Sweet zombie jesus, I loved this game.
Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty sh** at it, but at 12 years old it blew my tiny mind like nothing else had. ‘Elite’ did that to a lot of people.
Now at the ripe old age of 37 I am about to put my affairs in order and ready my friends and loved ones for the time when I’ll be gone, the time when I buy ‘Elite: Dangerous’ on the Xbox One.
If anyone does eventually find my daylight starved skeleton, with this image burned into back of my empty skull….
….they’ll know I died (over and over and over again) doing what I love – screaming bloody murder at a slightly skew-whiff letterbox in the front of a procedurally drawn spinning vector that my tiny brain thinks is a gigantic space station in the far reaches of space.
Because, you see, I’m going to replay ‘Elite’ on a C64 before I play it on the Xbox One – and I’m betting the house that I’m just as utterly rubbish at it now as I was 25 years ago.
Agreed, by today’s standards it may not look like much, but tread carefully when describing this masterpiece to your grandchildren around the flickering hologram of a campfire; in the 80s ‘Elite’ rocked the gaming world like nothing ever had, and quite rightly so.
Burn the image of these badasses into your memory…
This is David Braben and Ian Bell, the math-genius co-creators of ‘Elite’, and we owe them a great debt.
Songs should be sung about these mighty 8bit warriors, because when they weren’t dressing like your dad’s solicitor’s dad, they were ripping a new hole in the video game market; they were changing everything.
Some people may thing this is too much praise for a pair of pencil necks in their dad’s solicitor’s dad’s suits.
Well f*** those people – and f*** Skyrim, EVE Online, all the GTAs u can shake a baseball bat at and every flavour of MMO and open world game yet to be conceived or created – because without those two pencil necks and ‘Elite’, you can kiss those other strokes of gaming glory goodbye.
As other developers were happily wallowing in the mud with Pong shaped flippers and not yet even dreaming of a time when they could do something more than getting their stumpy, opposable thumbs around a copy of Jet Set Willy – this dynamic duo were packing 3D nitroglycerin into a Cobra Class spaceship and aiming for the edges of the multiverse.
While the rest of the gaming world were throwing rocks at the moon, David Braben and Ian Bell were using the Fibonacci sequence – and Hawking only knows how many other brilliant mathematical programming tricks – to pack the world’s first three-dimensional, open world space trading video game into a program that was about the same size as an email is today. Not a long email either, and with none of that social signatures bulls*** or any other sort of fatty goodness, just the sort of thing you send to your mate at work about where to go for lunch.
These lunatics blew my mind apart and made me fall in love with the idea that I was a space trader traveling through a universe with millions of stars and planets and species to shoot at or sell s*** to – and they did it all using just 22k of memory.
They were and still are, badasses.
Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing for these pioneers (changing the world never is), and there’s one part of their story that I absolutely love. Mainly because it sounds like the sort of thing we’ve all heard has happened to someone trying to create something outside of the system… the Money Men tried to kill it stone dead with one of those rocks they were saving for the moon.
Because the Money Men knew what ‘worked’, the Money Men knew what would ‘sell’, and the Money Men knew what ‘users’ ‘wanted’.
When the pair took their brainchild to the big boys at Thorn EMI, the suits played a demo of ‘Elite’, smiled, nodded, and thanked the games markets last best hope of a bright future for stopping by. Then they found the biggest, dumbest rock they could, and wrapped a rejection letter around it.
The letter that landed at Braben and Bell’s feet contained these inciteful glimmers of genius…
Thorn EMI for publishing:
“The game needs three lives, it needs to play through in no more than about 10 minutes, users will not be prepared to play for night after night to get anywhere, people won’t understand the trading, they don’t understand 3D, the technology’s all very impressive but it’s not very colourful’.”?(From The Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford, a brilliant section in the Guardian of which can be found here.
Such short sightedness is so staggering it’s comical! “Users will not be prepared to play night after night”? I would have played day and night for weeks at a time if only my puny 12-year-old body would have sustained it! Morons.
As it is I only suffered mild malnutrition before an intervention.
Elite introduced me to level-grinding for the first time. Searching 8 sprawling galaxies of planets trying to find the best trading route between systems, buying low and selling high and then trying not to get blasted to bits by other traders/police/pirates/aliens along the way, and all the time desperately collecting credits to buy more space to trade or bigger guns to miss enemy ships with.
This sort of gameplay had never been seen before in a video game, you didn’t just pointlessly rack up points… points meant prizes!?
[12 Year Old Brain]
Wait, wait, wait – I can buy a military laser for the back of my ship? To shoot behind me? That’s where all the ships go when I miss them with the lasers on the front of my ship! I’ll be unstoppable!… and it’s only going to cost me [insert inconceivably high amount of credits for dreadful 12-year-old player to even consider earning in anything under a year here]? I could earn that in about a year! What am I waiting for?!
Perhaps greater than the desperate urge to actually be able to hit an enemy ship with my aft lasers, was the drive to reach the legendary ranking of Elite itself.
I tried everything to plough my way through the first 8 rankings (Harmless, Mostly Harmless, Poor, Average, Above Average, Competent, Dangerous, and then Deadly) to reach that hallowed 9th of Elite, but as I said at the start, I was s*** at the game and almost certainly still am. But that didn’t stop me loving every second of it of course! All joking aside I think I got as far as ‘Dangerous’? Probably.
Apparently you had to get something horrendous like 6400+ kills to earn the ‘Elite’ ranking. I never got close.
But one of the reasons Elite was such an incredibly addictive experience was because it wasn’t about ‘winning’ or ‘beating’ the game in under 10 minutes or anything like that – for this 12-year-old, the game was another world, many in fact.
When Elite was released it came with a novella that painted my black and white vector based universe with glorious life and sci-fi drama. ‘The Dark Wheel’ (lovingly kept alive and online here) was a novella that was in the box with the game…
…this made a universe of difference and lit a flame in the imagination of players. Suddenly instead of shooting shapes on a screen I was trading commodities with advanced alien cultures, fighting the good fight against an evil insectoid race called the Thargoids (probably the reason I’m scared of spiders today) and generally blundering around a starry sandbox I couldn’t even see the edges of.
Each world had its own race and power structure to consider before attempting to travel there, ranging from Corporate to Anarchic, and I died on each and every one of them.
You begin the game a Cobra Mark III, and like all ships in the game, its hyperdrive range is limited to 7 light years, indicated by the circle below…
…this meant in order to reach the other side of this galactic chart…
…you had to buy high and sell low, working out the most profitable and safe way to jump from system to system, plotting a course through the stars on a kill or be killed adventure of your own making. This particular 12-year-old was hooked.
This particular 12-year-old also died a lot.
Most of the time I wasn’t even killed by other ships. Most of the time I would just smash into the docking bay of the space station on a system I’d spent hours trying to reach.
Look at this bastard thing! I mean just look at it!
These behemoths orbited planets with their docking bays (the letterbox thingy) facing the surface, you would have to fly in between them and the planet, line up with the rotating ‘dock’ and then match your ships rotation with that thin sliver of near-certain doom. Off axis by a few too many whiskers?
After some professional grinding however, I brought a Docking Computer, and all my worries were gone! Apart from the rest of my worries that didn’t involve crashing into space stations.
Suddenly my universe was bigger and brighter and more accessible, I could trade with ease and zip around (read: meander amateurishly) from system to system without the constant crushing terror of having to dock in a space station after almost every hyperspace jump!
I was free!
At least for about 5 minutes. As I began exploring more and more systems I had a steep learning curve in terms of having to protect my Cobra Mark III hide.
The more (and less savoury) commodities I traded in, the more systems I had to fly to that were Feudal or Anarchic – meaning a serious and nearly unrelenting battle to reach the space stations I previously couldn’t even dock in!
Mo money mo problems.
The Nineties and Naughties generations will never know the mixed feeling of thrill and dread in the pit of your stomach at getting lurched out of hyperspace by a Thargoid raiding party, or as the edges of that gigantic letterbox docking bay slowly passes, and you await the tiny 8bit sound of either safe docking or wonky doom.
They can’t remember the joy and the pain of Elite’s interstellar trade and fight-to-the-death space battles, the wishing and working for bigger guns and more cargo space, the endless task of suspending your disbelief to become utterly lost in 22k of essentially black and white multiverse.
But that’s not a bad thing, I know my view screen is rose-tinted.
I’m not 12 years old anymore (at least on the outside) and I’m starting to understand.
In the same way my Eighties generation will probably never reach that transcendental moment where the world stops, all colours and languages become one beautiful harmonic blur as you realise we are all part of the same great sweeping river of consciousness… and you start to understand what the teletubbies are actually saying. They are the future now.
So I sit patiently with the curtains drawn, on a throne made up of boxes of meal replacement bars, and refresh the page on the ‘Elite: Dangerous’ website steadfastly waiting for the xbox one release. Because that’s one of the things the original ‘Elite’ taught me, grinding, and after all these years I’m pretty good at it.
In fact, it might be my one hope for surviving the new version of the game, it’s certainly one of the things I’m secretly looking forward too and can’t wait to get lost in again.
However, I also can’t wait until the future of gaming is being crafted into experiences that we can’t even recognise or relate to, back then we were limited with the tech of the time and the suits trying to stop brilliance like Braben and Bell in their tracks by moulding them into the same game that everyone was already playing.
It’s no small wonder the edges of space were never really within our reach. We only gave ourselves 7 light years of gas.
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