I have been called many things in my life, most of which are unprintable and probably would get the editorial red pen. One of the best things I have ever been called that is printable is 'Deadly'. This is the highest rating I ever achieved whilst playing one of the greatest computer games ever created. I am of course talking about 'Elite'.
This was one of the very best games to come out of the home computer boom of the 1980s. Originally created for the BBC Micro by David Braben, Elite spread to most other formats and even in 1991 found its way on to the NES. The version that stole many an hour of my early teenage life was on the ZX Spectrum, with all its rubber keyed glory.
It's all in the details
The package was impressive. It came with a cardboard keyboard overlay (to remind you where your missiles and other ship systems were), an impressive manual, a novella (which we will come to in a moment), and a big red key called a LensLok (which you had to peer through in order to get through the security and into the game). Lenslok was inspired. It was a plastic prism that you held up to the screen and viewed an otherwise garbled message if seen without this magical key. It was truly clever and must have taken a lot of programming to get right.
The novellak, called 'The Dark Wheel', was not only an entertaining and engrossing read, but it also gave little snippets of hidden information that the player could actually exploit in game. For example, attach a fuel scoop to your ship and employ a dangerous technique called 'Sun Skimming' and you grab some free fuel. It gets better though. The fuel scoop can also be used to collect space debris, such as the cargo containers and even escape pods of wrecked (or attacked) ships, but watch your rating go from 'offender' to 'fugative' and feel the Viper's sting! The inclusion of this really sparked the imagination and added huge amounts to the game play.
Of course, it came from Atari
'Elite' can draw its DNA directly from games such as Atari's 'Star Raiders' a space combat game fought over multiple maps, reached by warping, fighting a multitude of enemies while using the ship's multiple functions via the keyboard. 'Elite' took the space combat idea a stage further and mixed in a very deep and clever trading element, giving the player a huge variety of ways to make money and develop their ship and push forward their reputation and luck.
From small acorns...
You start the game with not very much in the way of anything. You have a ship, its armed with a weak laser, three missiles, a full tank of fuel and 100 credits- that's it. You are docked in 'Lave', a pretty safe place that will allow you to practice docking a few times with its space station, a skill that you must master or your career will be very short indeed. This is where things get very clever, and even tardis like in its scope. Each planet is unique, it has its own level of development and its own level of technology. This affects how safe the system is (Anarchic worlds are a hotbed of scum and villainy, but illegal items are cheap and a good run of slaves to a Corporate State will bring huge rewards, a few blown shields and a very unhealthy criminal record). The level of technology reflects what sort of things they produce and the prices it charges. Agricultural worlds produce large amounts of food but lack the technology to make machinery, however there are places that make cheap machines. Find this route and watch the credits roll in.
But that's not the only way to make money. Asteroid mining, bounty hunting and even, if you think you are good enough, Piracy. But remember there is always someone with a more powerful laser out there than you and the wrong potshot could lead you to run for the safezone with your laser tucked between your legs. The sheer variation and vast playing area of the game is mind blowing, just exploring the eight galaxies would be almost impossible without a good influx of credits. Your mind is even more frazzled when you realise that all these planets, all of these swirling galaxies, all these epic battles (In three dimensional wireframes!) all this terror as you see the blip on the edge of your radar and hope to God that its not a squad of Police Vipers or even worse the fear of being jumped in 'Witch Space' by a gigantic Thargoid battle cruiser, all of this was programmed into 32K. Yup, all of the above fits into a space not much bigger than the file created by this article.
Its all in the mind
I am no programmer, indeed I can just about remember the way to print my name over and over again in BASIC, but I think I know how Mr Braben did it. He tapped into something that a very large slice of the game playing public have lost, a vital bit of kit that we all needed in the early days of gaming and something that has served us well, enhancing games like ELITE in more ways than any 1080P graphic or 5:1 digital sound system ever could. I am of course talking about imagination. Today, we see a car on the screen and it looks like a car, light bounces off it realistically and we marvel at not even the slightest hint of pixelation or anti aliased edges. The car is as perfect as a photograph and we are treated to a visual feast. It doesn't stop there, hit the virtual ignition key and a note perfect symphony erupts from our incredible sound systems and a real V-10 barks into life.
But it all falls to bits once you begin to play. I have driven for real around the real Nurburgring in a real car at real pant wetting speeds, and I can honestly report that its nothing at all like any experience offered up by the likes of Forza or GT. No matter how good it looks or how great it sounds its nothing like reality and we are being fooled into thinking we are getting something 'realistic' just because it looks pretty and sounds great. It's not the games fault, it's not even the developers fault, it's our fault. For some weird reason we have forgotten how to use our imagination, we have gotten lazy and want it all served up for us in full technicolour HD.
Your brain is astonishing, it creates images and ideas out of seemingly nothingness it keeps the boring stuff like breathing and heartbeats going while you focus on other things. Keeping the port laser firing at that Thargoid while plotting a hyperspace jump to Diso for example. When I was a kid (and this is going back to the days of black and white TV) I had a construction toy call 'Stickle Bricks'. I think you can still get them today, and I bet that if a bucket of them were placed in front of me I could make you an amazing laser rifle complete with removable power pack and twin telescopic sights. Of course to the untrained and unimaginative eye it would look like a multicoloured, bristly stick- but my eight year old brain rounds off all the corners, adds the gunmetal colour, some flashing lights and even the white hot laser bolts that scream from the barrel and suddenly I am Han Solo.
It's this ability that enhanced the gameplay of ELITE and put me right in the pilot seat of my very own Cobra Mk III. I imagined how it must feel to be aboard one of the huge Python liners, and how the appearance of my Cobra could cause panic among the imagined upper class sipping their champers as desperation drove me to piracy and they became just another ton of slaves to be sold at the next Anarchy world I stumbled across.
ELITE is still brilliant even today. Play it on some original hardware for the full effect, emulate if you must but play it and get sucked in. Ignore the odd glitch and simple graphics and just marvel at a world class programmer fitting rich and vibrant galaxies into 32K as it takes you and your imagination on one wild ride. You will all thank me that you did.
You can read the Novella here
Elite (BBC Micro) Gameplay Video
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