Somehow we made it through the 90s and 00s without a truly classic space station simulator. You would think Deep Space 9 fans or Babylon 5 loyalists would have pulled something together, but really all we have is Startopia. Despite the novel premise I never really got into this one as a kid, it being more Dungeon Keeper than I had hoped. Revisiting it now I see where it deserves a lot more attention than it got, and also why it was so overlooked.
Startopia sets you up as the administrator of a classic donut-shaped space station. The first thing that may throw you off about your position is that you’re not actually building the station, just filling the interior. Each station is sliced into a dozen sections with three decks each, a service deck, a leisure deck, and a bio deck. You construct buildings within these cavernous spaces that provide all sorts of services to your visitors and residents. These are anything from space motels and bathrooms to research labs and penitentiaries. Most structures can only be built on a specific deck, and in fact you can’t build anything on the bio deck, just adjust the landscape for growing different plants.
The result is a game that plays much more like Dungeon Keeper in space than a proper space station builder. Each visitor to your station is simulated, and you can watch them walk around, spend money, and see what they like and dislike about your digs. They also have stats that apply to their job if you hire them, as many of the buildings you build must be staffed. Hiring can be pricey if you go for talented employees, and in fact the economical side of the game can be quite difficult to keep balanced. You need a healthy mix of basic services, entertainment, industrial production, and trading to keep flush with cash, which is actually energy that keeps your station humming as well. There’s enough going on to find yourself overwhelmed just keeping up with the basic operation of your station, to say nothing of garbage piling up or spies planting bombs around the place.
There’s a five-part tutorial that’ll teach you the basics of the interface, and then a ten-mission campaign that drills down on the different aspects of stations. You might have to run a medical station, or a trade hub, or take over a derelict station from squatters. The first five are almost like an extended tutorial, but the latter half can be intensely challenging. A mission will generally take you about an hour but the more difficult ones might need several restarts, their striking difficulty almost requiring foreknowledge of the mission’s quirks. If none of that sounds appealing there is an incredibly customizable sandbox mode where you can set victory conditions and individual difficulties to your whims.
The basic 3D graphics have held up surprisingly well over the years, from picturesque views up the curves of your station to the little details on each of the aliens. Sound design also remains up to the task, with plenty of understated sci-fi effects and an inviting soundtrack. The big thing that might throw people off is how incredibly British the presentation is, with a dry AI assistant and plenty of off-color humor in facilities like love nests and space discos. Honestly it feels like a sim set in the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, and if that sounds like a good time then you’ll get plenty of mileage out of Startopia. And even if it doesn’t, there’s a clever, if not perfect, management game to be had.