Elite

I find myself considering purchasing a computer game – Elite: Dangerous.

Most of the games I play these days are either table top or phone games, but once upon a time I played computer games a great deal and Elite was one I poured an awful lot of time into.

In 1984 the British home computing boom was in full swing: dozens of computer magazines printed listings for all the many different systems and weekly publications could publish reviews of new machines every issue, but the popular machines for games were the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore computers (VIC-20 and C64)

The computer I had at the time was an Acorn Atom, but the schools had BBC Micros – also manufactured by Acorn, these were targetted as the educational machine: much more hackable than the Spectrum, but more expensive too. There were some games to be had, but most of them were simpler – arcade games for the most part, since those can be written with a small core and procedurally generated details for each level.

Into that landscape came Elite – a massive space trading and combat game, with special missions and what seemed to be an infinite variety of planets to travel to and peoples to trade with. The thing that really sank its hooks into you was the combat, though: intricate dogfighting with pirates, opportunistic criminals, invading alien swarms and (if you were bad) the police. And this amazing game was only available on the BBC Micro.

One of the delightful little details that came with the game was a novella that followed a neophyte trader as he made his place in the galaxy. In later iterations this novella was used as a more flavourful form of copy protection, but in that first publication it was just a great way to get you immersed in the setting, to set your expectations for what to see.

I loved that game. Truly, I still do.

The way the ship moved and the scanner on the console worked together so well: their simplicity would be hard to beat even now. There was also a significant technical achievement in the way the game was displayed on the BBC Micro – it switched graphics modes between the upper three quarters and the lower portion, so that the ships were rendered in higher resolution but black and white, while the console was lower resolution but used four colours. The game was playable on a computer with 16KB of RAM, literally a millionth of the amount of RAM in the machine I am writing this post on! More than a third of that 16KB was taken up with the display (~6KB) and about 1KB was used for system registers, so there might have 8 or 9KB of space for the actual game code. Bell and Braben, the guys who wrote Elite, they were wizards.

I was never especially good. My friend had a BBC Micro and we played Elite on it quite a lot (several of us met at his house for regular Sunday computer gatherings) but it took more practice to get good than I could manage then. When I got a newer computer (an Amstrad CPC-464) and Elite was finally ported to that system I bought it and played the stuffing out of it, but never quite managed to make it past the Deadly rating – nor on the version I bought years later when a rewrite of the original game was released for the Acorn Archimedes.

And so I find myself looking at Elite: Dangerous and thinking: is it time to buy the game again? Will the flight controls and the console be as exquisitely well crafted? Could I ever spend enough time on it to finish the game or even make significant progress?

Whatever the answers to those questions, I find myself waiting again because just like when I had my Amstrad, the game isn’t out for my operating system yet.

Soon, I hope. Soon.

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