Elite is a seminal space trading computer game, originally published by Acornsoft in 1984 for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers. The game's title derives from one of the player's goals of raising their combat rating to the exalted heights of "Elite." It was written and developed by David Braben and Ian Bell, who had met while they were both undergraduates at Jesus College, Cambridge. Non-Acorn versions of the game were published by Firebird, Imagineer and Hybrid Technology.
Elite was one of the first home computer games to use wireframe 3D graphics with hidden line removal. Another novelty was the inclusion of The Dark Wheel, a novella by Robert Holdstock which influenced new players with insight into the moral and legal codes to which they might aspire. Elite's open-ended game model, advanced game engine and revolutionary 3D graphics ensured that it was ported to virtually every contemporary home computer system, and earned it a place as a classic and a genre maker in gaming history. Elite was a hugely influential game, serving as a model for more recent games such as Space Rogue, Eve Online, Freelancer, Jumpgate, Infinity: The Quest for Earth, Wing Commander: Privateer, the Escape Velocity series and the X series of space trading games.
Elite has often been treated as the yardstick by which subsequent space trading games have been measured. However, it was not the first such game; the genre-defining Star Trader had been written as long ago as 1974. The space trading genre combines space-borne combat with a "buy low, sell high" freight transport system and the ability to use the profits to purchase ship upgrades.
The player, initially controlling the character "Commander Jameson", starts at Lave Station with 100 credits and a lightly armed trading ship, a Cobra Mark III. Most of the ships that the player encounters are similarly named after snakes, or other reptiles. Credits can be accumulated through a number of means. These include piracy, trade, military missions, bounty hunting and asteroid mining. The money generated by these enterprises allows players to upgrade their ships with such enhancements as better weapons, shields, increased cargo capacity, an automated docking system, and more.
Instead of planetary systems, there are single planets separated by interstellar distances and each planet has one space station in its orbit. Travel between planets is constrained to those within range of the ship's limited fuel capacity (7 light years) and fuel can be replenished after docking with a space station in orbit around a planet which is a challenging task without a docking computer, as it requires matching the ship's rotation to that of the station. Players can upgrade their equipment with a fuel scoop, which allows raw fuel to be skimmed from the surface of stars - being described in the manual as "a dangerous and difficult activity", but in reality a simple process - and collecting free-floating cargo canisters and escape capsules liberated after the destruction of other ships. While making a hyperspace jump Thargoid (antagonist race) invasion ships may trap the player, forcing his ship into "witch-space" to do battle.
An extremely expensive one-shot galactic hyperspace upgrade permits travel between the eight galaxies of the game universe. There is little practical difference between the different galaxies. However in some versions it is necessary to travel to at least the second galaxy in order to access the missions.
The game includes several optional missions for the Galactic Navy. One requires tracking down and destroying a stolen experimental ship; the other involves transporting classified information on the Thargoids' home planet, with Thargoid invasion ships doing their best to see that you do not succeed.
Originally there were 3 versions of Elite released: Acorn Electron Tape, BBC B Tape and BBC B Disk. The BBC version used a split screen to show four colours; the upper two thirds of the screen were displayed in Mode 4 while the lower part was in Mode 5. The Electron version ran entirely in Mode 4, and therefore displayed only black and white. The Electron's limitations meant several game features were cut including Thargoids and suns. Neither the BBC nor the Electron tape versions featured missions. The BBC B Disk version, referred to as Classic Elite, would load a new set of ships after every hyperspace jump or space station launch, meaning a larger number of ships were available. The disc version was enhanced a couple of years after release to take advantage of the BBC Micro Model B's successors including the BBC Micro Model B+, Master 128 computers or an optional second processor unit or sideways RAM, if they were fitted. In this case, the game used Modes 1 and 2 to make more colours available. Elite was quickly converted to a wide range of home computer platforms, including the Apple II, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein and IBM PC compatible. The only console version was released in 1991 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Some of the versions had slightly altered gameplay or other characteristics. The Amstrad CPC conversion (itself a port of the ZX version) has fewer ships than other platforms, lacking the Anaconda and Transport, along with some minor differences in missions and titles. The Commodore 64 conversion introduced Trumbles (creatures based on the tribbles in Star Trek: The Original Series). Also, when the docking computer is activated in the Commodore 64 version and some other versions, a musical rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz is played, which is a nod to a space docking sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This music was arranged by David Dunn.
The Acorn Archimedes version of Elite (written by Warren Burch and Clive Gringras) widely regarded as the best conversion of the original game, added intelligent opponents who engage in their own private battles and police who take an active interest in protecting the law. The game world no longer seems to be centered around the player; freighter fleets with escorts go about their own business, pirate formations patrol lawless systems looking for cargo to loot and mining ships can often be found breaking up asteroids for their mineral content. Unlike the mythical Generation Ships of the original, rare occurrences of other non-pirate entities mentioned in the manual really can be found in the Archimedes version: geometric formations of space beacons; hermits living among the asteroids; abandoned ships towed by police (although Dredgers and Generation Ships are confirmed not to exist in Archimedes Elite). The Archimedes version of Elite was originally written to be a space trading game called Trojan - however the obvious similarities eventually meant that to avoid a potential lawsuit Trojan had to become an official Elite conversion. Many attempts to develop clones of Elite have been made, but most have been abandoned before completion or have otherwise failed to come to fruition. The open source Oolite is a notable exception. Elite: The New Kind, was developed by Christian Pinder by reverse-engineering the original BBC Micro version of Elite, but was withdrawn from the main distribution at David Braben's request. In 2004, a commercial product called Elite Starfighter was released in Germany. Starfighter is an Elite clone that features modern graphics. Since it duplicates the original gameplay, it has been criticized as being somewhat dull by today's standards, but is recommended to Elite enthusiasts who might consider taking a look.
Elite is credited as being the breakthrough title that defined the modern space flight simulation genre, as well as being influential upon gaming as a whole. It was named one of the sixteen most influential games in history at Telespiele, a German technology and games trade show, and has been credited as being the first truly open-ended game and opening the door for future online persistent worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. Elite is one of the most popularly requested games to be remade, with some arguing that it is still the best example of the genre to date, with more recent titles—including its sequel—not rising up to the same level.
Elite was named #12 on IGN's 2000 "Top 25 PC Games of All Time" list, the #3 most influential video game ever by the Times Online in 2007, #6 "Greatest Game" by Stuff magazine in 2008, #1 "Top Retro Game" by Retro Gamer in 2004, and #1 "best game of the 1980s" by Next Generation Magazine in 2008. The game was posthumously awarded 10/10 by the multi-format magazine Edge—together with only 2 other games and is being exhibited at such places as the London Science Museum in the "Game On" exhibition organized and toured by the Barbican Art Gallery. In 1984 Elite received the Golden Joystick Award for "Best Original Game". In 1985 the game was named "Best Game Overall" for that year by readers of Crash magazine, and "Game of the Year" by Computer Gamer. Elites sequel, Frontier: Elite II, was named #77 on PC Zones "101 Best PC Games Ever" list in 2007. Elite is listed in Game On! From Pong to Oblivion: The 50 Greatest Video games of All Time (ISBN: 0755315707) by authors Simon Byron, Ste Curran and David McCarthy. In his review of the game for Beebug Magazine in 1984, reviewer David Fell called Elite "the best game ever" for the BBC Micro.
The game was a significant source of inspiration for later games in its genre. In interviews, the senior producers of CCP Games have cited Elite as one of the inspirations for their acclaimed MMORPG, Eve Online. Thorolfur Beck in particular has said that Elite was the game that impacted him most on the Commodore 64, and that it was the prime motivator behind Eve Online. The developers of Jumpgate Evolution, Battlecruiser 3000AD, Infinity: The Quest for Earth, Hard Truck: Apocalyptic Wars and Flatspace have likewise all credited Elite as a source of inspiration. Similar praise has been bestowed elsewhere in the media over the years.
- Frontier's Elite Website
- Elite at MobyGames
- The Elite Home Page by Ian Bell
- Elite at World of Spectrum
- Masters of their universe - an excerpt from Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of The British Boffin, by Francis Spufford.
- Gamasutra's The History of Elite: Space, The Endless Frontier by Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
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