…and suddenly there was a whole galaxy before Dark Blue Monkey, teeming with life and infinite possibilities, and hidden dangers, his for the taking…
In 1986, I was a gangly, shy 12-year-old. I wasn’t very sporty, but as I was in a sport-obsessed school, that made me an outcast with a couple of other would-be geeks. I was just getting settled into my second year of upper school. Wednesday afternoons were “games days”; the whole upper school was sent to a few distant sports fields around the city. Those of us who needed a lift to the farther of the two sports sites would cram into the school’s minibus. “Games” was irritating for me because it ate into my Wednesday lunch hour, which would normally be spent playing on the school’s BBC Micros and Commodore PETs.
Bouncing along in the back of the minibus, resigned to my fate as a fullback in rugby – and looking forward to an afternoon being pounded by the bigger lads on a cold muddy pitch – I was crowded in with a dozen other boys and our stinky kit. I saw one of the others pull out a big red ring-binder.
Looking over his shoulder, I was amazed to see 3D spaceships, and some kind of description of a pointy object called a “Viper”. In the next 20 minutes, he told the captivated audience about the ships, the space stations, and a horrific race that would pounce on you in “Witch-Space”, and from whom there was no escape.
To say I was mesmerised was an understatement. Firstly, this boy was a “rugger-bugger”, and typically made fun of us geeks. Secondly, though I’d seen a few 3D-like things on the Spectrum before, I’d never seen an actual game that you could fly around in space, visit other worlds, interact with aliens, and dock at space stations! It was such a quantum leap forward that words simply don’t do justice to the shock of seeing this for the first time. Also, that someone so far removed from computer games would have mimeographed the entire manual, and was playing it, was astounding.
David Braben, Ian Bell
My mum had seen the potential of home computing, and indulged my passion. When I got home I told her about this new game, and she also seemed intrigued, and promised that if it wasn’t too expensive I could have it for my birthday in a few months. She was also interested in the 3D capabilities of computers.
Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. Finally, April rolled around, and by that point Elite had become legendary. The whole school was talking about it, not just us geeks. People were doing ‘speed runs’ to get to Elite status, boasting seven hours, getting steadily lower until one boy claimed (before being shouted down) that he could get to Elite in under ten minutes. Meanwhile, I was sitting on the sidelines, waiting for my birthday.
The shops back in those days would run out of stock regularly, getting new stock in every few days. So, to save a wasted trip, you would normally phone the shop ahead to check stock. Back then, checking stock involved phoning the actual shop itself (not a central warehouse/head office number), and waiting for up to ten minutes for the assistant to answer the phone, and then ten more minutes for them to check every shelf and the stock room.
I remember some shops and software houses put adverts for upcoming releases onto the answerphone system, and people (like me) would phone up, only to be put on hold. But we had an entire city of shops to trawl, so my mum and I decided to just jump into the car early on Saturday, the morning before my birthday, with a copy of the Yellow Pages and my jar of coins, and start driving around. I remember I had my school coat on, and it was a frosty morning. My mum’s Mini had terrible heating, and my job was to use the chamois to clean the condensation off the window.
We drove the length and breadth of the city, searching the whole morning. I’d been keeping abreast of the rumours flying around about the game. I had a folder in which I’d collected loose-leaf A4 pages full of system names, cargoes, and good trade routes from my friends. It included ‘flying styles’ (like the wiggle of the adder, and the sideways sliding of the Python). I probably told every rumour and ‘factoid’ to my mum with even greater embellishments to justify the time and petrol, but it seemed that every shop in town had sold out.
After lunch, we cast our net further afield. We drove the 20 miles to Southport, then another 30 over to the Wirral through the Mersey Tunnel. By about 4:30pm, there was only one shop left which wasn’t crossed-out. It was near Hamilton Square, close to the ferry terminal in Birkenhead, which was tricky for parking, given it was a major bus terminus.
I don’t know who was feeling more despondent, me or my mum. I have no doubt that in her mind she blamed herself that she’d made me wait until the day before my birthday. As visions of never getting to play Elite swam in my mind, we pulled into Hamilton Square and she parked around the corner. It was quite a way to the shop, and we had to run through the wind to find the place.
The shops were starting to close and there was a chill in the air as we finally stepped into an Aladdin’s Cave, just as the door was being closed. The shop was tiny, dark, and narrow. It felt more like a cupboard! You had to walk sideways between the homemade floor-to-ceiling shelves, made out of wooden batons, thin chain and planks, and stacked absolutely to breaking point with games for every computer imaginable.
After taxing the owner’s patience by searching every shelf top to bottom, we gave up. It wasn’t here. The city was sold out. I could see my mum was almost in tears, and I had to be the one to say “It’s OK, we’ll find it”. As we left, the man running the shop asked us what we had been looking for. We told him, and he frowned for a moment, reaching under the counter. Suddenly he produced a slightly creased boxed copy of Elite. I can’t remember the reason, but it was his last and only copy. My mum and I hugged outside the shop for what seemed like hours as he turned the little card around on the door, “Closed”.
The Dark Wheel
The Elite box came with its program tape, a booklet called the Space Traders Flight Training Manual and a novella called The Dark Wheel. Back in those days, there wasn’t the option to put a lot of backstory into a game, so it was put into short novels and shipped alongside it. The early game tapes were also frighteningly easy to copy too, so sometimes the game would request a certain word from a page and paragraph from (as photocopying was hideously expensive and hard to come by).
The physical material is something I feel we’ve lost; sitting down and reading The Dark Wheel was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
FMV can do a lot to tell a story, but there’s a reason why people say “the book was better than the film”: A book lasts days or weeks, and a film is over in 90 minutes or so. You can’t possibly have the same depth of description, or tell the story in as many imaginative ways when constrained by the film format.
The Dark Wheel is a truly brilliant ‘hook’ into the Elite universe. I’ll give you the first paragraph to demonstrate how gripping it is:
From the moment that the trading ship, Avalonia, slipped its orbital berth above the planet Lave, and began to manoeuvre for the hyper-space jump point, its measurable life-span, and that of one of its two-man crew, was exactly eighteen minutes…
PHWOAR! What a way to start a story! I was gripped! It was a very big pair of shoes for a game to step into, and the game couldn’t possibly live up to it…. Could it? (As an aside, it had almost nothing to do with the actual game itself.) The booklet alone generated a huge cloud of ideas, guesses, fantasies and predictions about the game, just from the story. The Dark Wheel itself laid out a few pieces of mythos that were to split friends, and fire up groups for years. When we eventually got a PC, and I signed into a BBS, there was an entire section devoted to Elite fan fiction.
One piece of lore was the presence of “generation ships”, described in the book as gigantic automated behemoths with prodigious defences, drifting between the stars. Some swore blind they’d seen them in the game, and a healthy trade in system names started appearing where people claimed they’d seen them.
Another was that jumping to hyperspace with your realspace engine set to full speed would have a higher probability of “misfiring” and dropping you into Witch-Space instead of the target system, resulting in a very deadly ambush by the game’s worst enemy, the “Thargoids”. Some boys claimed they did it deliberately to hunt Thargoids. For anyone who has played Elite, the name “Thargoid” instils fear. They were ostensibly flying saucers, but octagonal, rather than round. When they spotted you, they spat out five or more miniature versions of themselves called “Thargons”, and the cloud of incoming laser fire was withering! This assault was almost always terminal, unless you were very, very good at running away, or very accurate with the game’s top weapon: military lasers. To claim that you baited the Thargoids, and deliberately hunted them, would be like saying you deliberately jumped into a mangrove swamp to wrestle the alligators! So, as boys we lapped up these tales and embellished them all the more.
There were so many more of these that I can’t remember them all. We spent hours discussing them, swapping Panini football stickers for system names of ‘golden’ trade routes, generation ships, and more. There were tactics on how to blow up a space station (not possible), how to ‘fool’ the police into tailing someone else (not possible), how to perfect the best landing… All of these fuelled by the openness of the game, and the fact that while The Dark Wheel had very little to do with the game, it didn’t outright contradict it, which left that “what if…” that kids love to play with.
Out into the galaxy
In Elite, a simplistic “galaxy” had one rule: one planet per star. Each planet had a different characteristic: whether it was a farming planet, or technical. Some planets were law abiding, others a bit less so. Since trading was the main aim, that meant that your very first mission would be to pick up something and travel to another star. There was no tutorial mission, or guide. Your first trade run was “live”, so to speak. You started at “Lave”, the planet from the novella, which was a brilliant tie-in. From there, it was up to you to work out what to do next.
I remember the trading screens were a bit complicated for me at first (laughably simple by modern standards!), so it took some time to buy some ‘food’, and then came the moment to leave! Launching from a space station for the first time, ‘exiting’ through the ‘tunnel’ and then finding myself hovering over a planet just numbed me to my core.
Looking back, I know it was just a white circle, after ‘flying through’ a bunch of other white circles, but at the time my whole body felt electric. I was in space! There were stars! I was in a spaceship! I was about to crash! AAARGH! Panicking, I pulled the ship around and slowed. There, before me, was the space station I’d left, rotating lazily in its orbit. Nothing prepares you for that. I felt like my stomach had been replaced by hard vacuum.
I don’t think many games have affected such me quite as much as that first time I piloted that Cobra Mk III. I must have watched the station for a while before pulling up the galaxy map. Nobody had ever heard of procedural generation, so when I looked at the maximum jump-circle around Lave, then slowly moved the crosshair outside, on and on and on, I found dozens, no hundreds, perhaps THOUSANDS of DIFFERENT star systems, all with their own names and characteristics… Any one of them could be travelled to (given time). The sense of scale was overpowering!
Bringing the cursor back to Lave on the short-range jump map, I picked nearby Leesti, and hesitatingly pressed the “H” button. There was no preparation, no loading, just an ominous beeping as the computer ‘counted down’ and then ‘WHOOSH’, the ship is ‘pulled’ into the next star system. And there you are. You’re looking at a new star. No ‘welcome to…’ or ‘loading…’ just *thump* there you were, in deep space. Quite literally, you’re not in Kansas anymore. The thrill of finding the planet, and doing that first in-system jump, will always stay with me. The graphics, while simplistic by modern standards, were unimaginably impressive at the time.
The very first time I jumped to Leesti, the nearest useful system to Lave, I was pulled out of jump by a “Mass Lock”, an “Adder” was in my flight-path, a fact I knew from the wonderfully drawn images in the manual. I had no idea what it was: friend, foe, police, pirate… I just turned my nose away and ran as fast as my little Cobra MkIII could carry me. I had met another spaceship, and survived! My heart was pounding so hard, I thought I was going to pass out… Eventually, heart throbbing, I made it to the planet’s orbit.
The sheer sense of awe and excitement just couldn’t be matched. “I made a jump to hyperspace, and now I have to do work out how to get back inside again!” It’s a process which still fills me with excitement and awe to this day. Jumping ahead a bit, when I next left Leesti and plotted my next jump, I noticed that my jump range had dropped… Fuel! And suddenly, the economic situation made sense: travel to trade, trade to travel. It was a wonderful cyclic system that the shrinking “jump range” circle brought into sharp relief. Every trade had to be lucrative enough to keep me jumping!
Getting back inside again
Getting out into space was one thing, but getting back inside a space station was another. To begin with, you had to do it all on your own. The game was beautifully crafted. To save code space, you could have just jumped nearby to the station, or even directly station-to-station. It could have just been a random event, or any of another 100 code-saving methods. However, you always had to fly, and use hyperspace, and the station was always “around” the planet a little from where you jump in, and the entry-port to the stations all pointed towards the planet. The station itself was rotating too. They didn’t have to do all this for the game, but it added something so unique, and realistic, that it was wondrous.
There were huge differences of opinion flying around in how best to play. My personal favourite for the final docking manoeuvre was to line up, and then hit full thrust, powering straight in without bothering to match rotation. I ended up being so good, I could nail it every time, losing only a few grams of paint on the way through occasionally… Some preferred a sneak and peek approach, slowly matching rotation and gliding in… Either way, making it inside was always a huge relief, especially in lawless systems where you’ve been attacked on the way in!
In another master stroke, developers David Braben and Ian Bell realised that docking would become a chore after a while, and created a docking computer item you could buy. This was truly amazing at the time. Upgrading your ship with AI?! To quote The Princess Bride, it was inconceivable! In some versions of Elite, when you hit ‘C’ to engage the docking computer, the game would play the Blue Danube as it docked for you, which was another masterstroke, evoking the wonderful 2001: A Space Odyssey, which every person who played Elite would have had in their heads from the very first time they saw the rotating space station.
The game was called Elite because the aim of it was to attain the in-game rank of “Elite”, which required multiple skills. In a lovely nod to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you start off as “Harmless” then become “Mostly Harmless”… and then work your way up through “Dangerous” to “Elite”. It takes time, and lots of credits, which requires trading and fighting. There is no XP indicator, or any pop ups saying “shoot these guys for more XP”, and there are no “Level Up” dialogs. You just check your rating from time to time, and see that you’re now “Dangerous”… It’s enormously rewarding to see that, and the lack of XP bar means you just get on and play the game.
Arriving at Elite status didn’t require any particular ‘boss’ to be killed, or mission to be completed. It just required you to be very, very good at flying and fighting in space. Because of this, the game felt ‘real’, and not manufactured. There weren’t any artificial bosses to defeat, just a living universe to make your way in.
A few of us at the school had only just got the game, so we compared notes over the best ways to travel and trade. I had a favoured pair of planets, roughly in the middle of the first galaxy. They were moderately dangerous, but provided an excellent trade route, and were less than a light year apart, so ‘farming’ between them was extremely lucrative… A few of my other friends went on to further galaxies and maintained that trading became more lucrative further on.
One thing that made you a lot of money was going to the shady side of the law. If you traded in commodities that the local police frowned on, you could be in deep trouble. Nothing is quite as worrying as being spotted near a space station carrying contraband: the station could start spewing a never-ending stream of police Vipers. Each one could be defeated, but in a swarm, they were deadly. It also gave you a “wanted level”, which would make you persona non-grata until you’d redeemed yourself by being a good citizen and avoiding run-ins with law, or ditching the ship completely by ejecting into space, and thereby wiping the ‘paper trail’, also coincidentally costing you some money.
Essentially, the more bad things you did, the harder it was to get clean again. There was nothing quite so nerve wracking as doing a trade run with a hull full of expensive luxury items into a well-policed system with a wanted level… One false move, and you could have your entire profits wiped out, so it paid to be careful!
As with all things Elite, there were numerous strategies floating around for evading a Viper swarm: fly towards the planet, fly towards the sun, jump away, or hide ‘behind’ the space station… The trade in theories and styles was huge! Many posited that non-lethal piracy (shooting until they dropped cargo, and letting them live), meant that you didn’t get pursued by as many police ships, while others reckoned that if you shot a contraband canister, it made the police like you.
The manual itself created a few. I remember being told that in order to land on a planet you needed to capture a “transporter” (small ship), or that the Moray Starboat would let you go underwater… As with all the other theories, most of these were completely fabricated by overactive minds, but they all made the game seem more mysterious and deeper than it probably ever was!
A lasting impression
Every space game I play, I compare back to Elite. I’ll never have that close circle of friends again with who I can trade secrets and space lanes, pirate tactics and sightings, because nowadays we have the internet and FAQs. Finding out whether there’s really a Generation Ship is just a Google search away.
I don’t think any game (except perhaps Elite:Dangerous in VR) will take my breath away quite as much as the first time I played Elite. Nothing will ever scare me as much as the first time I got pulled into Witch-Space and had to face down a Thargoid. I don’t think the environment exists any more to allow children the space to create and theorise without spoilers.
Yes, by modern standards, original Elite looks like a Flash demo, but for its time, it was ground-breaking in almost every way, not the least of which was the way it coaxed full 3D out of a puny 4MHz processor.
That night when I first played Elite, my mum came and sat behind me to watch me play, and helped me understand what “narcotics” were, what “coriolis” meant. In one system (Diso?) I attacked a “Krait”, an odd-looking ship, unique in that it had pylons on the wings. It was a fairly easy take down. However, when it died, it dropped a pod that I picked up; it contained “slaves”.
I remember the feeling like I was gut-punched: someone had put people into a canister and fired them into space. That moment, a police Viper turned up, and I was suddenly “Wanted” for a) attacking the Krait, and b) having slaves in my hold. Now I was faced with a moral dilemma: dump the slaves into space, killing them, or deliver them safely to become part of the slave trade… Those were my choices. Few games present a 12-year-old with those sorts of moral dilemmas.
I don’t remember my mum slipping away from sitting next to me, watching me play that night before my birthday, but eventually I fell asleep, head on the desk. I woke up on Sunday to my mum wishing me a happy birthday, with my card. I’ve never woken on my birthday before or afterwards as happy as I was that day.
- Fully complete space trading mechanic
- Ability to choose trading, piracy or mining
- Variety in all the systems you visit
- Graphics very simplistic until the 16-bit era revamped it.
- Once you found a ‘golden run’, you could make a fortune easily
- No storyline in the game
Dark Blue Monkey’s take
Elite was a ground-breaking game that created a whole new genre, laying the template for dozens, if not hundreds of games after it. With the novella, it hooked into the collective conscious about space and sci-fi. It gave kids a living galaxy as their playground. The mythos surrounding the game, the theories and strategies, lit the blue touch paper to a generation’s imagination, and hasn’t shown any signs of dimming, as games like Freelancer, Star Citizen and, of course, Elite: Dangerous are testament to.