They say that docking is difficult, and they’re not kidding.
I was six years old when my dad came home from work one night, excitedly brandishing a copy of a new computer game he’d picked up. We’d had our computer – a mighty BBC Micro Model ‘B’ with a vast 32K of memory – for a few months at that point. In theory it was for my dad to manage the household finances and track his business contracts, but most of the time it was put to the much more important use of playing games.
Elite was a different kind of game. It came in bulkier packaging and had the best cover art I’d ever seen for a bit of software. As well as the manual the game came with a keyboard layout guide and a short novel. The cassette tape took an eye-watering seven minutes to load. When it did finally load, it threw up something I’d never seen before on the computer: a 3D, wireframe starship spinning in space. It looks primitive today, but in 1985, compared to the other games on the system, it looked like a vision from the distant future. “LOAD NEW COMMANDER Y/N?” the game asked.
Hitting “Y” resulted in the start of a new game. This stuck you in a spinning space station high above the planet Lave, equipped with a Cobra Mk. III spacecraft and a measly 100 credits. This was just enough to buy a modest amount of cargo. A local map allowed you to look at neighbouring star systems and see what commodities were in demand. By matching supply and demand you could make a decent profit on a cargo run. All fairly basic, but at the time it was mind-blowing. Every other computer game I’d played up to that point had been based on the idea of linearity: you finish one map, section or level and progressed to the next. Elite had no interest in telling you what to do. It wanted you to tell it what you wanted to do.
Blasting free of the space station had our ship plummeting towards the surface of a planet (a transparent sphere). My dad turned the joystick left and…the ship rotated on its axis. I was confused that it didn’t move. Of course, in space there is no air to use for banking. Thanks to gyroscopes (the manual informed me) the ship could spin around, but not bank. It could, however, dive and climb. Eventually we brought the gigantic space station back into view and flew towards it. I assumed, with confidence, that if we touched the space station it would automatically dock.
Instead our ship crashed into the side of the station and exploded instantly. The game manual cheerfully informed us that this was a common occurrence but it was okay, as the station’s shields were so strong that we didn’t even scratch the surface. We restarted the game and set out again, this time to try docking properly. We flew out, looped around and head back for the docking tunnel. We tried to match rotation and hold the ship steady during its final approach…only to lose control and smash into the side of the station again.
During the next few years, I’d return to playing Elite on a regular basis. I’d make hyperspace jumps to distant stars and engage in tense dogfights with pirates or – even worse – the engimatic and powerful alien Thargoids. I’d hunt down and destroy asteroids for a modest bounty. I’d shoot down missiles trying to blow me out of the sky. And almost every single time I tried to dock, I’d die horribly.
A few times I’d get lucky and actually pull off a docking manoeuvre. It felt like winning the lottery. I’d actually get to sell my cargo and make some money. I’d feel like I was on a roll. I’d even save the game (itself a laborious task involving a second, blank tape). And on the very next trip my ship would explode in a massive fireball whilst trying to dock with the next station.
It didn’t really matter. I came back to the game for the combat, the ambience and the feel of flying a spaceship in the distant future. In my teens, playing the game on a Commodore Amiga (with a staggering 1MB of memory and filled-in 3D graphics!), I finally mastered the art of docking. But then the inevitable sequel arrived, with its much more comprehensive and realistic galactic map (you could visit Earth and fly over London), its much vaster scope and more comprehensive features. Most importantly, Frontier gave you a docking computer from the very start, an acknowledgement by David Braben that perhaps, yes, docking had been just a little bit difficult in the original.