of Petting Zoo as a traditional picture book that just so happens to come alive whenever you interact with it.

"In an ideal world, I want people to forget that they're playing on an iPad," he said. "Maybe I'll make a game one day, but somehow I feel that this is an entity now, and I like it exactly the way it is."


Petting Zoo (iOS)

Score Breakdown

Setup 10Interface 9Performance 10