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Elite (1987)            

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Rainbird
Action / Sci-Fi
Frontier Developments, Ian Bell, David Braben
8088/8086 CPU, DOS 2.0, 512K RAM, Floppy drive, CGA graphics
80286 CPU 12 MHz, DOS 3.3, 640K RAM.
512K
1
Yes
Eng

5.25" Floppy disk
USA, Europe
Elite (aka Elite Plus)


IBM PC


More from other publishers:

Acorn BBC
Acorn Electron
Amstrad CPC
Apple 2e
Atari ST
Commodore 64
Sinclair ZX Spectrum
MSX

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Wiki (Unknown)   28th Apr 2015 11:10
Elite is a seminal space trading video game, written and developed by David Braben and Ian Bell and originally published by Acornsoft for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers in September 1984. Elite's open-ended game model, advanced game engine and revolutionary 3D graphics led to it being ported to virtually every contemporary home computer system, and earned it a place as a classic and a genre maker in gaming history. The game's title derives from one of the player's goals of raising their combat rating to the exalted heights of "Elite".

Elite was one of the first home computer games to use wire-frame 3D graphics with hidden line removal. It added graphics and twitch gameplay aspects to the genre established by the 1974 game Star Trader. Another novelty was the inclusion of The Dark Wheel, a novella by Robert Holdstock which gave players insight into the moral and legal codes to which they might aspire.

The game was followed by the sequels Frontier: Elite II in 1993, and Frontier: First Encounters in 1995, which introduced Newtonian physics, realistic star systems and seamless freeform planetary landings. A third sequel, Elite: Dangerous, began crowdfunding in 2012 and was launched on 16 December 2014, following a period of semi-open testing.

Elite proved hugely influential, serving as a model for other games including Wing Commander: Privateer, Grand Theft Auto, EVE Online, Freelancer, the X series and No Man's Sky.

Non-Acorn versions were each first published by Firebird, Imagineer and Hybrid. Subsequently Frontier Developments has claimed the game to be a "Game by Frontier", to be part of its own back catalogue and all the rights to the game to have been owned by David Braben.

Gameplay
The player initially controls the character "Commander Jameson", though the name can be changed after the game is saved. The player starts at Lave Station with 100 credits and a lightly armed trading ship, a Cobra Mark III. Most of the ships that the player encounters are similarly named after snakes or other reptiles. Credits can be accumulated through a number of means. These include piracy, trade, military missions, bounty hunting and asteroid mining. The money generated by these enterprises allows players to upgrade their ships with enhancements such as better weapons, increased cargo capacity, an automated docking system, an extra energy bank and more.

In the game universe, stars have single planets, each with a space station in its orbit. Stars are always separated by interstellar distances effectively untraversable using the ship's sublight engines. Travel between stars is accomplished by hyperspace jumps, and is constrained to those within range of the limited fuel capacity (7 light years) of the ship's hyperdrive. Sublight fuel capacity is apparently infinite.

Fuel can be replenished after docking with a space station, which requires matching the ship's rotation to that of the station before entering the docking bay - a task that can be avoided by purchasing a docking computer. Players can upgrade their equipment with a fuel scoop, which allows raw fuel to be skimmed from the surface of stars, described by the manual as "a dangerous and difficult activity", but in practice a fairly simple process far easier than manually docking at a space station—and collecting free-floating cargo canisters and escape capsules liberated after the destruction of other ships.

While making a hyperspace jump between star systems, the antagonistic Thargoid insect race may intercept the player half way, forcing his ship to remain in "witch-space" and do battle with their smaller invasion ships. As the interrupted jump uses the full journey's fuel, the player may have insufficient fuel to subsequently jump to a nearby planet, trapping them in witch-space and they must use an escape capsule if owned, or abort the game and reload.

An extremely expensive one-shot galactic hyperspace upgrade permits travel between the eight galaxies of the game universe. There is little practical difference between the different galaxies. However, in some versions it is necessary to travel to at least the second galaxy to access the game's missions. The planetary layout of the galaxies is different, and many players discovered trade runs between closely positioned planets with fortuitous economic combinations.

Elite includes several optional paid missions for the Galactic Navy. One requires tracking down and destroying a stolen experimental ship; the other involves transporting classified information on the Thargoids' home planet, with Thargoid invasion ships doing their best to see that you do not succeed throughout the duration of the mission involving multiple interplanetary jumps.

Development

According to Braben and Bell, Elite was inspired by a range of sources. The developers cite 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the original Battlestar Galactica as influences. Braben also cites the works of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert L. Forward, Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card as influences. It was thought that much of the game's content was derived from the Traveller tabletop role-playing game, including the default commander name Jameson, but David Braben has denied this several times.

When the developers met at Jesus College, Cambridge, Bell was already working on a game for Acornsoft called Freefall. Braben had started writing a game called Fighter, but he had not yet completed it. The two projects were sufficiently similar that Braben and Bell compared notes, and after seeing Star Raiders on the Atari 800 they decided to collaborate to produce what eventually became Elite. They first approached Thorn EMI; the company's rejection letter stated that the game was too complicated and needed to be finishable in 10 minutes with three lives. Braben and Bell then met with Acornsoft; their demo of the Elite‍ '​s combat and docking sequences impressed managing director David Johnson-Davies and other Acornsoft executives. The company agreed to publish the finished game, although the company feared that it was too ambitious for Braben and Bell, and was uncertain about the merits of two developers instead of one on a single game.

The game took two years to write and was written in assembly language, giving much care to maximum compactness of code. The last part added was the 3D radar display fitted into the last few unused bytes in their computer.

The original BBC version used a novel split screen approach to show four colours onscreen simultaneously; the upper two thirds of the screen were displayed in Mode 4 while the lower part was in Mode 5. The subsequent Electron version ran entirely in Mode 4, because the video chips were not 100% compatible and therefore was in black and white only.

The Elite universe contains eight galaxies, each with 256 planets to explore. Due to the limited capabilities of 8-bit computers, these worlds are procedurally generated. A single seed number is run through a fixed algorithm the appropriate number of times and creates a sequence of numbers determining each planet's complete composition (position in the galaxy, prices of commodities, and name and local details; text strings are chosen numerically from a lookup table and assembled to produce unique descriptions, such as a planet with "carnivorous arts graduates"). This means that no extra memory is needed to store the characteristics of each planet, yet each is unique and has fixed properties. Each galaxy is also procedurally generated from the first. Braben and Bell at first intended to have 248 galaxies, but Acornsoft insisted on a smaller universe to hide the galaxies' mathematical origins.

However, the use of procedural generation created a few problems. There are a number of poorly located systems that can be reached only by galactic hyperspace— these are more than 7 light years from their nearest neighbour, thus trapping the traveller. Braben and Bell also checked that none of the system names were profane - removing an entire galaxy after finding a planet named "Arse".

The developers did not spend much time playing their creation and the quality testing was mostly performed by the Acornsoft Director of Marketing, David Johnson-Davies who also planned the at the time lavish packaging and marketing campaign.

The original BBC Micro disk version used a non-standard disk-format to stop disk-to-disk copying. This relied on specific OSWORD &7F DFS opcodes in the Intel 8271 Disk Controller to directly access the disk, and produce a non-standard sector/track-layout. This, however, also caused issues for legitimate customers that were using the Western-Digital 1770 Disk-controller (DFS) ROMs from third-party manufacturers such as Watford Electronics. Acorn subsequently released alternative versions of the BBC disks that were compatible with the WD1770. This BBC Disk-copy-protection was subsequently used by Superior Software in their 'Exile' game. In addition to this, self-modifying code was used as part of the protection system, created by Rob Northen.

Marketing and release
Acornsoft set in motion a large-scale publicity campaign and commissioned a presentational package for the game that was far more elaborate than normal. Acornsoft packaged Elite in a box larger than their usual releases, complete with a novella by Robert Holdstock called The Dark Wheel, a 64-page Space Trader's Flight Training Manual, reference card and a ship identification poster. The Flight Training manual was written a style that took you as the rookie trader through the controls and various aspects of play.

The Dark Wheel was the first novella to be included for distribution with a video game. The original Acornsoft version promised on its back cover that "[a] sequel to the novella is planned for publication in 1985", but no direct sequel was ever written. A second novella, Imprint by Andy Redman, was included with the IBM PC release of Elite Plus, but despite being set in the same universe it is in no way connected to the original story.

Marketing activities included a £50,000 promotional budget from Acornsoft, including television advertising and a launch party at the Thorpe Park theme park (holding such an event for a video game was almost unheard of at the time) and a competition to be among the first to achieve the status of "Elite".
The Dark Wheel plot synopsis

The story tells of a young starship pilot named Alex Ryder, whose father Jason is killed when their merchant ship is attacked by a notorious pirate. In trying to understand and avenge his father's death and achieve an "iron ass" (a space-trader's term for a well armed- and armoured spaceship), Alex encounters the basics of the Elite universe—including combat, hyperdrive and hyperspace and the deadly aliens called Thargoids. Finally Alex discovers the truth about his father and his combat rank. He also acts as an acceptable face of trading, since his female co-pilot, Elissia Fields, is an alien species, wanted in several systems. Alex wants to avenge his father's death, but must exercise caution in tracking down the assassin. By trading commodities, he slowly improves the arms and armour of his ship. When he is competent at using the spaceship for combat, but before he feels ready, he makes a trade that is sure to bring his father's killer to him.


Versions

Enhanced graphics in the Archimedes version of Elite, showing several police viper ships and a planet in lower-right corner

The first version of the game was released for the BBC Micro, model B on tape and Disk and "about a month or two later" the Acorn Electron Tape version was released. The Electron's limitations meant several game features were cut including Thargoids and suns. Neither the BBC nor the Electron tape versions featured missions. Additionally, the original tape version for the Electron contained a bug that stopped Galactic Hyperspace from working. Acorn provided a mail-in tape-replacement service to upgrade to v1.1 (marked as such on the tape label) that fixed this bug. The BBC B Disk version, referred to as Classic Elite, would load a new set of ships after every hyperspace jump or space station launch, meaning a larger number of ships were available. A new disc version released by Superior Software in 1986 was enhanced to take advantage of the BBC Micro Model B's successors including the BBC Micro Model B+, Master 128 computers, the optional 6502 Second Processor or sideways RAM, if they were fitted. In this case, the game used Modes 1 and 2 to make more colours available.

The great commercial success of the BBC Micro version prompted a bidding war for the rights to publish Elite in other formats, with British Telecom's software arm, Telecomsoft, eventually winning the rights. It was eventually ported to virtually every contemporary home computer system including the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein and IBM PC compatible. The only console version was released in 1991 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Some of the versions had slightly altered gameplay or other characteristics, such as the number of missions offered to the player.

Contemporary versions for home computers based on the 6502 microprocessor were ported by either Bell or Bell and Braben. The Commodore 64 conversion introduced Trumbles (creatures based on the tribbles in Star Trek: The Original Series). When the docking computer is activated in the Commodore 64 version and some other versions, a musical rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz is played, as a nod to a space docking sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This music was arranged by David Dunn.

The ZX Spectrum version, programmed by "Torus" included a Supernova mission not found in any other version. The Amstrad CPC conversion (itself a port of the ZX version) has fewer ships than other platforms, lacking the Anaconda and Transport, along with some minor differences in missions and titles.

According to the lead programmer of the 16 bit Amiga/Atari ST and the MSX conversions Rob Nicholson, he did not have access to the source code because of contractual issues and had to write them "blind". All he had were the ship shapes and the procedural generation code for the galaxies.

Elite Plus was released for DOS in 1991. Whereas the original Elite (1987) for the PC used CGA graphics, Elite Plus was upgraded to take advantage of EGA, VGA and MCGA. It was coded entirely in assembly language by Chris Sawyer, who later wrote RollerCoaster Tycoon. Elite Plus had a ninth galaxy that can only be reached by hyperspacing into Witch Space. Elite Plus was published by Microplay Software.

The Acorn Archimedes version, ArcElite (1991), written by Warren Burch & Clive Gringras and regarded by Stuff magazine as the best conversion of the original game, added intelligent opponents who engage in their own private battles and police who take an active interest in protecting the law. As well as such gameplay enhancements, the version also exploited the more modern hardware by using polygon mesh graphics in place of the wire-frames. The game world no longer seems to be centred around the player; freighter fleets with escorts go about their own business, pirate formations patrol lawless systems looking for cargo to loot and mining ships can often be found breaking up asteroids for their mineral content. Unlike the mythical Generation Ships of the original, rare occurrences of other non-pirate entities mentioned in the manual really can be found in the Archimedes version: geometric formations of space beacons; hermits living among the asteroids; abandoned ships towed by police (although Dredgers and Generation Ships are confirmed not to exist in Archimedes Elite). The Archimedes version of Elite was originally written to be a space trading game called Trojan - however the obvious similarities eventually meant that to avoid a potential lawsuit Trojan had to become an official Elite conversion. ArcElite was one of a number of games released for free by The Icon Bar website in 2006.

Some versions feature a new title, "Archangel", for the player to earn that substitutes the rank of Commander. Archangel is reached by undertaking a special mission to destroy a space station in a system invaded by the Thargoids. The player's reward for completing the mission is to receive the title Archangel and obtain a device that is capable of emulating anti-ECM broadcast.

(Anonymous) (Unknown)   28th Apr 2015 11:04

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This title was first added on 13th May 2011
This title was most recently updated on 15th May 2015


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