The Classic Quadrant
I find it rather challenging to write about Startopia. Why? It’s just too damned good. In case you hadn’t noticed, Summer Overlord has been an outlet for my immense, perhaps clinical cynicism, where I can rage about life, the youth of today, social ineptitude and, occasionally, rubbishy, bargain-bin management games. It’s a remarkably negative column, but I maintain that a furious expounding of rage cleanses the soul and de-ices the heart and I do hope my dark tendrils have massaged the bitter pleasure centre of at least one person. But the space-station builder Startopia really doesn’t belong here. While I’ve written about the virtues of SimCity 3000 and Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis, this depressingly overlooked title is undoubtedly one of the best in the genre; I’d even go as far as calling it one of the best games ever made, and I’m not the only one to say it, either. (As if you’d trust anyone else, anyway.)
Here is where I interrupt with personal history: Startopia is, curiously, one of the last memories I have of my paternal grandfather. He was a grand fellow, full of Irish vigour and a classical manliness we pasty, twenty-first century internet Neanderthals can only dream of. At 98 years old, he was getting on a bit, too. On one of the last occasions I saw him, he gave ten-year-old me £20 (which was of course a small fortune, considering purchasing PC games in 2001 didn’t require taking out a mortgage) and told me to spend it wisely. Well, Granddad, I damn well did just that: I bought Startopia, and to this day, I’m happy that two wonderful things can be remembered together.
However, there is some tragedy. Despite Startopia being a masterpiece of management flawlessness, it lives on in history as one of the PC’s most underrated games. Selling a pitifully small amount, all hopes of a sequel were dashed when developers Mucky Foot closed their doors in 2003. Some went on to re-join Peter Molyneux at Lionhead (for Mucky Foot’s founding members had all worked with him back in the Bullfrog days of Theme Hospital and Populous) and are now presumably struggling with suicidal thoughts as they are tasked with designing another way to interact with a virtual dog in the next outing of Fable, while others began the awfully named Mucky Baby, a small development company that made a dull casual game no one ever played. They are missing, presumed dead.
“I Wish You Luck, Speed and Freedom from Stupidity.”
All that, however, is neither here nor there. The game, in all its splendour, lives on, and by the end of this article, I hope to have convinced you to part with a smidgen of your cash for a fantastic experience, even if it means embarking on an Indiana Jones-like adventure to find it.
Startopia tasks you, a humble administrator, with rebuilding a network of “waystations”, doughnut-shaped space habitats left abandoned after a galaxy-wide war. At its core, it clings to the management formula of “build, earn, build some more” complete with litter bins and benches, but the whole process is executed so masterfully, to nit-pick at the fundamentals would be to completely miss the point.
Each space-station is comprised of three decks: the Technical Deck serves as the industrial and transport hub where alien visitors will arrive, sleep, research, trade, heal or spend time in lockdown should they be dastardly enough; the Pleasure Deck is the loud, bright and incredibly camp nerve-centre of all things debaucherous, where bars, “love nests”, hotels and all manner of bizarre entertainments are found; the pièce de résistance is the Bio Deck, a glass-roofed parkland which can be fully terraformed with a simple interface to create jungles, deserts, lakes and mountains and is maintained by a purple-skinned race of alien hippies, the Karmarama, who will farm and harvest crops for trade.
Indeed, Startopia’s aliens are its highlight. Hailing from a vast array of humorously titled planets and systems and sporting equally chucklesome names, the likes of Doctor Gigascope and Rumpy Gooliesmate travel to your station as potential employees and come in a variety of different shapes, sizes and flavours. The blobby, green Polvakian Gem Slugs are a particular favourite of mine, purely because they come to your station to be entertained, refuse to work and, when made particularly happy, egest a curious crystalline substance called a “turdite” which I like to place around my more desirable areas to prove how capable I am of delighting the most demanding of the galaxy’s species. I’m also continuously surprised by the secret nature of the Zedem Monks, a spiritual, ascetic folk responsible for setting up a religious conclave on the Bio Deck: though dressed in sack cloth and with hands always clasped in prayer, recently, I saw one arrested and thrown into lockdown for “sending enormous lizards or dinosaurs as emissaries”. It’s always the quiet ones.
Charmed, I’m Sure
Startopia positively brims with humour and specialises in the grim, sarcastic kind. Aliens will come aboard looking for cures to the uncommon cold and hyperactivitis, whilst a dirty station risks attracting parasitic space cats (and if that hasn’t sold you, nothing will) which will innocently loiter around your dine-o-mat food vending machines attracting all sorts of cooing and doting passers-by before exploding into a monstrous and genuinely terrifying chitinous abomination, the Skrasher. Have four of them rampaging about your decks at the same time and you will know trouser-soiling fear.
Startopia is littered with cult sci-fi references, but nods most heavily towards Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In fact, it nods so heavily that its head nearly falls off, for William Franklin, voice of The Book in the BBC Radio series, takes on the role of your world-weary AI companion VAL, a delightfully sardonic character who makes even the most mundane of station announcements hilarious. Arona Daal, however, provides the most giggles. Also voiced by Franklin, the alien trader will frequent your station with goods and blueprints that “fell off the back of a trolley” and attempt to flog them to you at an outrageously high price. His con artistry is made all the more entertaining by his deep alien-cockney voice, his sleazy attempts at reminding you how close your friendship is and how it is you alone whom he always offers “first refusal”. Arona is the galactic answer to Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy: if the parasitic space cats didn’t sell you, that really should.
All of this wit and charm combines into a scarcely conceivable mass of fun. With Franklin’s regular interjections as a cynical AI and rogue trader, your space station’s buzzing atmosphere of lights, colours, sounds and personalities combine in such a fantastic way that placing basic amenities like “lavotrons” and “slumber pods” isn’t the banal affair that similar management games reduce it to. Startopia is one of those rare gems that you wish you could beam yourself into, even for a moment, just to experience its magical richness. I can just imagine sitting down with Arona with a bottle of his “vintage diesel wine” in one of my seedier bars. In fact, I think I’m genuinely in love with Startopia and were it not socially frowned upon, I would propose.
Save or Delete?
If by some sort of unfortunate cataclysm the entire management genre were to be wiped out (actually, I suppose that wouldn’t be too unfortunate), I hope it would be Startopia bursting its hand out from the rubble as the sole survivor. It contains a rare humour that is unfortunately lacking in the vast majority of games and as such, it must be revered and worshipped as a god. How it has still not appeared on Steam or GoG is beyond me.
Though its trade system is rudimentary and its combat often muddled (sometimes, rival administrators will set up shop on the same station, but it is a rare occurrence in the campaign and can be disabled in the sandbox), Startopia is a compelling experience from start to finish. A worthy spiritual successor to Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper, if you have yet to lose your virginity to the genre, lose it to Startopia. I promise you’ll have a fantastic time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I must hurry back to my waystation. VAL’s informed me that sensors have detected an explosive device somewhere on the Technical deck. Curse those spies! That, and the Gem Slugs aren’t happy with the new cocktail bar: I knew that robot pianist was tacky! And damn it, where did those space cats come from?!