Elite Skidrow

Created by Ian Bell and David Braben, this space trading / combat game was revolutionary; combining wireframe 3D graphics with open-ended gameplay to create a distinct gaming experience. Originally released for the BBC Microcomputer in 1984.

Overview

Elite is a space trader game with cockpit-view space travel sections that occasionally involved combat. Originally released for the BBC Micro in 1984, it was quickly ported to various other systems both inside and outside the UK. It was followed by multiple sequels that expanded the depth of the game's vision of a fully explorable universe, the most recent of which is the 2014 game Elite: Dangerous.

The game starts as all Elite games do by setting the player into the open world with 100 credits and a lightly-armed cargo ship (the Cobra Mk III in this instance). The main thrust of the game is to simply earn credits through trading goods between different space stations and making a profit by taking advantage of the variable prices of different products between systems. This is not the only method by which the player can earn credits, however, and Elite was revolutionary at the time in that it allows the player free choice in which role/roles they enter into during gameplay. Ships encountered can be destroyed and plundered, military missions can be taken up, asteroids can be mined for resources and lucrative bounty hunting contracts are available. The player is never tied into a career and can jump between jobs at any point. Beyond this there is no overarching story or even backstory with the aim of the game being simply to explore and earn credits.

Gameplay

Gameplay revolves around travel between planets (planetary systems are not available) by way of a hyperspace drive which requires fuel to be replenished at the destination port. The skill behind the gameplay was in choosing the right items to trade so the maximum credits were earned from different trading runs.

Military missions mostly involves destroying ships or transporting sensitive cargo, but aimed to take the player to parts of the universe not often explored, such as anarchic worlds never worth the risk for a simple trade run. Similarly, destroying ships often revolve around attacking unique prototype ships leading to intense dogfights of a higher difficulty to those randomly encountered travelling between planets.

Bounty hunting runs along similar lines with missions taking the player into dangerous territory and often involves fighting higher quality ships for which the player received far greater monetary rewards. Credits can be spent on ship upgrades which in turn unlocks varied types of gameplay. Mining lasers allows the mining of asteroids which often gives up valuable minerals whilst making the player a tempting target for pirates, and the fuel scoop allowed the player to catch fuel by skillfully flying close to the surface of stars.

Locations

The notion of an open-world game at the time was unheard of. With eight galaxies and 256 planets in each galaxy the game had to be procedurally generated to due to the limitations of the 8-bit computers of the time (the entire game fits into 22KB of memory on the BBC Micro, for example). As such each galaxy, whilst being unique to each player, will all have planets with a pre-determined composition. The issue with creating the galaxies by this method is that it would occasionally lead to galaxies being in positions whereupon reaching them, the hyperspace drive would not be powerful enough to transport the player out again, which in essence broke the game.

Planets vary in terms of safety with some entirely safe and others more prone to attack by the game's primary antagonists, the Thargoids (whose homeworld was highly dangerous) and pirates who would intercept the player in more lawless territories. Technical limitations ensured that the player not land on planets, with every planet having an orbiting space station that they could dock into but not explore.

Sequels

With the game garnering high critical praise and selling handsomely sequels were forthcoming. Frontier: Elite 2 was released in 1993 adding textures, an expanded game world and a new control method, moving the game away from its Arcade-style along with a raft of other expansions. This was followed by Frontier: First Encounters which garnered significant negative press due to its premature release resulting in the game being filled with game-breaking bugs. Elite 4 has been in development since 1999 for PC and modern consoles yet the lack of information on it has led to fears of the game being vaporware. All that has been heard is that the game was once an MMO before being restarted due to technical limitations and more recently a source indicated to eurogamer.net that pre-production has been put on hold indefinitely while Frontier Development's title "The Outsider" was completed.

In December of 2014, the Kickstarter-funded sequel Elite: Dangerous was released for the PC, with Mac and console versions to follow. Elite: Dangerous was one of the first games to be featured on the Xbox One's Game Preview Program.

Trivia

  • It was possible to come across a product named 'Tribbles' when visiting space stations. If the player decides to buy it and then undock into open space again, after a short time of flying, small light-colored blobs will start to appear on the screen. After a while the whole screen will be completely filled with these blobs making it completely impossible to fly. This is a reference to the Star Trek (the original series) episode called "The Trouble with Tribbles", where small furry animals get into a space station and start breeding at a phenomenal rate until they completely infest it. This is only available in the Commodore 64 version.
  • In certain versions when docking or during the intro the Blue Danube Waltz is played as a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Stills of the game were displayed in the music video for 'Pump Up The Volume' by MARRS.
  • The launch of game was unique for the time. A special larger box housed the game and came with a novella on the game world to gain extra attention. The game was launched at a launch party at Thorpe Theme Park in the UK (an unheard of marketing move at the time) and there was a contest for the first gamer to reach "Elite" rank within the game.