Elite: A history of a Burro in space

Way back in 1984 when I was a mere 14 year old Burro-in-training I stumbled across a game called Elite. As I didn’t have a computer at the time (it was a while before my old dad splashed out on a Commodore 64 for me) I came across this on someone else’s computer whilst out working with my dad at military boarding college*. Being a boarding college some of the students were still there despite it being a term break and they were sat in front of a BBC micro computer playing the now iconic Elite.

Now I didn’t have a sudden epiphany and start badgering my old man to get this game for me, although I wish I had. No, instead I spent the rest of the trip up to my wrists in headstocks and aprons replacing coolant and cleaning out swarf** and it was at least a year or more later before I got my hands on a version for the much loved Commodore 64 and I experienced me first ever deep infatuation with a computer game***. I played the bejesus out it, desperate to get my hands on military drives & explore all eight galaxies in search of Thargoids to destroy. I loved the docking, difficult as it was and delighted in trying to fly into every station on manual controls. I kept detailed books of all the different trading prices so I could maximise my profit for each trip. In short, I geeked out on it and loved every minute 😀

Then girls happened, and college and then Uni and then work. Sex is almost always better than computer games and I drifted away from playing them for a few years.

*wavey dissolve to early 1993 and the Burro is now 22 and has dreadlocks… until he shaves them off and goes skin for a bit*

As a long term relationship broke down at the same time as my job petered out and the place I was living in sort of collapsed around my ears, I found refuge in playing games on an old Amiga I had bought from a mate. An Elite sequel was on the way and I spent more time than I feel comfortable owning up to watching the rolling demo for Frontier: Elite 2 on a monitor in the window of a local computer & hi-fi shop.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how much that trailer drew me in. Yes it looks shit now, but you have to see it through the eyes of 20 years ago – nothing but nothing looked this amazing back then! Flying through space and down through clouds to land on a planet was… mind blowing! And then to dogfight around space stations and past capital shops… this was the stuff only films could deliver and suddenly I had the chance to experience it too in my bedroom. It was, in some ways, a life-changing game for me as I came to realise just how powerful the feeling of immersion could be with a computer game.

Sure the combat was shite (a huge wasted opportunity given how fun it was in the first one and how amazing it was in X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, although that last one did come out four years after Elite 2) and ultimately the universe was a little lacking in mission variety, but these negatives paled next to the biggest selling point the Elite games have always had for me – it was this universe, this galaxy with Earth at its centre****. The map you used in Frontier was just delicious and I would spend an age just zooming in and out to find star systems I had heard of so I could fly off & explore them. Given how out of control & shitty my life was about that time (I remember***** a lot of drinking – oy vey) being able to fly away from Earth and into deep space to explore nearby Alpha Centauri helped me keep sane.

But in the end I drifted away from that game too. Doom took over and so began my love of FPS games (still burning strong) that led onto Second Life and then into MMOs but I never forgot my love of Elite. Other space sims came and went but never grabbed my attention – they were all too Space Opera for my tastes, too far removed from Earth’s future and full of nothing more than Elves and Trolls in spacesuits. No, what I wanted, and what both Elite but more so Frontier delivered, was a vision of Humanity’s future – of *my* future – in the big black.

Since being a kid a part of me has always been in the stars and Elite was one of my main escape pods so you can only imagine how happy I was to find out that David Braben is now hard at work on a new version, Elite: Dangerous (I know, crappy title but hey ho) that should be coming out in early 2014 and it is looking mighty bloody good I must say. I’ll write more about my hopes for this new incarnation of my childhood favourite in another post, but for now I’ll leave you with a trailer for Elite Dangerous (you should also check out their cool dev dairies here) as well as a rather charming tribute to my old friend, Frontier.

HBA – written whilst in orbit off the shoulder of Orion.

* My dad was a lathe engineer and travelled the country repairing & installing lathes and in this case had the contact for maintaining the machines in this college’s workshop. Now retired he still travels the country but is now actively employed in driving my mum mad in their plush camper van.

** To this day I hate, nay, loathe swarf.

*** Probably not true – I seem to recall being obsessed with, and terrible at, Jetset Willy on the Spectrum but from my end of Time’s earpiece it’s all a little hazy…

**** Well, maybe not quite at the centre, but Earth was there and you could visit and land there. Oh, and the system name was Sol, but by Thor’s Hammer it was home!

***** Well, sort of remember…


  1. Another elite fan!
    Commander Tsunami was where I took my nom de juego from…
    I used to play the devil outta a friends BBC version…got elite plus for loaned IBM486…
    Notes with stock prices, thargoid space…wanted to find the giant civilization ships…
    Tried to play Frontier but just gave up as the ‘flight’ controls were not ‘elite’…
    Would have backed elite:dangerous on kickstarter if I had any money! I cannot wait…
    I still want to try the Archimedes version…the other ships are meant to have great AI routines…
    I still have a penchant for space shoot em ups…ever play colony wars on PS…that was fun?

    1. Hail Fellow Commander – I can’t recall my name from back then, but it could have been anyone of the roleplaying characters from my D&D, MERP & CoC days. I’m pretty sure Antfarm will figure in the new one 😉

      I’ve heard goos things about the Archimedies version too, but I think there is an add-on for Oolite which adds ship AI too.

      Frontier flight & combat was dreadful – they got it right in First Encounters but that was a bugged piece of crap and proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the game for me. Doom took over and I never looked back really.It always left a bad taste in my mouth that the brilliant of Elite seemed to wane with each sequel so I’m hoping they address this with Dangerous.

      Never played a PS, mate – never owned a console either 😀

      p.s. It’s official – the generation ships in Elite were a myth and never existed outside of the marketing and fiction – see item 9 here: http://www.iancgbell.clara.net/elite/archive/c2031200.htm

  2. Amazing. Had I known about this game back in the day I can guarantee you that I would have gone down the PC/Windows path from the start and would have begun using Macs much later on (if at all). I loved the arcade video games Battlezone and the 1983 Star Wars first person space simulator featuring the attack on the Death Star from “A New Hope.” Elite and Elite: Frontier would have been right up my space station trench. I can’t believe I never knew of them. Thanks for enlightening me!

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