Science Fiction! From an early age I was exposed to it. Most coming from the TV set (Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999) and some books (War of the Worlds remains vivid in my young imagination) You name it, I probably saw or read it. And of course then there was Carl Sagan's Cosmos – A Personal Journey TV series that sealed the deal with my admiration for all things astronomy. It's not always easy dreaming every day with the world of tomorrow, but it can sure help you cope with life in general. Like movies, television and books, video games are a great medium for sci-fi, dare I say even the best since they are interactive. It's great to watch Star Wars Episode IV but how much awesome was to go play the Star Wars arcade cabinet? A subjective matter I know and one best discussed some other time because today it's all about David Braben and Ian Bell's video game that went light years ahead: Elite.
Let's turn on the way back machine to September 20th 1984, three decades ago. Elite arrived for the BBC Micro and Acorn computers. I never had any of them and the first time I played the game was of course on my dad's 48k ZX Spectrum, one year later. It was so different from anything that I ever played. My very first sandbox game offered me a ship (trusty old Viper Mark III), some 100 credits and a whole galaxy to travel in. But what's the story? Where is the end game? There is neither! You are free to do whatever you want within the game's universe. Trader? Sure, great way to make some money as long as you're ready to fight off pirates and aliens. Maybe a pirate's life is best for you? Or maybe smuggler, dealing in illegal goods? Do the opposite and help out the local police? It's your choice. Yes, we were all thousands of Commander Jameson but none of us played the same game. All of this in glorious wire frame 3D graphics. Docking manually into a Coriolis station remains one of the hardest task ever of my young gamer's life, making sure that one of the very first upgrades I fit into the ship is a docking computer (and pray it never gets damaged during fights). And don't even get me started on those dammed Thargoids…
The single most dangerous maneuver in video gaming history.
A few years later I got a Commodore Amiga and the Elite version for it. This is where the game really shined and I spend the most time playing it. The Blue Danube now played during docking sequences, bringing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately to mind, a movie which was a huge influence on both game producers. It was a very rewarding but solitary experience. Something that would change years later when the first sequel arrived. Sadly I never owned a NES. Nintendo's industry rescuing home console received an amazing port that I never got to play. I was however really hoping Elite would make it to the Game Boy. The ultimate sandbox universe experience right in my pocket! Did you know it almost really happened?
Fast forward to 1993. Frontier: Elite II was not just a sequel. It was THE sequel. It brought so much more possibilities on much more powerful 16 bit hardware and yet, it all fitted in a couple of low density 3,5 floppy disks. You had three choices of starting port, one of them right in our solar system. From there, it was freedom to explore a vast universe with suns, planets (some of them you could even land on the surface at space ports), moons, asteroids, AI ships going about their business, space stations of many shapes and sizes and three separate factions. That's right, there was some back plot to this universe, introducing the Federation, founded on birth place of humanity in Sol and the Empire whose capital seat is in Achenar. You can bet these two don't really get along very nicely and as such, a permanent state of cold war runs all across the colonized parts of the galaxy. Caught in the middle are the independent systems, the third faction has some familiar stars like Lave. Yep, the original games star system are all present nicely in this sequel.
Back in the day we didn't need Metacritic to tell us when we had a winner.
This time the player was spoiled with ship choices. You were no longer restrained to your trusty old Cobra Mark III (which remained a very capable trade/fighter vessel). Because of this and the way one could go on about exploring the many star systems, the game became a multiplayer community experience. Of course there was no Internet and the game didn't even support multiplayer, but that id not stop it from becoming a hot topic during high school class recess. Most of my friends at the time already own IBM PC's but I was still holding to my Commodore Amiga. So besides my lower frame count, both versions where identical. We spend months trading information about ship configurations, solar systems, points of interest, trade routes (yes, I was the first among my peers to strike gold with the old Sol - Barnard's Star trade route. Easy profit on stable systems, it was easy to buy a Panther in less than a week) and the ever alluring hunt for a single Thargoid that was rumoured to exist within the game's universe. So we sent out expeditions to the farthest possible stars we could navigate. By equipping a Fuel Scoop, one could harvest hydrogen fuel from gas giants or in case you where stuck in a system without one, harvest straight from the system's own star (better have good shields for that) and as such sustain infinite light years range. Sadly I must admit failure in all of those, but we did see a lot of pretty sights. When our Super Nintendo's and Megadrives where left off while we gathered around a PC monitor, you knew there had to be something special going on.
1. Ross 154 System [Recommended Start Position]
First Encounters followed soon after, containing much needed bug fixes and even a mission structure that would lead to that elusive Thargoid. For many years, that was all we had. The influence of the game stretched far, as seen on games like Privateer, the X series and another one of my favourites Freelancer. But the space simulator genre began to decline, almost forgotten. No longer we had range of different games to satiate our space hunger. Fortunately those times are about to end, with both crowd funded entries: Chris Robert's ambitious Star Citizen and David Braben's very own Elite: Dangerous. I have not played anything from these two, I am binding my time and preparing to return to PC gaming just to be able to experience them. One thing is certain: Elite:Dangerous looks set to become the game I dreamed about when I was a kid playing the original on ZX Spectrum. About time technology caught up to human imagination.
That Lost Winds bubble-head figurine really wins me over.
So thank you Elite, for three decades of dreams. I do not believe mankind will forever live chained to this wonderful planet, but when we do sail to the starts I will no longer be here to witness it. So am glad I can pretend to do so n simulation. Happy Birthday Elite! I wonder if someone will do a piece like this one when you turn 60...
I still have this, the Amiga version package complete with star map, manual and fictional plot book. Wonder if my floppy disks still work...
Now go out there and play some Elite! Play Hard, PLAY LOUD ᕦ(ò_óˇ)ᕤ
*OMAKE* Please also enjoy this EP I made some time ago to celebrate the successful funding of Elite: Dangerous. Free download from here.
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