Retrospective was a small feature on Resonance that focused on retro gaming by looking back at some of the most famous PC games. These are less reviews and more opinion pieces looking back on old classics, and as such they don't come with a score.
Elite began on the BBC micro and Acorn computers in 1986. Primarily a space ‘trading’ game, the start of the original begins with something that becomes a running theme in the series; you’re dropped into the middle of an entire universe with nothing but a few credits and basic ship to your name, and it’s up to you to make a name for yourself. The original has no real in-game plot, although it did come packaged with a whole novella based in the universe, so it’s not exactly lacking in backstory, providing you’re willing to read a book to get it. The real idea of Elite didn’t rely on plot though. The game designed from stage one to be played the way the player wanted.
In 2008, we’re spoiled by the amount of games that want us to play them ’how we want’. Huge Sprawling RPGs and games like GTA and even the next generation of Elite clones themselves give us an almost overwhelming amount of freedom. Freedom doesn’t always mean quality of course, but it’s certainly a common place idea here in the 21st century. In the mid eighties, it was nearly unheard of. Without the internet and gamefaqs to strip all the major components of the game, the huge universe remained an incredibly appealing mystery to most players.
It’s not just in gameplay that Elite was innovative either; everything about the game is ahead of its time, a remarkably accurate portent of the things to come for the games industry. From the 150,000 copies sold to the BBC news coverage and the launch party at a UK theme park, Elite took everything to a whole new level. Oh, and it virtually invented an entire genre while it was at it. Not bad for a team of two guys.
The real goal of Elite - if you can ever really say there was any goal at all – is to amass credits. This can be done through running missions, piracy, mining or bounty hunting but all of these are really secondary jobs compared to trading. Most of many, many hours gameplay elite can offer is spent trading between the games different systems. And there are a lot of systems. Ok, so they were procedurally generated and so had very little true personality, but it’s the scope of the game that really provides the atmosphere rather than the details. Later games in the series would create a more detailed and rich universe with living economies and planets you could land on, but Elite captured the emptiness and isolation of space like no other game ever made.
Only a certain type of gamer is really going to appreciate space trading games. After all, when you demote the game to its most basic form, all you are really doing is clicking on dots, reading spreadsheets and moving to another dot to view at another spreadsheet. It’s more about imagination than graphics or even gameplay. Perhaps the biggest point for criticism is the same often levelled at simulation games; lack of design, lack of goals and lack of direction in gameplay. It’s true that Elite has really only ever appealed to a very certain type of gamer, patient enough to find trading enjoyable, but trigger happy enough to enjoy the large section of the game dedicated to action.
One eighties tradition Elite didn’t manage to break was difficulty. The game was at best tricky and at worst, utterly unforgiving and genuinely unfair. One of its best tricks is when the Thargoid - the main enemy force of the game - will pull you out of hyperspace to fight. Having to fight off the attackers is fair enough, although difficult, but gaining a victory only to realise you didn’t have enough fuel to get to the nearest system and are stranded in space felt a bit cheap. Even tasks that became far easier in later games were quite difficult in the original; just docking your ship with the space stations required skill, as you have to match up your ship not only to aim towards the stations docking port, but also rotate your ship at the exact same speed and direction of the station. One hit can result in the destruction of your vessel.
There’s little denying Elite hasn’t aged all that well. The graphics are obviously very primitive and the combat would have been archaic even ten years ago. The ‘Elite+’ and ‘EliteA’ versions of the game certainly improve on the original game without changing the core gameplay. And both are available to download for free from Ian bells site. The games later sequels are controversial; while they do wonders for the games graphics and economy, they are buggy and have a ‘realistic’ combat model that makes fighting in the game frustrating and drawn out.
Even though Elite has many flaws, it deserves a huge amount of praise simply for doing something nobody else had even dreamed of doing back when it was released. Its scale and gameplay were unmatched for many years, and the game was one of the first to be ported over to nearly every system capable of running it, including the NES. Without Elite, it’s difficult to believe that games like Eve Online of the X: beyond the frontier could have been created without the incredible vision of Elite’s designers.