There are games that come around every now and again that redefine a genre, and Elite was one of those games. Elite was a space shoot em up, but unlike any other space shooter, it is perfectly possible to achieve “Elite” status without shooting anything. Hard, yes, but perfectly possible.
Released 25 years ago in September 1984 – David Braben & Ian Bell, it was more of a business simulation. You played a Commander of a small Cobra Mk III starship, and you must become the most respected (or feared!) galactic starship commander in space. To do this, you can earn money by completing missions, piracy, trade, bounty hunting & asteroid mining. This money can be used to build enhancements such as shields, weapons, a hyperdrive and many more enhancements. That’s basically the concept of the game, eventually you’ll die, and then your score is calculated. Sounds thrilling no?
If you say no, then you are so wrong.
Part of the beauty of Elite is it’s size. For such a large game, it fit onto memory probably less than the size of this page you are reading this on, a fantastic technical achievement. Sure it doesn’t look a million bucks, but the depth of the game was incredible. First of all, it was written in machine code, which meant every ounce of memory was taken up (the radar screen was simply an afterthought when they realised they had bytes spare). The second technical innovation was that the planets were generated randomly (with the exception of your home planet), and each one is at most 7 light years away from at least 1 other neighbour (the amount of fuel your ship can hold). It wasn’t foolproof, but it was pretty damn close.
So what of the missions? Well, take your pick. Fancy taking down cops or the bad guys? Go ahead. I’m not stopping you, but remember every action has a reaction. Finding yourself on the “Most Wanted” list and you will be hounded by the police. Become a galactic hero by taking down pirates and you’ll find yourself targetted by similar pirates. Be a neutral bounty hunter and you’ll get no hinderance at all. Save a few coppers and you’ll have police escorts. It’s all rather open ended and an incredible game.
Elite recently celebrated it’s 25th anniversary, and it didn’t redefine a genre, it came up with it’s own genre. Every online space game, most offline games, and even games like Sim City & Pirates take aspects of the game, it’s hard to believe that a project by two Cambridge University students will still be the most defining, recognisable and engrossing games still today.