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Elite (NES) artwork

Elite (NES) review

"Many years ago, before Star Fox made space wedges look badass, before developers realised that console games don't control like PC games, and before huge environments were the norm, there was Elite. Imagineer's spacefaring trade/combat quasi-sim is possessed of a uniqueness that prompts ambivalence. "

Many years ago, before Star Fox made space wedges look badass, before developers realised that console games don't control like PC games, and before huge environments were the norm, there was Elite. Imagineer's spacefaring trade/combat quasi-sim is possessed of a uniqueness that prompts ambivalence.

First impressions come from the title screen. As I recall, my first reaction was "Huh?" Until Elite, I had never been asked to choose my language before. This initial reaction proved to be a recurring one through the game. Beyond the title screen, there is a bit of Star Wars-like scrolling text, and unexpected fight. That's it. Just a fight against three enemy spacecraft. Naturally, I failed spectacularly. Weirdly, though, this doesn't matter at all. Indeed, if you laboriously select the 'fast forward' icon from the row at the bottom of the screen, you skip this section entirely and get straight into the game proper. On this basis, I assume this battle is intended as a training exercise, but all it does it give you the chance to flounder around using unfamiliar controls in a more dangerous environment than in-game.

Once you get into the game itself, Elite somehow has the feel of a sim. Maybe it's the clumsy, icon-driven control system that would clearly work better on a PC, or maybe it's the awkward handling of your craft in flight. At first glance, it even seems to have the depth of a sim - several galaxies to explore, each containing dozens of worlds; a healthy selection of upgrades available for your craft; a screen full of trade goods at every station, with which to earn your fortune. This depth is somewhat illusory, however; it's easy to find yourself with several of the most dramatic-sounding and expensive upgrades after a couple of hours, and the trading is no more complex than buying agricultural goods on an agricultural world and selling them on an industrial world, and vice versa.

This is not one of Elite's bigger flaws. Nor are the visuals, but they are certainly the most conspicuous. I'm not one to focus on graphics, hence me still playing games like Elite and Pirates! after almost twenty years. There is little denying, however, that Elite is ugly. When writing reviews of elderly games, I try to achieve two things: firstly, cut the game a bit of slack for its age; and secondly, see whether, technological differences aside, it is still enjoyable - if it ever was. With this in mind, I wholeheartedly repeat that Elite is ugly. Even nineteen years ago, wireframe graphics looked strange and unappealing. Spacecraft, orbital stations, debris, asteroids and planets are all represented by simple, usually angular, shapes constructed from blue lines. Only the sun of each star system is solid - a big blue disc that resembles no star I have ever seen. The menus are a little better - less wireframe, more blocky text and occasional simple pictures of your character or planetary surfaces. This wireframe spacescape does more than just harrow the eye, however. Steering a spacecraft safely can be difficult when the pilot isn't sure whether the knot of blue lines ahead is a small drifting afteroid or a well-armed pirate ship on the attack. Don't even attempt to deal with the wireframe space stations. In theory it's possible to dock manually, but I have yet to succeed in two decades of play. Far safer to use the docking computer, which brings me to another of Elite's oddities.

Elite has almost no music. Aside from a little introductory tune during the strange training battle at the beginning, the only music you will hear during the game is a NES rendition of The Blue Danube every time you dock. Since the docking process is very long and often inexplicably results in a fatal crash if watched in full, you will almost always hit the 'fast forward' icon to skip straight to actually entering the station - which means you will just hear the same few seconds of the tune every single time you dock, which will most likely be every couple of minutes. Like the other problems mentioned above, however, this isnít a major issue.

Elite has two significant flaws. One is the unwieldy control system. Steering your craft takes some getting used to, but isn't bad - until you have to deal with changing speed at the same time. When just approaching a planet or star, you can line up your ship and then accelerate at leisure. In combat, though, you will probably want to accelerate or decelerate quite frequently. Unfortunately, this is done by holding the B button and pressing up or down on the d-pad. Of course, this means you can't steer up or down while changing speed. You also can't roll left or right, since pressing those directions while holding B is how you move along the row of icons to select missiles, view, countermeasures, hyperspace, etc. So imagine this: four pirate vessels are attacking you from different directions. You need to manoeuvre amongst them using the d-pad, shoot at them using A, accelerate to avoid their shots and decelerate for better control using B and up/,down, move along the icons to select missiles and countermeasures using B and left/right. Missiles are particularly troublesome, since you have to select the missile icon using B and left/right, manoeuvre using the d-pad alone while changing speed using B and up/down until you lock on a target, then use B and left/right to select the icon for firing the missile. The control scheme is, quite frankly, a mess.

The other serious problem is repetition. Elite is a grind. Buy products from an agricultural planet, select an industrial planet from your map, buy fuel (or scoop it from a star if you have the right gear), make the hyperspace jump, kill any pirates that attack, dock, sell your cargo, buy industrial cargo in its place, select an agricultural world from your map... The process repeats every couple of minutes as you begin to get the hang of racing from world to world. The pattern is occasionally broken by a faceless NPC offering to sell you the most valuable cargo in the universe or asking you to undertake a mission, but these variations are uncommon and donít really change the gameplay routine much.

When I first bought Elite in the early-to-mid Ď90s, I was impressed by the sheer number of worlds and the ability to reveal even more by jumping to a new galaxy. The fact is, though, that there is very little difference between any of them. Aside from being agricultural or industrial (with finer, but not hugely significant, shades such as 'rich industrial' or 'mainly agricultural') and the form of government (which determines how likely you are to encounter pirates), there is almost no difference. The level of danger and the price of goods are the only tangible differences, and these are hardly unique to each planet. On a more positive note, each world has a very short write-up which, though seemingly assembled from a selection of stock phrases, can be quite amusing. These one-sentence accounts of the worlds' most distinctive features are somewhat reminiscent of Douglas Adams' 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' - probably an intentional similarity, considering one of the early combat ratings for your character is 'mostly harmless', the famous description of Earth in Adams' novels. Elite gives us worlds populated by red frogs or giant lizards, who suffer from amusing characteristics such as a deep-seated fear of food processors. It's shame that we never see any of the planets or get more than these single-sentence descriptions, but it does seem somehow appropriate. Living a life where eight galaxies filled with a multitude of worlds are yours to zoom around as you see fit, one planet is much like another, and only the strangest features are worth remarking upon.

For all that Iíve criticised it, Elite isnít a bad game. Like playing an MMORPG, once you get used to the routine itís easy enough to disengage most of your brain and just grind away, accumulating credits through trade and occasionally re-engaging in order to see off some pirates. The rapidity with which you can move from one world to another and save your game at the space stations results in a game that is easy to play in short bursts without having to worry about losing progress. Most importantly, to the best of my knowledge the NES doesnít have another game like this. I would certainly suggest giving Elite a try if you want an NES game that offers something different, but unfortunately Elite is too flawed to really be worth recommending. Even overlooking the more minor gripes, the repetitiveness of the trading prevents recommendation of the basis of that aspect, and the peerlessly clumsy control scheme in flight makes combat too frustrating to recommend the game on that aspect either. If you do ever manage to wrestle your way through countless infuriating battles to achieve the objective of the game and reach the highest combat rating, you will have earned the respect and fear of this reviewer at least, because you will truly deserve the title Ďeliteí.

SamildanachEmrys's avatar
Featured community review by SamildanachEmrys (July 30, 2010)

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JANUS2 posted July 30, 2010:

I really enjoyed reading this review.

Elite is often wheeled out by the British gaming press whenever they need an article on a landmark home-grown title, so it's nice to see it subjected to a less emotional analysis.

This review made me want to and go look for more info. I learnt that the planet names and info are "procedurally generated," which I think means that they are randomly generated. Also, the music wasn't in the original BBC Micro (the first computer I ever used!) version and is supposed to be a reference to 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Apparently the best version is the Acorn Archimedes one...

Anyway, good review.
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bloomer posted July 30, 2010:

> Don't even attempt to deal with the wireframe space stations. In theory it's possible to dock
> manually, but I have yet to succeed in two decades of play. Far safer to use the docking computer

Heh, I didn't even know there was a docking computer. As I recall, my experience of Elite on the Apple II was of being awed by looking at this spinning dodecahedron wireframe space station in front of me, and just crashing into it as I tried to enter it. Many times.

I don't think I ever traded anything or went to another galaxy... of course it was a pirated copy and I had no instructions, and this was a game I'd consider impossible to work out without instructions or guidance.

In light of my own experience, this is the first review I read of this game to gel with it. Usually I just feel like an idiot as I read these reviews about people roaming the universe, etc.
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JANUS2 posted July 31, 2010:

Actually that sums up my experience of Elite too.
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SamildanachEmrys posted July 31, 2010:

Thanks for the feedback. I do have some fond memories of Elite - at the time, it was unlike anything I'd ever played. Sadly it was that (relative) uniqueness, rather than actual fun, that made it appealing.

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