Retro: Startopia

By Alec Meer on October 26th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

‘Twas an odd coincidence that Startopia and Double Fine’s Spacebase DF-9 alpha arrived on Steam so hot on each other’s heels. The current paucity of activities in the latter would have had me hankering for the former even if a digital postman were not able to immediately deliver it to my hard drive – it’s one of few games I still have a hard copy of lurking on my shelf. Mucky Foot’s space station-set management game was something of an era-ender, the last great gasp of the Theme Park descendant genre as-was. We’re seeing a renaissance of sorts of now, with Prison Architect, Spacebase and the craven Godus, but the fully-formed, big budget age essentially ended with Startopia (though you could argue similar for the muddled Republic: The Revolution, a deeply strange Icarus of a game from Mucky Foot’s fellow post-Bullfrog offshot, Elixir.)

I’ve made Startopia my destination once again for the last couple of days, my first extensive revisit in many years, and I’m relieved to discover that it now exudes at least some of the timeless quality to be found in relative contemporaries such as Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park.

As you’ve already seen, it manages to be beautiful even though any number of grumbles about geriatric lighting and character models could rightfully be pinned on it. Sadly the unofficial (yet dev-made) 1.02 patch which added dynamic shadows to the game appears to nullify the widescreen mod, so I made the difficult decision to choose scale over shadow. Oh, how I dream of a hybrid patch.

As I mentioned, one of the great things Startopia does is to give the player near-absolute camera control, which does wonders for the many moments where not a lot’s going on and you simply want to watch the assorted alien races who crew and visit your growing space station going about their business. They sleep, eat and shit, they shop, they use ‘love chairs’, they leave their bloody litter all over the place, and they have an inexhaustible need for accommodation and entertainment. It’s classic management stuff, but the combination of scale and strangeness makes the game feel weirdly non-traditional even now.

On that scale, by the way – obviously there’s the dramatic, galactic exterior shots, but while the interiors are less brazenly beautiful, essentially setting the meat of the game within towering, metal-walled warehouses, their use of extremely high ceilings and 2001-style curved floors (for each section of the space station is simply a small slice of an enormous donut in the stars) manages to make the busywork of building and hiring feel both claustrophobic and colossal; a genteel, titanic prison.

A wonderful game to watch then, with the simplicity and smoothly lurid colour of the character models and textures meaning it could as comfortably pass for a modern-day, high quality indie game as it could the best big-publisher efforts of 2001. As for how it plays, that’s a more mixed bag. It’s an odd cocktail of calm and frantic, with an interface that’s on the one hand impressively minimal for the age but on the other often counter-intuitive. Managing and recruiting staff, for instance, is a tiresome matter of browsing skill, diligence and loyalty attributes from a list, then click on an icon to zoom to the creature you want to hire, then having to right-click on it to bring up a new menu, from which you can then hire, fire or promote the thing. Too many clicks, too much dissonance between identifying what you want and actually making it happen. But it’s a complication more than a problem.

Sandbox mode is a greater pleasure than the series of missions, which can be a little too exacting in their requirements and thus constricting of your indulgences, but goals have forever been important, and it’s a useful way to ease in to what’s a respectably complex system of building and citizen dependencies. The missions are well-themed, too – for instance, cure 100 sick aliens with your hospitals before 10 of them expire from their assorted space-plagues, and all the while sniffy health inspectors sent by the Greys assess whether your facility is clean enough. That’s a lovely concept, theming your space station as a struggling health outpost – ER amongst the stars – rather than just ‘build/kill x wotsits’, and it’s that focus on creating character and setting that defines the game as a whole.

Sadly, living out the above theme highlights micromanagement irritations that live deep in Startopia’s glistening flesh. Keeping the place clean, for instance, involves buying enough Scuzzer droids, then selecting recycling priority for most every one you can locate, and even then you’ll be desperately clicking on discarded wrappers and rotting leftovers manually and depositing it in the recycler building yourself, as the droids just can’t keep up with resident’s relentless littering. Meanwhile, hiring more Scuzzers, or buying trash cans, or indeed extra of almost any type of building, is dependent on trading with an unseeen, infrequently visiting shopkeeper who sounds like a Vogon.

If you don’t have enough money to buy what you need when he pops up – in the form of a small email icon on the lower left of the screen – he’ll bog off again and you’ll just have to wait until whenever his next visit is. Sure, it’s in keeping with the idea that you’re in charge of a lonely hunk of metal floating in empty space, rather than a small business with wholesalers just a few streets away, but it does feel like an artificial restriction and introduces an unwelcome sense of powerlessness. And I’m not even going to start on the combat, it’s an enormous misfire which feels like a different, dumber game got bolted onto a far smarter one.

(I feel so guilty that I’m picking holes in something I’m so fond of, but this is after all a game you can buy now, so I should treat it in kind rather than write a love letter.)

The reward for the busywork is invariably worth it. A station filled with berths and food stations and sickbays and recyclers and com stations and motels and music shops and weird momuments is glorious to behold, both in its scale and its business. There’s so much going on, and it evokes an elaborate simulation even if the truth is somewhat simpler (at least compared to Dwarf Fortress, or what Spacebase claims to be aiming for).

Small actions, such as opening up a new section of the station to build in, feel momentous – hulking doors the height of castle slowly open, unearthly light gleaming from the widening crack, and when what lies beyond is finally revealed, the yawning size of that empty metal floor, curving so strangely, seems impossible. Soon enough, it’ll be as bustling as the rest of the station, though – buildings are big, space is filled fast, and a dead space comes to life with gratifying speed. And when you get to visit the biodeck, to reshape the proto-land within and to move the camera freely out to the stars, making you and all that micromanagement you were obsessed with in the decks below feel so tiny and inconsequential, that’s when Startopia feels timelessly special.

It’s far from an unqualified success, but weirdly it does feel like a game whose time has come. Not successful enough to ensure Mucky Foot’s future at the time, which is at least as much due to punter ennui with the late-90s glut of increasingly uninspired management games as it was reviews or issues around sci-fi games, in a 2013 context it seems that much more ambitious, non-commercial,strange and precious.

Startopia is on Steam, now.

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43 Comments »

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  1. LionsPhil says:

    For those learning or re-learning Startopia, the RTSC pages for it are an excellent resource for all its intricacies.

    Mostly, though, it doesn’t matter. Just go by feel. I’ll all work out. (Unless it’s combat. Freaking combat.)

    • Michelle says:

      my friend makes $83/hour on the laptop. She has been fired for nine months but last month her income was $21331 just working on the laptop for a few hours check it quickly>>>>>> http://goo.gl/XjXcH1

  2. epix0 says:

    “and the craven Godus”

  3. De_willy says:

    I remember that when this came out my computer could hardly handle it. :D

  4. Lemming says:

    The way you write about Arona makes it sound like the game is completely hamstrung by him. It’s only a factor on early missions, and it’s usually woven into part of the mission’s story (you managing the impossible with your mission because you traded with Verona on the sly, when you were expected to fail). As soon as you get a factory, biodeck, cargo bay and shuttle bay you don’t need to use him at all. It seems like quite a huge chunk of the game to omit from your article, as manufacturing and trading goods is a huge part of it. Indeed, later in the game it would be nice if there was a way to turn him off.

    Also, the litter thing isn’t really that big a problem. Collecting it yourself is much easier than relying on Scutters if it gets too bad (I honestly never knew until this article you could even prioritise Scutter orders – I’ve never needed it), but putting your litter bins near shops and food dispensers stops 90% of the littering any way. if you’re getting a lot of littering, you need to rethink your layout.

    Finally, from personal experience, I think people overestimate the complexity of hiring. Sure, you CAN do it that way, but I’ve honestly done just fine grabbing the first few aliens that appeared within view. Right-click, hire. Done. The only thing I’d add is to remember to occasionally check your work force via the tab to see if any of them have a ‘flashing’ rank and to then promote them.

    I’m sure there will be a lot of Startopia Pros reeling in horror from that final suggestion, but seriously, it works.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Those are pretty much all things I do, and I’ve done fine with the economic/tourism side of the game.

    • Mahmoth says:

      I agree with the above, with the addition that you can right-click a Scuzzer, set its priorities, and then click the link button to set those as priorities for all of its class. Once you’ve got a couple of Mk IIIs with a good sequence set, litter is no longer a problem.

    • Drinking with Skeletons says:

      Yeah, you do need to buy from Arona early on in most missions and sandbox, but a big part of a successful station is getting away from relying on him. I usually pay his exorbitant fee for a stardock and hold early on and start cranking out black market goods from the biodeck for a quick buck.

      Agree on the trash cans, too. Having said that, if this is his first time playing the game or he didn’t play it extensively back in the day, he might not realize all the intricacies. I couldn’t tell you how long it took me to figure out the connection between those rampaging black beetles and the little critters running around.

  5. frenz0rz says:

    Startopia was oddly my first foray into Bullfrog-style management games, and despite going on to play Dungeon Keeper et al., Startopia is still my favourite. Reinstalling as I type this.

    However, contrary to the first paragraph of this article I would argue that 2004’s Evil Genius (also by Republic’s Elixir Studios) was the true last gasp of the Bullfrog era. It’s also on Steam.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yes, Evil Genius was also brilliant, and sadly brilliantly flawed.

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        FriendlyFire says:

        I don’t know if it was just that I was bad at the game back then, but Evil Genius was also hard. Immensely fun and quite funny and with an awesome sense of style, but the difficulty, especially in garnering money, was harsh.

        By comparison Startopia is a much more gentle curve.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Evil Genius will break you horribly if your base layout is not good (which means lots of innocuous outer things and traps which just make snooping agents forget evreything and go home) and, yes, the way you interact with the world map kind of sucks. If you get into a war against the world it won’t go well for you.

      • IonTichy says:

        That scumbag russian crime boss!

  6. Premium User Badge

    VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    Startopia is also available on GOG, and has been for more than a year. And it’s slightly cheaper there. No extras to speak of though, unusually.

    I bought it there some time ago, but have never got around to playing it. :-/

    • Moraven says:

      And has been on sale multiple times.

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      Carra says:

      Put me in the “got it a year ago but haven’t gotten around to actually play it yet” camp too.

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      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Startopia deserves your time. You deserve to experience it. I deserve a cup of tea and a biscuit.

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      cpt_freakout says:

      For everyone finding out their favorite ‘classic’ is now on Steam, you should have a look at GOG’s catalogue, since pretty much every ‘classic’ that’s recently come out on Steam has been available over there for some time.

      • Lemming says:

        Many of us know this. We just prefer to buy it on Steam. Fair enough if you are preaching to the extreme minority that read RPS and didn’t know it was already on GoG though.

  7. trjp says:

    IIRC the voiceover on this was done by William Franklin – who went on to be the voice of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide after Peter Jones died – and that is reason enough to own the game RIGHT THERE.

  8. Pinky09 says:

    Offtopic, i saw they’re releasing Injustice on pc..

  9. 2helix4u says:

    I mourn the loss of Muckyfoot. I really like Startopia and my friend is obsessed with Urban Chaos as his favourite game of all time. Both these games were really impressive and have that timeless quality where the graphics and gameplay augment eachother.

    Kickstart something Mucky Foot, come back to us!

    • The Ultimate Clone of The Ultimate Warrior says:

      A lot of the old Mucky Foot lads are working on Satellite Reign right now. The spiritual successor to Syndicate! http://satellitereign.com/

    • GuySimmons says:

      I’ve said this on Steam & in other threads elsewhere, but it’s a pleasure to read all this love for our game :-)

      I do have a fairly well formed sequel in my head, & Disky Kickstarting Satellite Reign has been a bit of an inspiration, so you just never know…

      Guy

  10. patrick says:

    I have quite an odd and most curious copy of Startopia – bought a boxed copy of it in the PC Zone closing down sale. Fitting to go with MuckyFoot.

  11. InnerPartisan says:

    Soo… this is our last, best hope for victory? (Of the theme-park-esque build-stuff genre, I mean.)

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    Gap Gen says:

    The end cutscene made me want to claw my eyes out, but otherwise it’s a cute game.

  13. pertusaria says:

    I found this game thanks to the cries of joy from many RPSers when it arrived on GOG, and it’s absolutely lovely. I still haven’t finished all the missions thanks to the not-very-enjoyable combat, but the rest of the game is a pleasure to play. I just wish I’d been aware of it when it came out and been able to give Muckyfoot one more sale.

  14. Sarkhan Lol says:

    The Biodeck was so ahead of its time.

  15. JThomasAlbert says:

    “Startopia” is my zen garden. I have a sandbox I’ve kept going for years. I love to glide slowly through the station watching all the little aliens going about their business.

  16. Hordriss says:

    Despite being a long-time devotee of management sims, I never played Startopia at release as my PC wasn’t capable of running it. I bought it on GOG last year and fell in love instantly – the gameplay, the sound, the music, the humour, even the graphics – all absolutely sublime. Then I reached the mission with all the combat (mission 7 I think?)… yeah. That sort-of ruined it for me. I do still dip in and play sandbox vs. no other players from time to time. I get the feeling that if I’d bought it at release, it’d be one of my favourite games of all time. As a latecomer, I genuinely love it but the combat stops it being right up there.

    If only GOG would add Theme Park…

  17. Stardreamer says:

    Good review, Alec. Time has definitely been kind to Startopia, lending it a reputation it never achieved at the tail end of the management-sim golden age. Personally it’s the kind of game I feel I should love but its flaws conspire against it, which is a real shame.

  18. sandplasma says:

    One of my favorite games of all time. Buying it on Steam just so I wont have to touch my original copy :D

  19. bvanevery says:

    Startopia is one of the few games whose CD / DVD I didn’t snap in half out of frustration / disgust / steep decline in the enjoyment of the game after a few weeks with it. It’s one of very few titles that gracefully retired after a number of replays, and I still have my original disk in storage. I would say the terraforming is not as exciting as one might hope, and the combat is fairly simple, but otherwise a very good game!

    • Shadowcat says:

      EXTREME RAGE-QUIT ACHIEVEMENT ACQUIRED.

      That said, you undoubtedly saved yourself a few crushingly-disappointing end-game sequences/cinematics :)

      • bvanevery says:

        My first snapping was actually a scissoring, with the floppy of Spellbreaker for an Atari 800! I’m not sure if I ever did finish that game. I know I replayed it more than a decade later, and got past the point I originally got stuck on, but I think I got stuck somwhere further in the game.

        Early CDs were much more satisfying to snap, because they would explode into a violent cloud of shards. Subsequent DVD presses have been more of a bending due to thickness. You get a white plastic line appearing down the middle of them, how anti-climactic. A good execution should be a SNAP!

  20. Listlurker says:

    While we’re talking about building and management games of yore, does anyone remember an undersea game of this type?

    This article had me remembering building an undersea domed city, while whales and dolphins and such swam by. I can’t remember the name of the bloody thing, but I do remember playing it a fair bit, and I also have this feeling that it may have been a demo version for a game which may not have seen release? Dunno why, but that fragment’s still in my memory.

    If anybody’s brain can conjure up the name of this game, my brain would be grateful.

    • GuySimmons says:

      It wasn’t Creation was it? That was the game I was developing at Bullfrog before I left to form Mucky Foot :-)

      Guy

      • JasonH95 says:

        Hey Guy, I’ve been playing Startopia since i was a little boy ( I’m 18 now), even my mum and dad played this haha, anyways, how is it possible to build a “Startopia 2″? is it even possible? i saw a message before on google circles back in 2012 from either you or Mike Diskett saying the game is still a possibility ;)