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LONG BLOG

Startopia: the mucky feet of a frog

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Mucky Foot was a Guildford-based developer from 1997 to 2003. If you know of Guildford in relation to video games, it's maybe because that town was the home of Bullfrog, Lionhead and presently Media Molecule and 22Cans. Mucky Foot fits in that group well, as it was founded by former Bullfrog people.

Of the three games the studio finished, Startopia (Mucky Foot/Eidos, 2001) is most similar to the type of games I associate with Bullfrog. (The other two are Blade II (Mucky Foot/Activision, 2002) and Urban Chaos (Mucky Foot/Eidos, 1999) the latter of which would be an interesting title to cover as well, if I wanted to replay it. I don't really do.)

There is no real premise to the game. The game box says that after an intergalactic war the network of space stations and planets is totally, completely, most sincerely dead. The player now has the chance to restore this network to its former glory by the needs and requirements of each alien species.

The manual says nothing about that. The game says nothing about that. So, you know it's completely irrelevant.

Fixing up the stations is done in a number of solo scenarios. The player starts from near-scratch in one section of the space station, places various structures there and through gameplay not unlike Dungeon Keeper (Bullfrog/EA, 1997) or Theme Park (Bullfrog/EA, 1994), keeps the budget in the black while expanding with an eye on the scenario goals.

Every station is torus-shaped -- think of a spinning donut where the floor is to the outer side of the donut. Think of the scene in 2001 where Frank Poole runs along the a toroid wall. Which lets us utilize a unbroken chain of segues, starting with the opening animation. To see actual gameplay, you can check this longplay of all the missions.

Humor is prevalent throughout the game. From the Greys running medical facilities (and now I see the title of Grey's Anatomy with a new meaning). The game itself has only two voiced NPCs -- the occasionally appearing shady dealer Arona Daal and the player's virtual assistant, VAL (Virtual Artificial Lifeform); both are voiced by William Franklin (1925-2006, going by IMDB, as William Franklyn). The small jokes reach all the way to the rap sheets of criminal aliens and their hobbies; someone likes deep diving in Sea of Tranquility, another is wanted for mooning or appearing in a terrible low-budget sci-fi movie.

Energy is the main currency of the game. This is primarily earned by having incoming aliens (think guests in Theme Park) pay for various services, selling crates of equipment or produce via the merchant Arona Daal or traders passing by.

The space stations work on three decks: engineering deck, where the player will place cargo holds, diners, medbays, prisons, docks for starships and so on; pleasure deck for amusement park -type rides and shops; and biodeck (we'll come to this later).

The workers to run the facilities in the space station can be hired from the visitors, but hiring a criminal will mean they work against you -- say, a criminal Grey will not heal the patients but make them worse. Definitely something you want to avoid when they're suffering from an illness that'll make their head explode or have an infectious massive black bug burst out from inside them. The longer the employees have worked for you, the better they become and they need raises accordingly.

Back to the biodeck, as that's a very different deck. This is an area where the terrain can be changed in altitude, dryness and temperature. Certain species like certain environment, such as the bulky Kasvagorians who like it dry and hot. Another bonus is that many different plants grow here. The species depends on the aridness and temperature. These are planted by Karmaramas, who also don't like when you harvest them for equipment and trade goods, say, medical supplies, luxury goods or alien technology (somehow).

Remembering how this is a game made by former Bullfrog people, some traits of those games shine through. The trash needs to be collected by droids (scuzzers) like in Theme Park; otherwise the trash will attract ratlike creatures, which in turn will attract catlike creatures to eat them, and as visitors pet these, they may contract a (fatal) disease.

Like in Dungeon Keeper, the player can help things along by picking up the trash and depositing it in the bin. Or collect crates and put them to storage. Thankfully, one big improvement here is that the player has a transport buffer: it can store multiple items at a time.

There's the option of adjusting the pricing of food, for instance, but I never had to touch those sliders. Various aliens are also supposed to not really like each other, but I never saw that popping up. 

And then we get to the worse parts.

I would say Populous II (Bullfrog/EA, 1991) didn't exactly have good ways of waging war with the other factions' people. The same with Settlers/Serf City (Blue Byte, 1993). It shouldn't be surprising that Startopia fails in this respect as well.

Pretty soon in the campaign, other sectors in the station will be occupied by either competing station managers or squatters (same thing, really, from the gameplay perspective). Taking over sectors from the others is done by breaching the bulkhead separating the two factions' areas, and then sending a security scuzzer (a droid, think of an imp in Dungeon Keeper) to hack the next bulkhead under your control, leaving the sector between in your control.

The actual armed forces are controlled by setting a muster beacon to which the nearby troops will congregate. And then you pretty much just hope your group wins.

There are only ten missions or so, which is a pity. On one hand, more missions would've meant more drive for solo playing it. On the other, the scenarios are used well to introduce and focus on the game's species and features slowly so that the learning curve remains low and boredom won't have a chance to set in.

The Grey Council's mission, for instance, means setting up a hospital station and healing all of the incoming hurt people. The Galactic Rehab Authority needs the player to rehabilitate a bunch of criminals in cells. And so on. Sadly, all these missions are narratively very self-contained. Remember the war in the back of the box? The way that is never mentioned is only one example of what's wrong. But nor is there any real overarching plot (outside of maybe Arona Daal, but that's flimsy at best), or a mission that would need the player to replan the station anew. The whole narrative is only a sheen of humor spread on straightforward missions.

Past the solo scenarios, there's online multiplayer and the solo sandbox. Gamespy the service is dead and buried now, but the direct TCP/IP multiplayer might work; I didn't try that. The sandbox mode gives the player a wealth of options to customise their game, but I'm not much into sandbox games in the first place, so YMMV.

The game was critically well-received, but that didn't end up meaning much. The often cited number of sales for the game is 110,000 copies. This meant Mucky Foot was financially in a bad shape. To those interested, The Escapist has a good long story of Mucky Foot from the start to the end, written by Kieron Gillen. One particular note of interest... had the dev team stayed at Bullfrog/EA for their share options, those would've been worth half a million pounds (the very first page behind the above link says so). Instead, these people chose to leave.

For a longer postmortem on Startopia itself, you can go read the one on Gamasutra.

In personal retrospection, I loved Startopia. While the skirmishes with other managers on the same space station is a pain, that was tolerable, but the lack of more missions with a narrative hurt it. There are user-made missions for it, and maybe I will try those out one day.

What about today? (Rock, Paper, Shotgun loved it in 2013.) For the purpose of this cblog, I installed a copy. I couldn't get my CD version to start on a modern PC (Win10). The GOG version, though, ran easily. The text in the menus doesn't scale, so resolutions higher than what was available in 2001 will make you squint your eyes. I understand the game also doesn't support widescreen displays.


* I played the missions up until the 7th one (the one the playthrough said had difficulty level of "WTH".) but then stopped. Back in 2001, I did finish the game but I didn't repeat it for this review. The walkthroughs I've seen list missions reaching up to 10, which is where I'm basing this number on. I'm confident it didn't have many more than that.

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About Flegmaone of us since 11:34 PM on 01.17.2015

Very much unprofessional writer, don't take anything I write without a truckload of salt.

On a hopefully long-term break from saying anything.