RetroView - Elite

RetroView - Elite


In its time, Elite was a groundbreaking game but unfortunately its success didn't equal longevity.

Platform: several
Released: 1984
Genre: Space Trading

Significance: The first of its genre, the first full 3D game and a game against which every spacefaring game is, after over 20 years, still compared to.

From rags to riches
RetroView - Elite
Elite was first released in 1984 for the BBC Micro by Acornsoft, and in 1985 it was released for Commodore 64 and several other platforms by publisher Firebird. In the following years, it was released for PC and Amiga, as well as Atari. It became an instant success and both the creators, David Braben and Ian Bell became the heroes of the generation - as well as two of the first programmers to “make a fortune” in the game business. Unlike any other games, the game box also included a novella, inspired by the game and written by the well-known sci-fi author, Robert Holdstock.

Elite was the first complete game taking advantage of the new-fangled 3D graphics and it is, to this day, one of the few space games featuring an open-ended gameplay. Considering the extremely restricted memory of the home computers of the day, Elite packed an unprecedented game world: over 2000 different star systems to visit and eight different galaxies to roam.

Background story
Starting the game, the player takes the role of Commander Jameson, who is an independent owner of a small but brand new starship of the Cobra Mk III type. Cobra is a popular vessel suitable for a range of purposes from small-time trading to bounty hunting and piracy. From the moment the game starts at a space station in the Lave system, the player is free to decide what he or she wants to do next. The main source of income is trading, although bounty hunting can pay off well too. Unfortunately, the Cobra Mk III is scarcely equipped and Jameson doesn't have much money in his pockets. In order to survive the bounty hunting, you need to improve your ship and the money for that comes from, well, trading. But, before you can engage in either of these, you need to learn to navigate.

Controls of a spaceship
RetroView - Elite
Elite introduced a control and navigation system that has not seen its better even to this day. A 3D radar display at the bottom of the screen allows you to see the position and distance of all other ships within a given radius and relative to your own Cobra with a single glance. The level field of the display is relative to your own ship. The dots on the screen mark the other ships while the length of the bar between the dot and the level plane, will tell you how much higher or lower the ship is from your relative level, and in which direction. Your own ship is at the center of this circular radar display.

In order to turn towards a target shown on the radar screen, you have to maneuver your ship so that the dot marking the other ship moves to the front quarter of the display. You do this by rolling your ship clockwise or anticlockwise and then diving or climbing as necessary. Looking at the radar screen, you can see how this affects the relative positions of the ships.

All in all, the navigation and controls of the ship are excellently designed and become the second nature in no time at all. They also increase the feel of a three dimensional space, as you are not restricted to moving along a single plane of reference. Many other space games that appeared after Elite made the ships move as if they were inside an atmosphere which simply is unnatural.

Travel in space is conducted in one of three possible ways: 1) by normal sub-light engines that take a long time to get you anywhere, 2) jump engines that allow you to cut down the travel time in-system, and 3) hyperspace jump engines. The hyperspace jump engines transport you between star systems, while the two others are used in in-system travel. Normally, you use the jump engines to close in on the planet and the space station quickly, but when there are other bodies nearby, such as other ships, you have to rely on your normal sub-light engines.

Visions of space
RetroView - Elite
The first versions of Elite professed 3D vector graphics with no color to fill the spaces between the lines and no way to hide the vectors that should not have been visible (making objects effectively transparent). The later versions for Amiga and Atari and the Elite+ for PC introduced filled vector graphics, with colors to boot. But with or without colors, the Coriolis space stations and other spacecraft are prettily modeled and offer enough variety to keep the space lanes interesting.

The star systems consist only of the star itself, one planet and one space station orbiting the planet. It was simply not possible to include more planetary bodies with the restrictions of the computers at the time, but it was more than enough to get you into the right feel. When you jump into a system, you first see the planet and the star, both far away from you, and you must travel towards the planet until you spot the space station orbiting it. The game offers no way to visit the planets themselves and you can thus only visit the space stations. The interaction with them is only represented by a selection of menus, so no free roaming of space stations is available.