'Elite' was written by David Braben and Ian Bell for the BBC Micro, and was originally released in 1984. In the decade afterwards, versions appeared for most home computers.
Both the background and the gameplay are deceptively simple. The player takes the role of the owner and sole crew-member of a small trading spacecraft. The first challenge is simply to be able to dock your craft. In-flight controls consist of nose up, nose down, roll clockwise and roll anti-clockwise (note that there is no 'turn left' or 'turn right' control; these manoeuvres must be performed as a combination of rolling and climbing/diving). The space-station orbits a planet, and rotates around its central axis. Therefore docking requires the player to line up his ship correctly and match the speeds of rotation. Given the time of the game's release, this alone would have made an adequate game.
Added to this is a combat simulation. Another innovative feature, a 3D radar display, comes into its own here. It is possible to jump to other systems, and once out of range of the station, the player is liable to be attacked by pirates or alien Thargoids. The manual details about 20 other spacecraft, mostly named after snakes, including your own Cobra Mk III, that can be met in the game, and there are several that are not mentioned there.
Yet another layer of interest was added by a trading simulation. Each of 19 generic goods, some legal and some not, could be bought and sold in each system. Since prices are displayed only within a system, the player is required to guess a planet's requirements based upon the description of its economy. The price of fuel acts as an 'overhead'. Once the player has amassed enough money, and found a planet with a high technology level, add-ons may be bought for the spacecraft. Occasionally the game throws up an unusual feature, such as a Thargoid attack in hyperspace.
Its most impressive feature, though, was the scale of its universe. The BBC Micro had only 32K of memory, yet there were eight galaxies, each containing over 250 planets, each of which in turn had buying and selling prices for 19 trade goods and up to 12 space-ship add-ons, a description, a tech. level, a GDP, an industry type and a government type. Quite simply, no-one had ever seen a game on such a scale before.
It has since been revealed that each planet was assigned a number; this number was then used as a seed to generate the name, prices and so on. Thus, only the code numbers and engine had to be committed to the computer's memory. Far from destroying the mystique of the game, this now gives the impression that the player is genuinely exploring the unknown, rather than reading through descriptions all written by the authors. There is always the possibility (admittedly very remote nearly twenty years on!) that no-one has ever visited some of the planets out there.
There was no explicit goal to the game. It was possible to continue to trade indefinitely, becoming richer and richer. However, there were 'combat ratings' built into the game, so that pilots were rated on a scale ranging from 'Harmless' and 'Mostly Harmless' to 'Dangerous', 'Deadly', and eventually the eponymous 'Elite'. Money can be earned by trade, piracy, bounty-hunting, salvage or asteroid-mining. Trading in illegal goods or acting as a pirate tended to be the fastest ways to make money, but there was also a 'Legal Status' scale; slip too far down it and police ships would attack you on sight.
Presentation and Marketing
The game presentation was also a key to its success. Aside from a glossy box and a bulky manual full of illustrations1, the background of the 'Elite' universe was explored. Each of the 20 or so spacecraft it was possible to encounter was fully documented with manufacturer's name and technical statistics - except for a few, which were left intentionally blank to add to the mystery. Three types of 'rare craft' were alluded to - rock hermits, dredgers and colony craft. Of these three, only one was included in the game (and that was a late addition), but some players spent literally years convinced that the other two must exist!
There were references to several other contemporary sci-fi cult classics, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (many of the planets were described as 'hoopy'), 2001:A Space Odyssey (the docking sequence and the Blue Danube theme music) and Star Trek (the tribble/trumble mission, described below).
For the first few months of its release, a competition was run to see who could notch up the highest score, which added further to the game's appeal - it was almost a crude version of playing online.
Later Versions and Missions
The scoring system was soon dropped. Some versions were ported to inferior computers and had to drop some of the spacecraft it was possible to encounter. When re-released on disc, and for all subsequent versions, missions were added, where the player could earn some reward for carrying out a certain task - these missions were usually triggered once the game had been played for long enough.
The exact missions varied between versions, but mostly involved travelling between planets. Perhaps the best remembered is the 'Tribble' mission2 where the player has the chance to buy a small furry creature. Should the player accept, the tribbles multiply, taking up cargo space and eventually blocking the screen. Packaging continued to be important, and this release also contained in the box The Dark Wheel, a novella by Robert Holdstock.
Other missions included carrying documents or refugees to other planets, assaulting a space-station that has been taken over by Thargoids and destroying an invisible spacecraft. Rewards include money, titles or add-ons for your ship. Different versions have different missions implemented, and the Archimedes version has a totally different set.
One major re-write was 'Elite III'3 (the version with missions was counted as 'Elite II' though the packaging never referred to it as such). This version, among several improvements, allowed the player to buy different ships. It also increased the durability of computer-controlled ships; in original Elite, ramming an opponent destroyed it automatically with only minimal damage to your own ship. In Tube Elite, impact damage is proportional to the size of the ship you hit.
'PC Elite Plus', an upgrade of the original 'PC Elite', is slowly becoming the 'standard', due to the difficulties with emulating other computers, though even this will need a program to slow it down on anything faster than a 386. By this stage, solid graphics had replaced the original wire-frame views.
'Archimedes Elite' - for the Acorn Archimedes supercomputer - is often cited as the best 'Elite'. As well as a few new ships and a different set of missions, not to mention vastly improved graphics, it allowed other ships to pursue their own agendas; they could move in formation, for example, or mine asteroids.
Bell and Braben fell out over the copyright to Elite, and the sequels - mostly by Braben - were of decreasing quality. 'Elite II: Frontier' had some input from Bell, but 'Frontier II: First Encounters' (aka 'Elite III') was a debacle, released against Braben's wishes in an obviously unfinished form.
Various fan re-writes of the original game are available on the web, notably Elite Platinum, which allows more than one planet per star system, and a couple of multi-player versions. Rumours of Elite 4 being imminent persist. Finally, all the published versions of Elite I have been placed for download by Ian Bell on his home page, along with links for emulators for most of the computers.