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Elite is 25

Posted by roomybonce on Sep 25th, 2009 and filed under Net. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

A quarter of a century ago I would spend days in my freezing box room in Fegg Hayes (a teensy hamlet north of the most northern of Stoke’s six towns) hammering at an Acorn Electron home micro. I had the Plus 1 and Plus 3 expansion modules, the former giving me access to the world of analogue joysticks & shitty thermal printers with paper barely wider than a till roll, and the latter introducing me to the dizzying storage capacity of 3.5 inch diskettes and the stunningly robust Advanced Disk Filing System (ADFS) which I still see on the start-up screens of some BBC hardware today.

On this 8-bit wonder I would waste whole summers copying buggy game code from magazines, writing text-only ‘Ghostbusters’ adventures constructed from hundreds of IF…THEN…GOTO statements, creating elaborate loading screens from painstakingly calculated vector graphics, and playing beautifully addictive games like Repton, Thrust, and Elite.

This was one of the first games to feature an open-ended universe, with 8 galaxies, each containing 256 planets, any one of which you could visit to trade goods at their space station, or get involved in asteroid mining, or pick up odd jobs around the system. Your only overall goal was to increase your rank, from ‘harmless’ to the fabled ‘Elite’, and this could be achieved by legal means or otherwise. You could defend ships from pirates, or pillage them yourself. You could join the military, or become a bounty hunter. You defined your character’s morality. There were no boss fights, no levels, no hi-scores, and no ‘complete’ screen. You could, literally, play it forever.

It also dared to be boring in an oddly thrilling way. In the early stages – before you could afford a docking computer – you had to approach the space station at a fairly precise ninety degree angle and match its rotation almost exactly to ensure a clean dock. This was space travel in real time, and it gave you a sense of the astronautically mundane that was exciting in its potential accuracy. You genuinely felt involved in every level of space flight, from the breathless dog fights to the feet-up-with-a-ginger nut coasting into dock, all the while scanning the matchless 3D radar for threats.

And it did it all in 20k.

That was the last of the Electron’s RAM when you took away the display buffer. Here’s Elite running on a BBC Micro emulator:

If you want to play it yourself just click here and follow the instructions.

In its original incarnation, Elite was immaculately packaged, with a keyboard template, a weighty flight manual, and a smartly written novella that fleshed out its wireframe universe. ‘The Dark Wheel’ – written by respected fantasy writer Robert Holdstock –  was the first work of fiction to be included with a computer game, and you can read it here.

Elite was groundbreaking in almost every way, and I think it’s no surprise that its creators, Ian Bell and Dave Braben, have totally failed to match it in the subsequent 25 years of xeroxed sequels and abandoned deadlines. Most people have only one truly revolutionary move in them, and I think Elite was Braben & Bell’s.

And yet Braben is still working on Elite 4, which has been in development for eleven years. Click here for the full story and a vid of Braben talking a BBC reporter through the original game in celebration of its Silver Anniversary. “We’d be mad not to go back to the world of Elite,” he says, ”I’m very excited about it.”

My advice Dave? Leave it. You can’t improve on perfection.

Happy Birthday Elite. Even in this elegantly rendered X3 world, you’re still The Daddy.

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