The graphics and gameplay are somewhat similar to the first Zoo Tycoon game, except for the fact that the terrain types do not blend with each other like they do in the PC and Mac versions, as well as various animals and objects being scaled down due to the DS having a small screen. The maps are all smaller than their original counterparts in the PC games, which can be narrowed down to technical limitations as to why that is the case. Some of the buildings from the original game were modified partially in appearance, such as the various food vendors, with the exception of the vending machines, all using the exact same sprite with only a palette swap as the difference.
The objects and animals available in the game are also that of the first Zoo Tycoon game, yet it only contains the original animals, because of the inability to download bonus content or upload animals onto a DS (though despite this, the Asian elephant and Orangutan are unlockable animals). Other features, such as building exhibits as big as you want have also been removed due to technical limitations that come with the game being on a handheld system as they were at the time. Certain buildings, in addition, have also been narrowed down to a single type of a specific structure rather than tiers of the same type of building being present, such as only a single type of Concrete Shelter existing, or how only the Family Restroom exists in this game.
The game has two playing options, either tutorial/scenario or freeform. Tutorial/Scenario mode takes the player through many short games, each with a set goal. The goals start off by teaching the basics; how to place items, purchase animals, and other needed knowledge of the game. They then progress to goals that have a set time limit and most require a certain happiness from the animals, a certain number of exhibits, etc. Freeform lets players create a zoo free of time restrictions and goals.
This game is also contains two new unlockable animals such as Kouprey (Bos sauveli) and the Onager (Equus hemionus).