Fantastic, isn't it? Doesn't get the credit it deserves. What a classic.
My space station, I mean. Since I expanded it's even bigger than a Space Shark's barnacle, and worth twice as much. You've seen the sights, I take it? Had a ride on the Oroflex? Taken a stroll around the biodeck? Marvellous, marvellous.
But you must be tired! Have a seat. No, not there! That's for Polvakian Gem Slugs. You wouldn't walk straight for a month. And your reputation... Maybe just stay standing. And don't touch anything, especially not me. Came down with a nasty case of astro-gastrointestinal flu the other day and the doctors assure me it can be quite deadly.
You know, you don't look like a tourist. You're much poorer, for one thing, and you've got that determined glint in your eye, like a Borean metatiger slinking through the antigrass towards a kill. Ah! I understand. You're not here to see my station, recently voted #9 holiday destination in the Adraxus cluster, recently voted #12 cluster in the galaxy if I might add. You're here for the other thing. You want to know why everyone has such fond memories of this Startopia game. Well, I'll tell you.
Startopia was a good idea to begin with. Sim Space Station, basically, except it had so much more heart than that. Instead of bothering you with the extraordinary pain in the ass that would be building life support systems, airlocks, power stations, water pipes and God knows what else, Startopia had you running a kind of autonomous galactic petrol station.
Aliens show up, and you extract money from them however you can while trying to keep casualties to a minimum. It was Babylon 5 run by the Muppets, which is about as flippant a comparison as the game itself.
Looking back at Startopia, I think this easy, amused tone might have been the most appealing thing about it, and I don't mean that in a negative way. This game understood the same thing that Dungeon Keeper did and that Viva Piņata didn't [*sprays coffee on keyboard* -Ed], which isn't particularly surprising since Mucky Foot was started by ex-Bullfrog employees. Startopia understood the importance of giving the player a nice place to be.
Your station is a hugely seductive piece of design. Wonderfully, going back to Startopia today it still charms and glitters, and not just because of the tattered miracle that is PC gaming and increased resolutions and whatnot.
It's in the immutable things - the animations of your Scuzzer droids (and their security counterparts, the Fuzzers) as they go about their routine maintenance are all cute, and watching smaller aliens climb up onto waiting seats in your sickbay. There's the fact that you can read the bios and names of all your visitors (Dr. Kerg Bifkin, Grubby Yonksjubbly, Ikipeep), and watch them jump for joy when you hire them.
Then you've got Nintendo-like attention to detail in the sound effects, and the music that changes as you jump from deck to deck blending like melted wax in a lava lamp with the gentle warbling and squelching of alien voices.
And of course there's VAL, your personal Virtual Artificial Lifeform and Startopia's most blatant nod to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. VAL's a sad rarity in videogames; a helper NPC who doesn't just help, but actually befriends you.
Amongst all of Startopia's mad chaos (the desperate sketching out of a room and its furniture when there's hiring and fighting to be done, say), VAL's dulcet English voice and wry comments keep you grounded, his messages drizzling down one side of your screen like so much honey.
"You are busy," VAL says. "And therefore it gives me great pleasure to interrupt you." You smile, and you stay listening as you hurriedly beam up a couple of scuzzer droids and click them down onto a litter-strewn intersection.
"Unless you are denser than an embryonic anti-quasar you'll want to hire some Targ to man your Comms Sensors." You do so, and up pops another message from VAL. "Your lack of ineptitude is a blessing!
There's more at work here than VAL simply being charming. Mucky Foot also made sure it's expressed that the two of you are in this together. VAL warns of "our" failure, and is actively useful in a way that's so, so important if you're building a relationship between the player and an NPC.
When people discuss Startopia it's always VAL that gets remembered, in the same way the drones in Iain M. Banks novels steal any scene they're in. Well, it's always either VAL or the Biodeck.
The uppermost deck of your station is a glass-roofed garden that's yours to landscape at will. Four simple tools - Land Height, Water Level, Temperature and Humidity - can be applied instantly with a left click (increase) or right click (decrease), allowing you to sculpt, moisten the Earth into any combination of lakes, marshland, desert, cracked stone and so on.
That's when your hired Karmaramas get to work. These are four-armed purple hippy aliens who'll till the soil and start growing appropriate plants.
The idea is that each alien who visits your station likes an environment that most resembles their homeworld. The idea is also that through growing plants in the right kind of environment they can act as crops which become food, luxury goods, medical supplies, black market goods, even alien artifacts.
And of course there's the idea that you can grow nice, big trees which you can plant in pots throughout your station, beautifying the place on the cheap, not forgetting the idea that your Karmaraman farmers will become miserable and resign if they see you tearing too many trees or crops down, while happy Karmaramans will emit psychic positive vibes, granting passers by excellent mental and physical health.
So, a lot of ideas then, and as a lot of reviewers noted at the time the concept behind Startopia's Biodeck could make an entire standalone game. But here it is, buried in a management game, like you bought a car and found the keys to a jet-ski down the back of one of the seats.
But there's a tiny tragedy in Startopia being remembered for VAL and the Biodeck, a Space Operetta if you will. It means people are forgetting the other spark of genius in Startopia, which is how it gets competitive.
Your space station in Startopia is donut-shaped (or 'toroidal', fact fans), and divided into many segments like you'd cut up a cake (or like you might cut up a donut if you were an enormous diva).
When one of your decks starts feeling a little cramped, you pay a big wad of Energy to unlock a segment on either side of it, gradually expanding each of your decks into a surreal inwards-curving arc.
Sorted. Except other players are building on the same station as you, and they're also unlocking segment after segment. Eventually the time will come where your borders touch and the two of you are separated by a single deck-wide airlock.
Where the fun comes in is that you can launch takeovers of enemy segments by hacking the airlock open, then using your fuzzers and staff to wage a quick war while you hack the next airlock over closed, taking the segment and all of its facilities for yourself and ideally leaving your opponent without a functioning lavotron.
It's a lovely, spiteful way of messing with your opponents, not least because (outside of the Biodeck with its snoop-friendly glass roof) you have no idea what's on the other side of the airlock. It could be an expensive row of laser towers waiting to shred your optimistic interlopers, or it could be a vast starport and a cargo bay full of hardplans and research documents.
Then again, a smart enemy could desperately beam all those items away and fling them messily onto the floor of the next segment over. But then, his loyal, aimless scuzzers might end up collecting them and going waddling over to slot them back into the cargo deck. Ah.
Between both Urban Chaos and this game failing to sell, Mucky Foot have got to be some of the unluckiest developers of all time. Startopia deserves to be remembered with the Theme Hospitals and Dungeon Keepers of the world.
So, let's toast to them, eh? I've got a whole crate of mucus wine in from Arona Daal. To Mucky Foot! If you're out there, I thank you, from the bottom of all four of my hearts.