If you think that being l33t is a relatively modern phenomenon, think again. Gamers of the early 80s strived towards being Elite, and this wasn't a badge that one earned easily. Only hours of careful plying the space lanes, twisting your eyes sideways to make that crucial docking manoeuvre and narrowly avoiding getting wiped out of existence by an appearance of the dread Thargoids could see your space trader rise to the hallowed status of Elite.
What kind of system ran Elite?
Elite was released in 1984 for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron 8-bit home computers. The Electron's essentially a lobotomised BBC Micro, but even the BBC Micro's specifications won't seem all that special today. A 2MHz processor, 16KB of onboard memory and a top resolution of 640x256 with eight colours. Frankly, most street lights you see these days could probably run loops around a BBC Micro. Then again, we're yet to see a street light capable of playing Elite. Perhaps that's a good thing for traffic flow.
Who wrote Elite?
Elite was written over a period of two years entirely in machine code in order to optimise the limited capabilities of the BBC micro, which also means it's remarkably compact code by today's standards. The entirety of Elite's universe fits in 22KB. To give that a point of reference, this article as a word processing file takes up roughly ten times the storage space. Elite was the brainchild of two Cambridge university undergraduates David Braben and Ian Bell. The two would later fall out over the exact rights to the Elite name.
So what made it so special?
In an era when most home computers were busy having knock-off versions of Pac-Man written for them en masse, Elite gave gamers an immense universe to explore -- 256 planets spread across eight galaxies -- and an entirely open ended gaming experience. You could play the game as a straight trading simulator, engage in a bit of piracy or just fly about enjoying the wireframe graphics spin by.
It's also one of the earliest games to come with a few boxed extras. Quite a few, starting with the specifically written novella "The Dark Wheel", key instructions and ship identification charts. Spread that lot out in front of your Commodore 64 or Amstrad CPC, and it really was like you were flying through a galaxy far, far away...
|Elite in all its boxed glory
Whatever happened to Elite?
It was ported to just about every system under the sun, primarily because its actual system specifications were pretty low, and of course because it was and is an excellent game in its own right. Versions exist for the Apple II, Amstrad CPC,Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein, PC, Acorn Archimedes, Amiga and Atari ST.
We'd love to say that there's an iPhone/iPad/Android version available, but sadly this isn't true. Yet. We'll emphasise yet once again, as we live in hope that somebody will release it. It would make money. Well, money from us, anyway, and we're probably not alone.
For such a well received game, it's curious to note that only one home console version came to market, for Nintendo's NES. Owing to it being only released in PAL territories, it's even something of a rare cartridge.
Sequels followed to Elite in the early 1990s -- Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters, developed by David Braben. Frontier sold well for its time and introduced full sized planets and a much more complex game model, but First Encounters was plagued by many, many game shattering bugs.
|The only console version of Elite, and one of the best
Why was it relevant?
It wasn't the first space trading game -- but it was the first massively popular and widespread game of that type. Fans of everything from Wing Commander to EVE owe Elite a huge debt. Equally, anyone who's played any "sandbox" genre game, which makes up roughly 95% of current games output by any reasonable measure, owe Elite plenty.
Finally, anyone who likes truly super-optimised code development should look at Elite in awe. Nobody writes them like this any more, and that's a pity.
What's it worth?
Want an Elite fix? Ian Bell, one of the original authors, offers up a variety of different versions of Elite, depending on which system you'd like to emulate.
Want to buy a copy of Elite? That, as we found out is a little trickier. We found a few box-free NES cartridges on sale for around $50 on eBay, but no home computer versions. Some online retro retailers offer up boxed copies of the various home versions, and again you can expect to pay $50+ for a copy, with the price rising for versions that have all the inserts, maps and competition entry cards intact.
[Photo credit: Alex Kidman ]