Saturday, 25 February 2012

Before Oblivion, Skyrim et al, there was Elite


Elite, Acornsoft 1984 - BBC Micro and Acorn Electron

Forgetting to mention this would be like Basil Fawlty forgetting to mention the war.  A total and utter classic.  Inspirational and incredible and rightly taking its place in the timeless ranks of video game or back then; home computer game immortality.  I'm not going to lie as it'll never as my favourite ever game but nevertheless, deserves its legendary status.  I am an impartial geezer and will appreciate and recognise the importance and popularity of things, even if I don't like it.

So please put your ten digits together for Elite.

What you could do was perverse.
How you did it was amazing; and
The game mechanics and options available, was disbelieving.

Of course if made today, while undeniably innovative.  Due to technological enhancements, it wouldn't really be raved about as much, but on the machine it was originally written and created on means it's not an OMG moment, it's an OMFG moment.  Those machines in question had less K than 48 so made the Speccy look like a super computer which made it even more of an ambitious project.

To be even more annoyingly novel, pardon the pun, a novella - The Dark Wheel written by the late British author Robert Holdstock, inspired by Elite, was to be included in some larger than usual box releases in an audacious marketing campaign.  This was the first time a book was ever released to accompany a computer game (you've done it Elite - a famous first).

Not stopping there, a Space Trader's Flight Training Manual that provided detailed information on what was involved in Elite, a function key strip and more.  This 'strip' would become very popular with Microprose C64 simulation games....

Just in case you're not aware of what these strips were and/or used for - these cardboard strips were cleverly designed to fit over the computers qwerty and told you what command each key was used for.  Ingenious and essential, can you imagine trying to remember what commands were performed on x amount of keys on a good old qwerty.  Total madness but if these weren't invented, I would have done.

The Dark Wheel was written to influence noobs and features moral issues in how they might be influenced to play the game.  It told the story of a young pilot and on having survived when his daddy (an elite pilot) was murdered by baddies in his ship, tries to understand and avenge his death by learning the basics of the Elite world.  Who or what is the Dark Wheel? Oh go on then - it's a secret organisation, the masonic masons of space if you like but in Holdstock's words he describes it as a 'semi-legendary space unit' with 'legend-seekers'. 

I say audacious as if the game had bombed, that organisers and all involved would be counting the cost of both time, money and Mr Holdstock.  I'm very glad it paid off.

As you can see, I'm finding it difficult to move onto the game itself but no longer, strap yourself in and here we go. 

Be Commander Jameson in his quest to become 'elite'.  So-called as the game's title suggests, as one of your goals was enhancing your combat reputation to the giddy heights of 'elite'.  In his kite, the Cobra MK III he will be permitted in doing many remarkable things that should've been impossible.  Seriously, what you could do in this game was mind-boggling and I can't really begin to explain how unbelievable and ground-breaking this was....

It was a 3D space trading game (first ever?) well in fact no, as that belonged to Star Trader.  Yes I guess most won't have heard of it as it was written in the 70s.  It was also heavily influenced by a game called Star Raiders, released for the family of 8-bit Atari but I suppose that's a space simulation as you couldn't trade.   So not unique, but most remember Elite.

You trekked across the galaxy to other planets, to trade and buy goods in the hope of upgrading your ship.  The possibilities were virtually endless and didn't really have any sort of restriction in what the game allowed you to do (if it was in its mechanics of course).

At the press of the qwerty (whatever it was on the strip), the status screen was displayed and was basically a breakdown of everything that was occurring at that point and what the hell was currently going on.  This was always readily available at any time.  It mentioned everything from your current status, items got, legal status and cash.  You started off as 'very harmless' but as you you bartered and shot your way through the galaxy, this would soon improve and people would start to think you were as tasty as a steaming hot pudding.

Amazingly, you could even delve in the black market of illegal goods but be aware that the Police cops don't take too kindly to this and your legal status could change....  It was really known as a Galactic Police record.

As you farced around planets, you could collect a docking computer and when available and/or near a space station, you could dock to that space station to trade for all sorts of goodies and take a break.  An automatic docking computer could also be gathered but could be hard to find.  Manual docking was fiddly and a pain in the arse.

I remember fondly, that a very decent rendition of Strauss's waltz the Blue Danube was belted out during an auto dock (and probs during a manual dock but I'm not sure).  I heard this on the C64 version so don't know if it was unique to C64 or was the norm on other formats.  I can't help feeling this was in homage or a ref to Kubrick's 2001. You could even warp to hyperspeed, provided you had the drive.

Combat looked OMG and was surely one of the earliest example of 3D, i.e. what would become vector graphics which was basically a graphical technique that resulted in forming a wire frame object.  The ships looked great and you blasted away in your cockpit view, using crosshairs and a variety of available views.  Typically, the game was seen in 'Front view'.  The enemies ranged from Pirate ships, Bounty Hunters and even the law got in on the action, depending on your police record.

It could get tactical too as sometimes, blasting away wasn't enough, you could slow yourself down, spin and speed up.  All tactics needed to be used to great effect as running away, wasn't enough to outwit missiles.  A shield was also available and during hairy situations, you could also scarper using an escape capsule.  Consequences of this would be losing all your well-nicked or got cargo though.

Warning messages would flash up to make you aware of dangerous situations.  Before I forget, many enemy ships are named after snakes and other reptiles like the Anaconda and Boa.

Weapons varied from the staple laser to missiles.  Seeing the missiles in action (no matter who fired them) were a joy to behold.  Mining lasers were used to take out asteroids and upon a successful blast, your cargo bay would welcome the debris with wide-open arms.

The trading, the most fun part, and could be done when docked at a space station.  You could change swap between buying and trading mode and boy, could you do some shit.  You could trade/buy anything minerals, food and computers.

The illegal items included firearms and narcotics - these are considered illegal, so trading in these is risky.  Mega fun.  Making a tidy Del Boy-esque profit depended on what economic profile a planet had (yes complicated stuff), so checking this out is wise before dabbling in trading.

I'm fairly confident in saying it was the first game to be truly open-ended, hence allowing the player to simply do what the fuck he/she liked.  You could enjoy bounty hunting, partake in optional missions involving aliens and illegally trade.

There were a few versions released for both systems that featured differences due to the machines limitations.  The best conversion of the original is said to be on the Acorn Arhcimedes which added new features not present in the true original.

Due to its popularity, publishing wars inevitable ensued and would appear on every conceivable home computer around.

I had the pleasure to hammer it on the Speccy but more so on the C64 (as I remember the Blue Danube theme).

Firebird published the Speccy and C64 conversions in 1985 and 1986 respectively.

So a totally incredible game and surely the greatest achievement ever to grace such a primitive piece of hardware.

Are you sitting comforably, then let me introduce my rant.

After all the conversions and unofficial games, would it ever get a true sequel, well yes, two in fact.  There were Frontier: Elite II (1993) and Frontier: First Encounters (1995) all released on the ST, Amiga and PC.  Were they any good?  Well obviously they looked far better and expanded on the gameplay by allowing you to land and explore planets but had some important bug issues.  But I don't really care as the title Frontier: First Encounters just really annoys me.

At face value, this is a standalone game right?  Of course it is as its title bears no actual resemblance to Elite whatsoever and remember I'm basing this on the principle of face value. 

So unless you knew the history of Elite, okay but if you'd never heard of Elite or its sequel and considering all sides of the coin/argument; how the fuck would you know that this was the third game (and officially the last) in an all-time classic franchise which was first out in the early 80s on a seemingly now forgotten microcomputer?

At least the sequel had the name or word 'Elite' in its title to give you a subtle clue it was a sequel.  Even less subtle was certain roman numerals 'II' after 'Elite' which everybody knows means '2', hence meaning this was the second game or sequel to a game called 'Elite'.

So here's a good idea, if you insist this bullshit - just call it Frontier: First Encounters: Elite III.  Easy right?  Apparently not.

I'm sorry, there's no way in the world, a noob would walk into a games shop in 1995, buy it and know what it's based on, no fucking way.  They'd assume it to be a standalone game.

So attention all publishers, designers, creators, writers etc, when dreaming up a title to a sequel or whatever number in a franchise 'MAKE SURE THE TITLE'S RELEVANT AND/OR OBVIOUS IF IT'S A SEQUEL TO SOMETHING'.  Thank you!

The mind boggles as to why so many game and/or films insist on giving such insane and obscure titles to franchises.  Maybe that control at the helm is sometimes, shall we say 'loosened' and the law of common sense usually prevails, but when it doesn't, does all hell break loose and the latter law is thrown out of the fucking window....

Wow, Frontier: First Encounters really pissed me off.  Films will also be hearing my wrath as in this regard, they tend to be are far more guilty...

Before I go, just for shits and giggles - here's the entire Space Trader's Flight Training Manual and Holdstock's novella, The Dark Wheel for you to reminisce or just have a good butchers at:


Commander Jameson, signing off ;-)

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