Late to Space Games Part 1: Elite (1984)

ZzapElitePainting

One game genre that’s mystified me over the years has been space flight simulators. The buzz surrounding No Man’s Sky convinced me to finally plan to investigate them this year. Part of the reason people are so mystified with the game is because it’s part of a genre that almost doesn’t exist on consoles. So, for a while you might see a lot of posts on this blog about space games. I decided to start off with one of the first and probably the most influential — the original 1984 Elite, well, a version of it at least.

On one hand I was always intimidated by how complex the flying mechanics of Wing Commander or X-Wing look. On the other hand I wondered how games about trading goods like Freelancer could ever be fun, even if it is in space. Even the title “Freelancer” sounds like some kind of economics job description that’s anti-fun. It’s one more area that makes PC gaming look much more intimidating than it actually is. I think I made the right decision in starting my trek through this genre basically from the beginning.

For how influential Elite supposedly is, I’m shocked I never heard of it until this year, and I imagine most of the people playing Grand Theft Auto or other sandbox games on consoles have never heard of it either. Without Elite, GTA and most other sandbox games probably wouldn’t exist. It’s one of the earliest examples of a game that puts you in an open world with no clear direction and let’s players do basically whatever they want. The game doesn’t even have any clear objectives, missions, or quests. People continually wonder how a galaxy like the one in No Man”s Sky is possible on the PS4, but Elite basically did the same concept as well as sandbox gameplay and 3D space flight on an 8-bit computer 30 years ago.

The game has around 2,000 star systems you fly through in 3D wireframe graphics, each one so big I have to use fast travel all the time, and you pretty much just decide how to make your way in the universe. You can buy and sell goods for profit, shoot down pirates for bounty, mine asteroids, or just explore. It mainly just drops you into a space economics simulator and says “go.” If you’re still unsure about what you actually “do” in No Man’s Sky, based on the descriptions from Game Informer, Elite is pretty much it, just with NES graphics. Well, you can’t actually land on planets, and each planet is really just a giant blue ball with some parameters in its description, but it’s still impressive nonetheless given the hardware.

One of the hardest parts about the original Elite was just researching how to acquire and play it in this day and age. The original game was never actually developed for modern PC operating systems, only a bunch of 8-bit home computers and the NES (yes, they got this kind of game to run on the NES). The co-creator of Elite actually has ROMs for a bunch of different versions on his personal website, and he suggests people looking for the best old school Elite experience should emulate the NES version or the Archon Archimedes version. I gave up on the Archimedes version upon learning I had to emulate an entire OS, so I went with the NES version. Even that one only works on a specific NES emulator with very specific display settings. Much more modern ports do exist which I’ll link at the bottom of this post, but I wanted to try some variation of the original version first.

For starters, I’m glad I decided to download the NES manual and have it on my iPad as I played the game. Anyone should do this when they investigate classic games. Elite throws you into a world and says “go,” but fortunately the manual contains instructions for a sort of tutorial task to help you get your feet wet. It has you buy some specific items in one type of system and walks you through how to fly them to another system and sell them for profit. I definitely understand why some people don’t like this “no goals” sandbox-style play though. As soon as I finished that task I looked at the galaxy map and said “what now?” I have the same problem with Minecraft — I start out just standing there in the world with no immediately pressing concern and struggle to make goals for myself, which is ironic because I prefer open-ended games to linear ones. I like being given a goal and being left free to determine how to do it, but I’m not used to coming up with my own goals in video games. In Elite I decided to simply earn enough money to upgrade my ship by continuing to trade.

That upgrade path is pretty much what’s kept me playing the game. Now I can perform automated space station docking, defend against homing missiles, and scoop fuel off the surfaces of stars. I eventually want to be able to afford a hyperdrive into a neighboring galaxy.

Depending on what you do, you can actually settle into a grind in Elite. I reached a point where I could repeatedly do some lucrative trade between two systems very close to each other with very different economies. That’s what makes game worlds like these feel so systemic and “real.” You can just find a stable living somewhere. To me it proves the system of the game works.

The exploration aspect in Elite reminds me of the first Mass Effect more than anything else. Looking at planets on the galactic map and then reading their descriptions was pretty much my favorite part about that game next to exploring their surfaces. Elite’s descriptions are very simple and you can quickly see how machine-generated they are, but I think this has convinced me the exploration aspect is my favorite part of space games. No Man’s Sky’s emphasis on planetary exploration is the biggest reason I’m excited for it. It, and maybe some of these other space games, might end up being what I wanted out of Mass Effect.

Next to what’s out today, I have to admit most of the reason I’m impressed with and absorbed in Elite is because I can’t believe it does what it does on 8-bit hardware. What’s impressive about the NES version in particular is that Elite is a PC game originally designed around a keyboard, but they got it all to work on basically three buttons and a directional pad. One reason I (and probably a lot of other people) like the NES today is its games represent an efficiency in design we just don’t see anymore. Complex games that work on simple and intuitive control schemes are all the more impressive because of everything they let you easily access. Elite might be the ultimate example of this.

The NES version accomplishes this by basically turning the B button into a cursor for selecting onscreen functions, and the select button into a general “enter” key. It’s a little slow, but it works really well. Where games like this work the best on controllers I think is menu-based interfaces that don’t move in real time. I think that’s why Japanese RPGs mainly stuck with turn-based combat for so long. Elite’s economy system fits this like a glove and interacting with these complex markets is just something I don’t expect in an NES game. For some reason seeing these markets, the star chart, my character profile, and planet profiles rendered in 8-bit spreadsheets just increases the appeal to me. It kind of makes the NES (or 8-bit home computer) itself feel like a legit computer system I’m using to explore the stars. The craziest part? Because of the basic graphics trying to create a 3D world, the manual actually has an encyclopedia to teach you to identify ships by silhouette like a World War II navy pilot or something.

Where the NES ultimately does hold Elite back however is the part about piloting a ship. Back in the day the fact that you could fly a ship in 3D was probably a revelation. For an NES game Elite feels eerily similar to Ace Combat, to the point where I can utilize my skills from those games, but the control interface and screen real estate ultimately limit how much Elite can let you do before things get cumbersome. I think the barrier where old school console controls become a hindrance is when you add the third dimension. Flying and fighting definitely work in NES Elite, but right now I’m only really appreciating it as a retro game. A lot of people suggested I just investigate a later iteration of this game or one of Elite’s successors, and that’s what I’d suggest too if you’e just looking for a fun introduction to space games.

Right now there are two readily available conversions of the original Elite for modern Windows, likely to have more modern controls. One is the open-source Oolite which has added slightly fancier graphics and a bunch of fan-made original content. Another is Eilte: the New Kind — a straight-up modern port just released this year for the 30th anniversary. It’s based on a combination of the NES and Archimedes versions. This is probably the best way to play the original game. Both conversions are free. Lastly, there’s an iOS game called Unknown if you need to play Elite on the go. It doesn’t use the name but it pretty much is the exact same game on your iPhone. I’ll try out all these conversions and probably write about them later, before moving on to slightly newer space games.

BULLETS:

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