Home > Everything Else > Elite turns 25, or How I met David Braben

Elite turns 25, or How I met David Braben

This week marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most famous computer games ever published – Elite, by David Braben and Ian Bell.

Released to the world on September 20th, 1984 for the 8 bit BBC Microcomputer. Initially rejected by the software publishers of the time, Elite was picked up by Acornsoft and managed to sell 1,000,000 copies on a whole range of platforms. Written by two guys, without the help of a studio, artists, or project managers, and entirely in assembler, for a machine which had less memory “than most emails”, it stands the test of time as one of the finest examples of how gameplay trumps visual beauty every time.

Elite was one of the first, if not the first computer game which didn’t keep score, and didn’t have 3 lives – it’s a space trading game where you, the player, get to roam around a virtual universe trading merchandise for money, or stealing it through piracy and other nefarious means. You can even have dogfights with other ‘NPCs’ (Non-player characters). Sounds dull compared to something like Crisis or Quake, but in the same way toddlers often find the box more fun than the toy which came in it, the sheer scope for your imagination makes this 8bit masterpiece far more enjoyable than the sum of its parts would indicate.

I actually met David Braben the day his second game, Frontier (or Elite II) was released. For my sins I spent some of the 90’s running computer game stores, and on this particular occasion I was managing a store in David’s home town, Cambridge UK.

It was a miserable night, cold and wet as only England can be, the kind of damp which has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and lasts until 15th August the following year. I remember this character coming into the store looking at, and finally picking up a Frontier box with some reverence.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize David, and he was kind enough to introduce himself and ask how sales were going (actually, very well for a game with a sticker price of GBP44.99, almost the highest in the store). Frontier went on to sell around half a million copies, and was ported to the PC platform – an unusual thing to happen at that time due to its poor graphics and sound when compared to the Amiga and ST machines. If David reads this post, I hope he remembers that night in Future Zone, Cambridge when he became a “software father” for the 2nd time.

In today’s world, computer games seem to need more people than the average Hollywood blockbuster to pull them together – their credits list alone taking up more memory than Elite used. Games as infamous as Lemmings, Spy vs Spy, Syndicate, Another World, and Knightmare were conceived without the infrastructure of today, often by a couple of guys working out of their spare room, yet had the playability and fun factor that only the very exceptional modern titles can match.

I’m still in awe of the 8bit programmers, they set the bar high in the emerging market of computer entertainment, doing seemingly impossible things with hardware so limited that even compiling a program was a challenge, yet hooking us in with playability and stories equal to their modern peers such as Half Life and its astonishing and highly recommended sibling, Portal.

I have to conclude with a confession – despite running computer stores, and playing (and completing) pretty much every Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive, Amiga and Atari game of the 90’s, I have to confess I’ve never played Elite – mainly for the same reason I still have not watched the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. Elite to me remains as one of the finest reported examples of 8bit computer software ever written, and once I’ve played it, for me the 8bit experience will be over. I’m keeping that event for a time when I need a real pick-me-up.

Happy birthday Elite, David and Ian. If I still ran the store in Cambridge, as in my current favorite game Portal, there would be Cake for you both.

Here’s a list of some of the top games I remember from the 80’s and 90’s – Feel free to share your memories of these (and other), playability masterpieces.

  • Syndicate (Amiga) – One of the most absorbing games of all time
  • Mortal Kombat (SNES) – Who can forget – “Finish Him!”
  • Ring Of Power (C64) – The first game I ever completed
  • Raid Over Moscow (C64) – My First diagonal scroller. I never got very far because it used funky tape compression which would never load properly.
  • Shadow Of The Beast (Amiga) – A beautiful arcade conversion.
  • Sword of Sodan (Amiga) – One of the first games to show off the Amiga’s ground breaking graphics
  • Sonic 2 (Sega Megadrive) – Released on “Sonic Twosday (Tuesday) to much acclaim. I had a queue outside my store up until Midnight on Monday, when I started selling copies.
  • Lemmings (Atari ST) – Addictive to say the least. I still have an unopened press pack, complete with lapel pins
  • Zaxxon (Amiga) – As shoot-em-up’s go, it can’t be beat
  • Another World (Amiga) – A classic cult experience, one with a strong following still today. One of the first story based games, and what a story – if you don’t cry at the end there’s something wrong with you. So moving, absorbing. Now you can even get a “Collectors Edition” Windows version!
  1. Simon Hunt
    September 24, 2009 at 12:47

    Not content with simply virtually celebrating Elite, I hear that this years GameCity event in Nottingham, UK- 27-31 October will be having a physical Elite-fest, complete with origami ships and a reading by Robert Holdstock (author of the novella shipped with the C64 version) on the 28th. You can read more at http://gamecity.org

  2. Rob Fitt
    October 4, 2009 at 09:06

    Elite was a Phenomenon. Everyone wanted it, but it was initially only available for the BBC Micro. The BBC Micro was widely used in schools but few had one at home because it was twice the price of other home computers (and no better)
    I persuaded my father that I needed a BBC Micro to do well in Computer Studies class, but really it was so I could play Elite!

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