Posted by: Ben | April 12, 2010

Man vs Genre: Elite

The Facts:

I’m stretching the accepted definition of a role-playing game here, but for good reason. The open-ended space trading and combat game has been massively influential on open-world games of all genres, including the Bethesda titles I hope to get to later. Elite itself was influenced by an old-school RPG called Traveller. But most importantly, it fulfils the cardinal definition of the RPG: you play a role.

Elite was written by David Braben and Ian Bell, and originally released on the BBC Micro by Acornsoft in 1984. All versions are available to download from Bell’s website, along with some entertaining records of his personal and legal disagreements with Braben.

(By the way, Ian, if you’re reading this, well done for writing Elite and double well done for making it free to download, but for God’s sake man, please tidy up your website. It looks like a dog was sick on it.)

The Cover:

Most versions of Elite were released by Firebird and feature the classy Elite logo against a black background. The original BBC version superimposes it on a busier scene of a space station and assorted ships.

The Lore:

“From the moment that the trading ship, Avalonia, slipped its orbital berth above the planet Lave, and began to manoeuvre for the hyperspace jump point, its measurable life-span, and that of one of its two-man crew, was exactly eighteen minutes.”

No two-paragraph blurb by the programmer for Elite. The game shipped with a novella by proper author Robert Holdstock, which fills in the background on the Elite universe, albiet in a manner that squeezes rather more proper nouns into the opening paragraphs than I personally am comfortable with. Still, it was better than the one that came with Starglider.

Character Building

Since we’re now in the wonderful world of tomorrow, it’s time to consign the Korma family to the dustbin of history and create a new adventurer to explore the final frontier. Meet Psion Teklogix, known as Commander Psion due to his surname having more than eight letters. He has 100 credits, his legal status is Clean and his combat rating is Harmless. He has eight galaxies and a population of untold billions at his very fingertips.

The Game

So I’m sitting in the cockpit of my brand new Cobra Mark III, reading the manual as it describes surroundings I can’t see. The first bit of practical advice the manual contains is on page 14, where it says “It is important that you do not press the f0 key for the moment.” I can safely say that the likelihood of my inadvertently leaning, tapping or spilling tea on that particular key is close to zero.

With further perusal of the manual I learn of the importance of practicing docking so as not to crash my spaceship. Apparently if I work hard and make lots of money I might be able to buy a docking computer one day, but until then I need to perfect the skill of matching my rotation to that of the space station and squeezing gently into the letterbox in the front. The manual goes so far as to advise practicing this manoeuvre to the point of competence before you start trading for real, since there are no docking charges for doing so.

Okay, so let’s give it a go. The station is turning at a decent rate, but I seem to be keeping up. All right, maybe I’m moving forwards a little too quickly, but there’s plenty of time to… hmm, the slot seems to have shifted to the right a bit, and… CRUNCH!

Total play time: About 16 minutes less than the guy who dies on the first page of the novella.

Verdict: Elite does not lend itself to the “play once, then move on” school of gaming. Still, next!

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