Spacebase Startopia is a welcome return for an almost forgotten simulation classic

When intergalactic travel is possible, and many, varied races co-exist in peace, places need to exist for them to rest, recuperate and spend their hard-earned cash. In Spacebase Startopia you are a commander on an intergalactic rest-stop, with all of the opportunities and risks that come with the job.

A few years ago  I was talking to some former Bullfrog Studios staffers — they were showcasing Two Point Hospital ahead of its launch — and after a while we found ourselves chatting about Mucky Foot’s Startopia. Spacebase Startopia wasn’t a thing at the time, so we had no reason beyond nostalgia to prattle on about The Movies and Startopia, but we did, we nearly talked for longer than we did about Two Point Hospital.

There’s a reason for that Nostalgia. Startopia felt like a Tycoon game but with a completely wacky setting. Not only that, but each of the alien species felt like extremes, and the whole thing was tied together with dry, wry and often sarcastic humour — most of which was delivered by 75-year-old William Franklyn as VAL.

Thankfully, all elements of this have returned with Spacebase Startopia (except Franklyn, who passed five years after Startopia‘s release). It’s still funny, the characters are still extremes, and the tycoon formula has been taken and built on. There’s a few new things too: Mechs, Cat Cafes and booster & upgrade systems.

It doesn’t solve the problems of the original game though. There’s still a shortage of levels, a lot of the gameplay feels reactive rather than structured, and the sandbox difficulty ramps at a strange pace. These three issues were not major issues the first time around, and they certainly remain minor issues now — however, the standard of tycoon/management games has increased, and while I might be more forgiving toward this, as a fan of the early games, new players might not be so forgiving.

An example of this is that, in the sandbox mode, the resting, environmental difficulty (outbreaks, pirates, etc) naturally increases over time, rather than being linked to tourist or technology unlocks. Spacebase Startopia does do a great job of steering people into the campaign first, something which might seem weird for expansive genres like simulation or tycoon, but which really works well here because it drip-feeds players the new species and buildings as you play. But, for those who haven’t finished the ten mission campaign, there could well be a point where people haven’t built the security facilities to prepare for aggressors. This is one of the reasons why, these days, most games of this ilk promote the sandbox first, and strap the tutorial to that.

These aggressors also highlight the only major issue that I had with Spacebase Startopia during my time playing: The combat is a little tired. Mechs are a cool idea, and the idea of having a battle view so that you can move drones and mechs around like some sort of battle commander (rather than the prevalent space-ship commander, that is) is a great idea, but it feels like it’s trying to solve a problem that isn’t there. You go, over the course of a few hours, from sucking up rubbish and dumping it in recycling plants, to expanding through a station, to arresting criminals using your security forces into fighting against droves of drones — depending on the set up.

As a matter of fact, in sandbox or multiplayer modes, it’s incredibly sensible to heavily tinker with settings to prevent military situations, because that opens up the potential for some commanders to simply dedicate massive segments of their space to setting up security stations and building mechs. This just doesn’t feel fun. Much like the first Startopia there needs to be some sort of defence provision built into things; Why wouldn’t a deep-space station have external turrets to protect from pirates? Why wouldn’t you be able to build outposts, security zones, defensive turrets, if there is a chance of running into rival factions? Spacebase Startopia is crying out for work in this area, it is such a shame when an entire economical ecosystem of perfectly balanced o2 moderation, bin location, and general walk-flow management, all tumbles down because your four drones can’t take out the half a dozen pirates who have beamed onto your fun deck.

But, peel out that military mishap and Spacebase Startopia is brilliant. I spent a lot more time playing it than I have almost any game I’ve reviewed this year, and it filled out some of my spare time too. The music is great, the humour is perfect, and the whole process and flow of the game is excellent. I really like how issues can creep up in certain areas of the station because the amount of visitors has increased; it’s great when you add new things on the fun deck and their popularity creates a bottleneck on the sub-deck. It means that there are always new problems to solve, with your solution sometimes only revealing lower-level issues. In this way it’s certainly closer to games like Two Point Hospital, or Cities Skylines than it is other games.

You’ll spend a lot of time clicking on visual filters, so you can see where atmosphere issues are, and finessing layout and flow. But if this form of ‘flow’ management and maintenance is what attracts you to tycoon and management games then, combat elements aside, Spacebase Startopia is almost unmatched.

Spacebase Startopia is available now for Xbox, Playstation, PC, Mac & Linux. It’ll launch on Nintendo Switch innn the fuuuttureeee.

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