Back in the days of 8-bit computers games were generally pretty simple affairs involving shooting aliens or jumping over barrels viewed in only two dimensions. That was until Elite came along.
Written for the BBC Micro by Ian Bell and David Braben in 1984, and published by Acornsoft, it was one of the first hugely popular games to use wireframe 3D graphics and was immense in size and scope.
Elite was billed as a space trading and combat game. The player initially piloted a space craft known as the Cobra Mk III, a fairly basic vessel that allowed them to buy and sell various commodities and transport them between planets in order to make a profit. Initially you had limited funds so could only trade in low cost items such as food, but once you had made a bob or two you could progress to items such as computers, luxury goods, furs, and even contraband such as narcotics, although dealing in the latter was a risk as it could get you in trouble with the space police.
The trick initially was to find a couple of planets you could shuttle between that were at different ends of the development scale. An agricultural world produced cheap food which you could sell at a profit to a tecnological world, for example. The technological world might produce computers very cheaply, which could then be sold on the agricultural world. The game progressed in this manner, with the player buying stock, jumping through hyperspace to another planet and docking with its space station to sell the goods and buy something else.
On its own the space trading was surprisingly captivating, but Elite went further by adding space combat to the mix. After your hyperspace jump to a planet you ended up floating in space a long way from the space station. As you flew towards the space station you came across other space craft which more often than not ended up being hostile and you had to choose either to try and outrun them, or take them on in space combat.
Your ship initially had a single laser weapon mounted on the front, but you could upgrade this to more potent weaponry, and could also arm your vehicles rear, left and right views as well. The ship could also be upgraded with extras such as a docking computer, to take the chore out of having to dock at the space stations manually, or a larger cargo bay. The entire ship could also be upgraded to a different model that might have extra cargo space or a greater top speed.
Shooting enemy craft down took a while to master, as you were flying through space in a fairly accurate manner, which meant after thrusting you would keep going in the same direction until you thrusted in another direction. Blowing up a craft was a very exciting moment though, as the number of kills you achieved affected your rating. The ratings, with the number of kills required, are given below.
- Harmless (0 kills)
- Mostly Harmless (8)
- Poor (16)
- Average (32)
- Above Average (64)
- Competent (128)
- Dangerous (512)
- Deadly (2560)
- Elite (6400)
As you can see you would have to put a fair amount of effort into achieving an Elite rating – I don’t think I ever got much further than Average myself – but I had fun trying, and because at the time I didn’t know how the ratings were achieved it made it all the more exciting when your rating did change.
The game was considered so special at the time that it was one of the most expensive games of the day, retailing if memory serves for around fifteen pounds, when most games were ten pounds or less. To add to the value of the package the game shipped with a short novella written by Robert Holdstock and entitled The Dark Wheel, which explained far better than an instruction manual could what was expected of the player and how they could play by the rules or risk becoming classed as a fugitive.
The game is still fondly remembered by many videogame addicts today, as it has appeared on most computers in some form or another, even making it onto consoles such as the NES. It went on to spawn sequels Frontier : Elite II and Frontier : First Encounters, and the much anticipated Elite 4 has been talked about and is supposedly in development at David Braben’s Frontier Entertainments game development company. Sadly, David Braben and Ian Bell fell out after the release of the first Elite, and Ian Bell is no longer involved in game development to any great extent.