Late to Space Games Part 2: Modern Elite Conversions

eships

Choosing the NES version of the original Elite seems to have greatly impacted my opinion of the game overall, as it makes a few small but crucial design decisions that actually make it a very unique edition. I learned this after trying out some of Elite’s more modern conversions. Compared to the hardcore simulator Elite is supposed to be, the NES version feels much more accessible.

Specifically I tried out Elite: The New Kind — a Windows port released earlier this year, the open-source PC fan remake Oolite, and the iOS clone Unknown. What took me by surprise with the modern PC conversions is how faithful they are to the original game, in more ways than I’d like to be honest.

Upon booting up New Kind I expected something that maybe looked like old home PC versions but added modern amenities in places that made sense like the control interface. Instead, New Kind is pretty much the original game, as it was played in the 1980’s, but able to run on modern Windows without an emulator. From what I can tell it makes hardly any additions or changes at all.

What get’s to me in particular are its controls, which as far as I can tell are not customizable. I guess it was too much to hope for some mouse control in a conversion of an 80’s PC game, and using the directional keys to steer is fine, but why are “fire” and “slow down” on completely opposite ends of the keyboard? The whole scheme is stuck in the era of PC gaming before they started to have efficient key bindings. Why are “pause” and “resume” different keys? Another big issue I have is having to remember which F key corresponds to which screen. I dealt with this in ArmA and maybe it’s common in PC gaming, but it’s still like 12 unrelated functions to keep track of. I guess New Kind is mainly for people who played Elite back in the day and want to reinstall it on their modern computers as they remember it. Oolite is only slightly better in this regard, having some mouse control in its menus and slightly more sensible key bindings that are customizable. This is one reason I really like the NES version in retrospect.

I know a lot of PC gamers have complained about controls in many recent games being too simplified because they were designed around console controllers, and generally they’re right. But sometimes being forced to work with fewer buttons forces developers to come up with better ideas. I think the NES version of Elite is one such case.

Since the NES doesn’t have they keys for all the different functions, its version of Elite has those keys displayed across its HUD with the B button activating a cursor you use to select them. Displaying those functions on the HUD with their own little icons means you can instantly tell what each one does. The only disadvantage is it’s a little slower than using a keyboard because you have to move the cursor over to do each thing which might get slightly frustrating in a dogfight. Now I have much more respect for how intuitive the NES controls made a game as complex as Elite.

What I was hoping to find in the modern PC conversions was the ability to interface with something resembling the NES’s icon-laden HUD with a mouse, and maybe fly with WASD. That would be a great example of having a console control scheme — which was more efficient by necessity, end up becoming an improvement when re-adapted to the mouse and keyboard. Usually the results of such changes hurt the PC game, but I think that’s because today it’s often done to PC genres that already have efficient and intuitive keyboard controls. Right now we’re talking about a game from a whole other time. Anyway, the closest thing we have to a good modern scheme is in the iOS clone — Unknown.

Unknown predictably turns all those functions into icons on the touch screen which makes them instantly recognizable and accessible, and this is coming from someone who hates the virtual controls of mobile games. This is why next to the NES version, Unknown might be my favorite version of classic Elite. It feels like the game was meant for a touch screen in every area except dog fighting. The touch-based piloting controls are pretty simple and work well enough, they just have the usual imperfections of touch screen movement controls.

Ultimately, what bugs me here is a PC version of the original Elite doesn’t exist that has modern PC controls. Oolite with customized controls might work, but even these modern conversions almost completely ignore the possibilities of mouse input.

One more important design decision separates the NES game from the modern conversions, and it has to deal with Elite’s fast travel. Within star systems you can do a sort of “hyperspeed” or “supercruise” to get to planets and stars quickly. In most versions of Elite you can’t do this if there’s anything significant near you like an asteroid, planet, station, or basically any other ship. The result is, you spend a lot of time just speeding through empty space, which is boring for anyone not looking for a strict simulator experience. In the NES version however the only thing that stops your fast travel is close proximity to a planet, star, or hostile ship. This means as soon as you leave hyperspace you can dash right on to a star or space station to do your business. If you’re stopped you automatically know you’re in a combat situation. This speeds up the pace of Elite considerably. You could say it’s a console-oriented change to a PC-focused simulator. This is the reasoning behind that recent trailer ridiculing Elite Dangerous long travel times between interesting places. It’s also partly why the planets in No Man’s Sky are so close to each other.

Ironically, I really appreciate lengthy travel time in video games. I love the sailing in The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, the long horseback rides through empty terrain in Shadow of the Colossus, or lengthy car rides in Far Cry. I think a crucial difference with those games however is through all the travel you’ve still got your hand on at least one button. You’re still steering and holding a button to move. In classic Elite if you can’t use the hyperspeed button and the objects in your immediate vicinity don’t interest you, all you can do is turn up your thrusters and look at the screen. You can literally just put the keyboard down for long stretches of time. There isn’t even a landscape to admire, just empty space and usually the one planet your’e headed towards. Even Unknown does this which I find very uncharacteristic of a mobile game.

It’s really a matter of preference though. The hardcore Elite audience probably wants that feel of what space travel is probably like — just drifting through space most of the time. It’s part of what makes these space simulators a different kind of game for a different kind of player. This is also where one of the main differences will apparently lie with No Man’s Sky as Hello Games keeps saying its gameplay will feel “more arcadey.”

Lastly concerning the modern Elite ports we have their visual styles. This is where Oolite differs from the other two, ultimately for the worse but I don’t like to hold that against it. Oolite is a pretty stale-looking game with the entire interface made of very basic text. Ships and other objects in space have detailed models but they look like generic space ships instead of what you see in the old Elite concept art. I think this is expected of an entirely fan-made project. It feels like a mod with no original game. That said there are a lot of expansions you can download which change those visuals. What I really like about The New Kind and Unknown is their insistence on keeping the very basic 3D flat-shaded graphics of the Archimedes version for a look resembling the original Star Fox. I think it’s a nice look for what are ultimately retro conversions.

So, in the end if you’re looking to play the original Elite game and don’t want to deal with antiquated keyboard controls, I’d suggest either an NES ROM or Unknown if you have an iOS device.

BULLETS:

  • BitSummit will apparently not be happening in February, but later.
  • Siliconera article about the Japanese indie game scene. http://t.co/6WLxzDx2Sf
  • Really neat video condensing the last 5,000 years of human civilization into 10 minutes on a world map. http://t.co/9oqv5Ozqn6
  • Nice article about Mirror’s Edge.
  • A little bit of discussion on the proper resolution for iPhone 6 Plus owners. http://t.co/ph1uOt1zen
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