ELITE returns!

I know, most people are still excited about the Obama thing. Which is, no doubt, massively cool. But the thing that excited me most on Tuesday was not the impending election but was, instead, the launch on kickstarter of ELITE: DANGEROUS.

Now, being a man in my mid-thirties who grew up in the UK, I feel I shouldn’t need to explain what ELITE was, and why its return – at the hands of one of the two original creators – is such an exciting thing to me. But on the basis that some people have no idea what I’m talking about, here goes.

ELITE was a space-simulation computer game that was released in about 1984 for the BBC Micro, and was – over the years – ported to a bunch of other computers. I remember playing it for hours on my dad’s BBCMaster, and being utterly astounded and enthralled. In later years I spent many a lunch hour playing it on the school’s Archimedes machines (hugely powerful at the time and well beyond the financial reach of my parents). I’ve even played it in recent years, downloading emulators and disk-images and the like to replicate my childhood computer on my now insanely more powerful machine. I don’t care that the graphics are of their time, or that the occasional repetitiveness of the gameplay is more obvious to me now. I can lose myself for hours in the world that Ian Bell and David Braben created, and I’d rather play a shonky slow-running crap-graphics game of ELITE than almost anything else.

Most games at the time were simple, level-based affairs – jump around, avoid the enemies, next level. Three lives and you’re done. Oh, I don’t doubt that there were some more complicated games out there (I never had an NES, for example), but generally you played for a few minutes and when you died, you started back at the beginning.  ELITE was different. Through some miracle of programming that I won’t even pretend to understand, the creators managed to devise a huge, varied and open universe to fly around in. I seem to recall that there were 256 stars in the galaxy where you started, each with a differently named planet with its own characteristics. And that was just the first of 8 galaxies that one could explore. Oh, clearly it was somewhat random, and it made no real difference which galaxy you were in, but the sheer scale and complexity was astounding. For a child who had been playing CHUCKIE EGG, it was a revelation.

When you launched your first game, heading out of a docking station in the Lave system (that name still makes me tingle) in a battered old Cobra-class ship with only 100 credits, 3 missiles and a crappy laser to your name, the realization that you were playing something different was inescapable. The movement of spaceships seemed realistic (it wasn’t, but looked it). You could look out of the side window of your spaceship, or the rear, and other ships would be around, doing their thing. On the Archimedes version you could jump into a blazing fight between the police, in their sleek and deadly Vipers, and some pirates. And you could choose to join in on either side, or just go about your business. You could die at any time, unless you avoided trouble or were very lucky in your first fights. Slowly earning money by trading goods or picking off the occasional weak enemy, you could upgrade your ship with various better weapons and equipment. The feeling of achievement when you earned enough money on a good trade to upgrade your laser was a remarkable one. There was no way to win the game – beyond the satisfaction of being raised to ‘Elite’ level, which meant that you’d shot down an awful lot of other spaceships – but that didn’t matter.

Because even once you’d achieved that level (which took an awfully long time), you could still keep on exploring and trading and fighting. And you did, because there were more worlds to discover, more descriptions of species to read, more pirates to fight.  Later iterations of the game – on more powerful computers – included the odd mission or goal, but they weren’t really needed. It was fun just to fly around, to head away from the local sun and fly for hours, seeing how far out from the main system you could go and what you would find out there, and whether you’d get blasted to pieces when you found it. Searching for pirates to destroy and steal from, always aware that if you shot at an innocent ship you’d be tagged as an offender and the police would come after you. There were dozens of different types of ship, each with their own snake-name and strengths and weaknesses. There were asteroids, and aliens (accidentally dropping into a Thargoid invasion fleet ended a lot of my games), and the manual even promised greater secrets – generation ships and the like – hidden away in deep space. I never found them. I suspect they were dropped from the game before release. It didn’t matter, because exploration was fun.

One of the ways that the game was very different to anything else was the inclusion of a novella in the packaging, written by the astoundingly talented Robert Holdstock. THE DARK WHEEL really fleshed out the world in which you were about to become immersed, and provided a reasonable explanation for the starting point of the game. I must have read that novella a dozen times as a kid (I read it again last night – it’s still really fun). It all added to the sense of a world being created around you, a world that you could lose yourself in and change. As far as I’m concerned, it was the first game to give me that feeling. I’ve never really recaptured it since.

There were a couple of sequels over the years, although I’ve never played either of them (didn’t have a powerful enough computer, I think). But everything had gone quiet, and I – like most people – assumed that it was the end for ELITE. There have been imitators (I haven’t played any, but then I don’t really play computer games), but nothing that ever looked like it would replace the original. Until yesterday morning, when David Braben launched his kickstarter for ELITE: DANGEROUS (not a brilliant title, but there you go) and my head exploded. So did a lot of other people’s – at the time of writing he’s raised over £300,000 in about 32 hours. The pitch is a bit sparse, although we’re promised updates, and there’s no real sense of what the new game is going to be.

That doesn’t matter.

Elite is (hopefully) coming back. And I’ll be there on day one, in my battered spaceship with 100 credits to my name, ready to blaze among the stars.

Or, more likely, crash into a space station and die while trying to dock.