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Elite in-game screen
Elite - the classic space strategic shoot-em-up

  • Release year: 1985
  • Publisher: Firebird
  • Author: Torus
  • ZXDB archive entry at Spectrum Computing


The first time I played this acclaimed invention of David Braben and Ian Bell was on a friend's BBC computer. I had a very brief go at the time, but anyone who's played it knows it's not a pick-up-and-play sort of game. It wasn't until the Torus-sourced Speccy version appeared that I finally got to play it properly.

Prior to its Speccy release, we were treated to a fantastic series of ad teasers in the main magazines at the time:

Elite magazine advert Elite magazine advert Elite magazine advert Elite magazine advert
Inventive marketing from Firebird

The game was surely the most expansive 'open world' game I'd played on the Spectrum. You can play it in different ways - trade in legal goods and keep your nose clean, fighting only in self-defence, or act like a space pirate, trading in illicit goods and attacking ships indiscriminately.

However, the main goal for the player - directly linked with your space combat prowess - is to attain the rank of Elite.

The game

Elite in-game screen
A non-hostile Python craft drifts by on the port side

There are two basic gameplay elements to Elite. Firstly, space combat (the reason I've classed Elite as 'arcade' rather than 'strategy'). Flying around in open 3D space, locked in battle with other craft. This forms most of the game.

The second part is trading between planets - buying low, selling high. With your space credit profits you can fund upgrades for your ship.

After loading up on goods, the player travels to a nearby planet by hyperspacing between systems. Instead of landing on the planet they need to fly their craft to an orbiting, rotating space station. As every Elite player will know, this is the first serious challenge in the game - docking.

Elite in-game screen - docking with a space station
Getting your ship through the rotating letterbox-like space station door is tough at first

In Elite you only get one life. Fly into the space station at the wrong angle and it's an instant game over. Most players will recommend practicing docking a bit - there's also a trick where you can hyperspace directly between space stations, but you're only cheating yourself by doing that.

It doesn't take long before you can afford a docking computer which shortens your trading trips by letting you dock at the press of a button once you're in range.

Elite in-game screen - galaxy chart
With eight galaxies, each containing 250+ planets, the Elite universe is pretty big

There are various ship upgrades available, such as a military laser, which increases your firepower; in fact you can affix lasers on all sides of your craft if you like (though I never figured out the point of left and right lasers). An ECM system neutralizes incoming missiles, and an energy bomb destroys everything in the vicinity.

Elite in-game screen - your ship upgrades
There are plenty of options for pimping up your Cobra Mk III. No rear spoilers though.

Purchasing a galactic hyperspace unit lets you switch to a different galaxy. Occasionally a special mission will occur, such as the rescue of space station inhabitants in a system where the sun is going supernova.

Elite in-game screen - sun going supernova
Once you leave the space station you've got a matter of seconds to hyperspace outta there before you get caught in the nova shenanigans

Of course, Elite is mostly about the space combat. You'll need to have fought and defeated a LOT of other ships to attain the rank of ELITE. And I have to admit, I haven't got there yet.

It doesn't take too long to get reasonably proficient at space combat; I only really struggled in situations where ships are firing from all sides, or when I had to deal with the alien Thargoid (flying saucer-style) ships, that release baby Thargon craft to cause you even more hassle.

Aside the ECM (missile jammer), you can get an improved energy unit, which helps slightly. But there are no shield or other defensive upgrades, meaning success ultimately boils down to player skill.

Elite - trading goods
Buy low, sell high..! Prices are linked closely with the planet's economy types, but can fluctuate

There are other game activities you can engage in as well as trading. Want to get hold of some free minerals to sell? Stick a mining laser on your ship and shoot a few asteroids. Want some free fuel? Use your fuel scoops to skim a nearby sun to top up (but watch your core temp). Fancy a bit of excitement? Try firing on a space station and see if you can survive the local police response.

Alongside the game release itself came a nice package of additional materials. The fantastically detailed Flight Training Manual, the craft identification poster and the intriguing novella, The Dark Wheel by Robert Holdstock, based around the game itself, set you up for the Elite experience.

Elite box contents - small
Phwoar..! Look at all those extras you get - click image for a larger pic

Anyone who owns/owned the game will recognise that dreaded little plastic protection device, LENSLOK. Along with many others I struggled to get it to work consistently.

Elite Lenslok protection
Yeeeaaahhh, that's probably not gonna work on a laptop screen, even if I'd done the horizontal sizing properly. Which I didn't


As you can probably tell, I think Elite is ace. When I revisited it to write this feature I ended up playing it for absolutely ages (we're talking days, not just hours). And I'm going to continue to do so - in fact as of now, I'm putting attaining the rank of Elite on my bucket list.

Elite planet information
Each one of the thousands of planets has its own personality... With Bireer it's all about the 'hoopy night life'

OK, let's at least try to find a flaw or two... Well, I suppose there's not much in the way of sound FX. Sometimes frame rate slows when there are a lot of ships on screen. One other minor criticism I could level at this game is that it's quite easy to acquire all possible ship upgrades very quickly. Well, aside a hidden extra you can get during one of the in-game 'quest' events.

Although this stops you getting overpowered, and thus still reliant on your piloting skills for survival, for me it removed a bit of enthusiasm for continuing to amass credits via trading. Your ship add-ons can get damaged in your dogfights, but replacing them is quite cheap. An ultra-expensive extra or two while you're chugging through Dangerous or Deadly ranks might have given the grind-for-credits gameplay a bit more attraction.

Having said that, Elite is still a fantastic game. And the magazines agreed. Crash unsurprisingly gave it a Smash in their review, with a score of 92%.

Crash magazine review of Elite
"A first class, absorbing game" say Crash. And the "Use of computer" rating is so off the scale it's disappeared...

Similarly, the Sinclair User review awarded the game 5/5 and 'Classic' status, saying in summary "You are unlikely to find another space game of Elite's calibre this year".

...Many Speccy games players I've spoken to seem put Elite into either "it's a classic!" or "never really played it for some reason" buckets. For those of you in the latter - it's never too late!