Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Greatest Games Computer Ever: 3 - Elite

Prompted by some thing someone said online recently I was reminded of one of the best computer games of all time - Elite (on the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and the like). So I went off and downloaded it with an emulator, chucked it on the PC...and then had absolutely no time to actually play it.

But people should play it because it was a thing of enormous grandeur and wonder. For those who've never come across it or, horror of horrors, think that things like Silent Hill or Halo are classic games, Elite was basically a souped up version of the text-based trading games so beloved of computer programming magazine adverts in the early 80s. In the usual versio, you merely land in one place, buy summat (grain was always popular IIRC), go somewhere else and sell it for more than you bought it (hopefully). This Thatcherian economic model (or JD Millerian Model as I and at least one reader of this blog can now privately think of it) was in truth more than a bit dull since it mainly relied on luck or some very basic PC generated foreknowledge.

What Elite on the BBC Micro - and even more on the glory which was the C64 - did was add (what I perceived as) reality to the process*.

Not only did it have 3d-esque graphics and a multitude of different ships you could shoot it out with but you hyperjumped to a spot millions of miles from the place you were going to (which could be a planet, a space station, an asteroid, whatever) and then had to make your way from the fringes of the system to your destination - with the Police looking for you smuggling (which you could do if you wanted), pirates trying to blow you up and steal your cargo and mysterious aliens called Thargoids just randomly aiming to destroy you. This game had SCALE - played in the dark of your bedroom with just a portable TV glowing in front of you and it felt like actual space travel. You could even read the paper in the various space ports you landed in and find hints as to what to buy and sell, what was illegal, what kind of government ruled the system (the communist ones were always a bit short of luxury goods and big on rice) and even take on jobs as a bounty hunter, assassin or smuggler.

Your hyperdrive could malfunction and send you in the totally wrong direction, leaving you with an entire hold full of expensively purchased spices and the only planet within landing distance being called 'Spice World' home of cheap spices. Or the malfunction could send you into deep space with no fuel to reach anywhere - so you died.

Like real space travel might be.

And if you were bored all you had to do was approach a space station in a lawful bit of space, wait for a ship to launch and then blow it up. Within seconds dozens of police ships would pour out and fight you to the death - more often than not your own. If you had a reputation as a bit of a bad 'un they would sometimes pour out just because you were hanging around looking dodgy, without you even having to do anything.

Most wonderfully (and almost certainly apocrophally) was the belief that somewhere, in a million to one random number generating section of the code, was the chance to find a derelict space ship TWO HUNDRED SCREENS LONG which it was only possible to locate if your hyperjump failed. How cool does that sound (possibly it only sounds cool to me, now that I think about it)?

Elite was epic and grand and wonderful, like no game before or since. If it was a book it would be Gateway by Fred Pohl, but minus all the psychoanalyst padding that the book had and with far more fascinatingly bizarre sample missions.

Maybe not the best game ever, but definitely in the Top 3.

* best version of all was an update/sequel called 'Frontier' on the Amiga - God Commodore could make computers


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Blogger alienvoord said...

what are your other favourite games? Mine are Ultima 4, Ultima 7, and Riven - RPG and adventure games. I could never get the hang of hand eye coordination.

7:34 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Well for number 2 see the next post :)

I played Riven once I think (is that the Myst game) - but the almost static grapghics just did my head in.

I like adventure games though - if Hitchhikers hadn't been so damn hard that would have made my top 3.

8:51 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Great reflection on a great game. I haven't yet discovered a modern equivalent that quite captures the free trade spirit of Elite.

10:46 pm  
Blogger SK said...

I was wodering if it was impolite to name-drop, but as you do so in your next post, I'll mention I work for one of the guys who wrote Elite.

(And to forestall the question everybody asks, no, I can't tell you when Elite 4 is coming out, I'm afraid)

8:42 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "I was wodering if it was impolite to name-drop"

That's what the internet is for, surely :) ?

6:20 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

I never really got into Elite. I was a fan of leaving the spaceport doofer, flipping over, shooting it until all the police guys came out and having a big shoot-em-up barney until my shields were nearly gone and then heading for the sun!

9:58 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Scott: "I never really got into Elite"

That's because it was too hard for the likes of you PS2 instant-fix types :)

10:21 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

"Too hard" ? I finished Twin Kingdom Valley mate, I'm hardcore.

8:21 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Scott: "I finished Twin Kingdom Valley mate"

You finsihed it? I think you'll find that was me (with a little help from Heaven 17) whilst you watched.

8:54 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "I work for one of the guys who wrote Elite"

You could ask him if there ever was a 200 screen long spaceship (although the answer will amost certainly be no and hence destroy my pleasure in the concept)

12:54 am  
Blogger SK said...

It's a big galaxy; I don't think anyone could say for sure what's out there...

2:01 pm  
Blogger Steven Douglas said...

Speaking of the C64 and the like, does anyone remember the "Sinclair ZX Spectrum". If memory serves me correctly, it was THE first "home computer" to come out and had either 16 or 32k memory as standard (can't remember which).

I personally had a C64 around 1981, with external floppy drive (whoa!!), and wrote my own games and applications in the BASIC of the day. Bloody hell, we've come a long way since there's iPod's with 100,000 times more memory than my first mainframe ever had...

8:24 am  

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