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The Dark Wheel

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Title: The Dark Wheel  
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Subject: Oolite (video game), Robert Holdstock
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The Dark Wheel

File:Elite org cover.jpg
Cover art for Firebird releases of Elite
Developer(s) David Braben and Ian Bell
Publisher(s) Acornsoft (Acorn/BBC)
Firebird (ports)
Designer(s) David Braben and Ian Bell
Platform(s) BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Apple II, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein, IBM PC compatible, Acorn Archimedes, Amiga, Atari ST, Nintendo Entertainment System
Release date(s) 20 September 1984
Genre(s) Space trading and combat simulator
Mode(s) Single player
Distribution Cassette, Floppy disk, Cartridge

Elite is a seminal space trading video game, originally published by Acornsoft in 1984 for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers. The game's title derives from one of the player's goals of raising their combat rating to the exalted heights of "Elite". It was written and developed by David Braben and Ian Bell, who had met while they were both undergraduates at Jesus College, Cambridge. Non-Acorn versions of the game were published by Firebird, Imagineer and Hybrid Technology.

Elite was one of the first home computer games to use wire-frame 3D graphics with hidden line removal. Another novelty was the inclusion of The Dark Wheel, a novella by Robert Holdstock which influenced new players with insight into the moral and legal codes to which they might aspire.

Elite's open-ended game model, advanced game engine and revolutionary 3D graphics ensured that it was ported to virtually every contemporary home computer system, and earned it a place as a classic and a genre maker in gaming history.[1] Elite was a hugely influential game, serving as a model for more recent games such as Space Rogue, Eve Online, Freelancer, Jumpgate, Infinity: The Quest for Earth, Wing Commander: Privateer, Pardus, the Escape Velocity series and the X series of space trading games.

Influences, development and launch

According to Braben and Bell, Elite was inspired by a range of sources. The developers cite 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the original Battlestar Galactica as influences. Braben also cites the works of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert L. Forward, Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card as influences.[2] It was thought that much of the game's content was derived from the Traveller tabletop role-playing game, including the default commander name Jameson,[3] but this has been denied by David Braben in a Reddit AMA.[4]

When the developers met at Jesus College, Cambridge, Bell was already working on a game for Acornsoft called Freefall. Braben had started writing a game called Fighter, but he had not yet completed it. The two projects were sufficiently similar that Braben and Bell compared notes, and after seeing Star Raiders on the Atari 800 they decided to collaborate to produce what eventually became Elite. The project was initially offered to Thorn EMI, with whom Braben already had a contract, but it was rejected. The developers went to Acornsoft instead; although a project such as Elite was very different from the company's usual fare, Acornsoft's managing director David Johnson-Davies agreed to publish it.

The game took two years to write and was written in Assembly language, allowing much tighter control of memory usage than using a compiler, as their computer had only about 14 kilobytes of memory.[5] Much care was given to maximum compactness of code. The last part added was the 3D radar display fitted into the last few unused bytes in their computer.[5]

Elite received very good reviews on its launch and sales of the BBC Micro version eventually reached 150,000 sold copies.[6][disputed ]The game's popularity became a national phenomenon in the UK, with reports airing on Channel 4 and elsewhere.[7] The great commercial success of the BBC Micro version prompted a bidding war for the rights to publish Elite in other formats, with British Telecom's software arm, Telecomsoft, eventually winning the rights.[6][disputed ] It was eventually ported to virtually every contemporary home computer system and even to the NES console. Bell estimates that approximately 600,000 copies were eventually sold for all platforms combined.[7]

In 1999/2000, a dispute occurred between Ian Bell and David Braben regarding the former's decision to make available all versions of the original Elite. The dispute has now ended; the various versions are available on Bell's site. The two Frontier games are available for download from Braben's Elite Club website.


Elite has often been treated as the yardstick by which subsequent space trading games have been measured. However, it was not the first such game; the genre-defining Star Trader had been written as long ago as 1974. The space trading genre combines space-borne combat with a "buy low, sell high" freight transport system and the ability to use the profits to purchase ship upgrades.

The player, initially controlling the character "Commander Jameson", starts at Lave Station with 100 credits and a lightly armed trading ship, a Cobra Mark III. Most of the ships that the player encounters are similarly named after snakes, or other reptiles. Credits can be accumulated through a number of means. These include piracy, trade, military missions, bounty hunting and asteroid mining. The money generated by these enterprises allows players to upgrade their ships with such enhancements as better weapons, increased cargo capacity, an automated docking system, and more.

Instead of complex planetary systems, stars have single planets separated by interstellar distances and each planet has one space station in its orbit. Travel between planets is constrained to those within range of the ship's limited fuel capacity (7 light years) and fuel can be replenished after docking with a space station in orbit around a planet which is a challenging task without a docking computer, as it requires matching the ship's rotation to that of the station. Players can upgrade their equipment with a fuel scoop, which allows raw fuel to be skimmed from the surface of stars—being described by the manual as "a dangerous and difficult activity", but in reality a simple process—and collecting free-floating cargo canisters and escape capsules liberated after the destruction of other ships. While making a hyperspace jump the antagonistic Thargoid race may intercept the player, forcing his ship to remain in "witch-space" to do battle with their smaller invasion ships.

An extremely expensive one-shot galactic hyperspace upgrade permits travel between the eight galaxies of the game universe. There is little practical difference between the different galaxies. However in some versions it is necessary to travel to at least the second galaxy in order to access the missions.

The game includes several optional missions for the Galactic Navy. One requires tracking down and destroying a stolen experimental ship; the other involves transporting classified information on the Thargoids' home planet, with Thargoid invasion ships doing their best to see that you do not succeed.

Technical innovations

The Elite universe contains eight galaxies, each galaxy containing 256 planets to explore. Due to the limited capabilities of 8-bit computers, these worlds are procedurally generated. A single seed number is run through a fixed algorithm the appropriate number of times and creates a sequence of numbers determining each planet's complete composition (position in the galaxy, prices of commodities, and even name and local details— text strings are chosen numerically from a lookup table and assembled to produce unique descriptions for each planet). This means that no extra memory is needed to store the characteristics of each planet, yet each is unique and has fixed properties. Each galaxy is also procedurally generated from the first.

However, the use of procedural generation created a few problems. There are a number of poorly located systems that can be reached only by galactic hyperspace— these are more than 7 light years from their nearest neighbour, thus trapping the traveller. Braben and Bell also checked that none of the system names were profane - removing an entire galaxy after finding a planet named "Arse".[8]

The original BBC Micro disk version used a non-standard disk-format to stop disk-to-disk copying. This relied on specific OSWORD &7F DFS opcodes in the Intel 8271 Disk Controller to directly access the disk, and produce a non-standard sector/track-layout. This, however, also caused issues for legitimate customers that were using the Western-Digital 1770 Disk-controller (DFS) ROMs from third-party manufacturers such as Watford Electronics. Acorn subsequently released alternative versions of the BBC disks that were compatible with the WD1770. This BBC Disk-copy-protection was subsequently used by Superior Software in their 'Exile' game.[9]

In addition to this, the code also included self-modifying code as part of the protection system, created by Rob Northen.[10]


Originally there were 3 versions of Elite released: Acorn Electron Tape, BBC B Tape and BBC B Disk. The BBC version used a split screen to show four colours; the upper two thirds of the screen were displayed in Mode 4 while the lower part was in Mode 5. The Electron version ran entirely in Mode 4, and therefore displayed only black and white. The Electron's limitations meant several game features were cut including Thargoids and suns. Neither the BBC nor the Electron tape versions featured missions. Additionally, the original tape version for the Electron contained a bug that stopped Galactic Hyperspace from working. Acorn provided a mail-in tape-replacement service to upgrade to v1.1 (marked as such on the tape label) that fixed this bug. The BBC B Disk version, referred to as Classic Elite, would load a new set of ships after every hyperspace jump or space station launch, meaning a larger number of ships were available. A new disc version released by Superior Software in 1986 was enhanced to take advantage of the BBC Micro Model B's successors including the BBC Micro Model B+, Master 128 computers, the optional 6502 Second Processor or sideways RAM, if they were fitted. In this case, the game used Modes 1 and 2 to make more colours available.

Elite was converted to a wide range of home computer platforms, including the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein and IBM PC compatible. The only console version was released in 1991 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Some of the versions had slightly altered gameplay or other characteristics, such as the number of missions offered to the player.

The ZX Spectrum version was a bestseller in the Gallup charts[11] and was voted number 7 in the Your Sinclair Readers' Top 100 Games of All Time.[12]

The Amstrad CPC conversion (itself a port of the ZX version) has fewer ships than other platforms, lacking the Anaconda and Transport, along with some minor differences in missions and titles.

The Commodore 64 conversion introduced Trumbles (creatures based on the tribbles in Star Trek: The Original Series). When the docking computer is activated in the Commodore 64 version and some other versions, a musical rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz is played, as a nod to a space docking sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This music was arranged by David Dunn.

Some versions feature a new title, "Archangel", for the player to earn that substitutes the rank of Commander. Archangel is reached by undertaking a special mission to destroy a space station in a system invaded by the Thargoids. The player's reward for completing the mission is to receive the title Archangel and obtain a device that is capable of emulating anti-ECM broadcast

The Acorn Archimedes version, ArcElite, (written by Warren Burch & Clive Gringras and regarded by some as the best conversion of the original game)[13] added intelligent opponents who engage in their own private battles and police who take an active interest in protecting the law. As well as such gameplay enhancements, the version also exploited the more modern hardware by using polygon mesh graphics in place of the wire-frames. The game world no longer seems to be centered around the player; freighter fleets with escorts go about their own business, pirate formations patrol lawless systems looking for cargo to loot and mining ships can often be found breaking up asteroids for their mineral content. Unlike the mythical Generation Ships of the original, rare occurrences of other non-pirate entities mentioned in the manual really can be found in the Archimedes version: geometric formations of space beacons; hermits living among the asteroids; abandoned ships towed by police (although Dredgers and Generation Ships are confirmed not to exist in Archimedes Elite).[14] The Archimedes version of Elite was originally written to be a space trading game called Trojan - however the obvious similarities eventually meant that to avoid a potential lawsuit Trojan had to become an official Elite conversion.[15] ArcElite was one of a number of games released for free by The Icon Bar website in 2006.[16]

Many attempts to develop clones of Elite have been made, but most have been abandoned before completion or have otherwise failed to come to fruition. The open source Oolite is a notable exception. Elite: The New Kind, was developed by Christian Pinder by reverse-engineering the original BBC Micro version of Elite, but was withdrawn from the main distribution at David Braben's request.[17]

Elite Plus was released for DOS in 1991. Whereas the original Elite for the PC used CGA graphics, Elite Plus was upgraded to take advantage of EGA, VGA and MCGA. It was coded entirely in assembly language by Chris Sawyer, who later wrote RollerCoaster Tycoon.[18] Elite Plus had a ninth galaxy that can only be reached by hyperspacing into Witch Space. Elite Plus was published by Microplay Software.

A variant of the original BBC Micro Elite with many extra features, originally titled Elite III but now known as Elite A to minimize confusion, was created by Angus Duggan in the late 1980s by disassembling and modifying the 6502 code from the commercial release. It includes many more ship types, more ship types flyable by the player (who begins in the less capable Adder), cargo delivery missions, some extra equipment items and numerous gameplay improvements. Elite A was released publicly in 1997. Like the original game, it can be downloaded free from Ian Bell's web site and played under emulation.

In 2004, a commercial product called Elite Starfighter was released in Germany. Starfighter is an Elite clone that features modern graphics. Since it duplicates the original gameplay, it has been criticized as being somewhat dull by today's standards, but it is recommended to Elite enthusiasts who might consider taking a look.[19]

Packaging and marketing

The Dark Wheel
Acornsoft cover
Author Robert Holdstock
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Publisher Acornsoft, Firebird Software
Publication date 1984
Media type Paperback

Acornsoft set in motion a large-scale publicity campaign and commissioned a presentational package for the game that was far more elaborate than normal. Acornsoft packaged Elite in a box larger than their usual releases, complete with a novella by Robert Holdstock called The Dark Wheel, Space Trader's Flight Training Manual, reference card and a ship identification poster.

The Dark Wheel was the first novella to be included for distribution with a video game.[20] The story tells of a young pilot, Alex Ryder, whose father Jason is killed when their merchant ship is attacked by a notorious pirate. In trying to understand and avenge his father's death and achieve an "iron ass", Alex encounters the basics of the Elite universe - including combat, hyperdrive and hyperspace, the Thargoid - and discovers the truth about his father and his combat rank. He also learns who the "Dark Wheel" are and what it takes to join their ranks.[21] The original Acornsoft version promised on its back cover that "[a] sequel to the novella is planned for publication in 1985", but no direct sequel was ever written. A second novella, Imprint by Andy Redman, was included with the IBM PC release of Elite Plus, but despite being set in the same universe it is in no way connected to the original story.

Marketing activities included a launch party at the Thorpe Park theme park (holding such an event for a video game was almost unheard of at the time) and a competition to be among the first to achieve the status of "Elite."[6][disputed ]


Elite is credited as being the breakthrough title that defined the modern space flight simulation genre,[22][23][24][25][26] as well as being influential upon gaming as a whole.[23][24][27][28] It was named one of the most influential games in history,[29] and has been credited as being the first truly open-ended game[30][31] and opening the door for future online persistent worlds such as Second Life, World of Warcraft[32] and EVE Online.[33] Elite is one of the most popularly requested games to be remade,[34] with some arguing that it is still the best example of the genre to date, with more recent titles—including its sequel—not rising up to the same level.[23][24][35][36]

Elite was ranked #14 top game of all time by Next Generation in 1996,[37] #12 on IGN's 2000 "Top 25 PC Games of All Time" list,[38] the #3 most influential video game ever by the Times Online in 2007,[32] #6 "Greatest Game" by Stuff magazine in 2008,[39] #1 "Top Retro Game" by Retro Gamer in 2004,[40] and #1 "best game of the 1980s" by Next Generation Magazine in 2008.[22] The game was retrospectively awarded 10/10 by the multi-format magazine Edge—together with only 2 other games— and is being exhibited at such places as the London Science Museum in the "Game On" exhibition organized and toured by the Barbican Art Gallery.[41] In 1984 Elite received the Golden Joystick Award for "Best Original Game".[42] In 1985 the game was awarded the "Best Game Overall" for that year by readers of Crash magazine,[43] and "Game of the Year" by Computer Gamer.[44] Elite's sequel, Frontier: Elite II, was named #77 on PC Zone's "101 Best PC Games Ever" list in 2007.[45] Elite is listed in Game On! From Pong to Oblivion: The 50 Greatest Video games of All Time (ISBN 0755315707) by authors Simon Byron, Ste Curran and David McCarthy.[46] In his review of the game for Beebug Magazine in 1984, reviewer David Fell called Elite "the best game ever" for the BBC Micro.[47]

The game was a significant source of inspiration for later games in its genre.[48][49][50][51] In interviews, the senior producers of CCP Games have cited Elite as one of the inspirations for their acclaimed MMORPG, Eve Online.[52] Thorolfur Beck in particular has said that Elite was the game that impacted him most on the Commodore 64, and that it was the prime motivator behind Eve Online.[26] The developers of Jumpgate Evolution, Battlecruiser 3000AD, Infinity: The Quest for Earth, Hard Truck: Apocalyptic Wars and Flatspace have likewise all credited Elite as a source of inspiration.[25][53][54][55][56] Similar praise has been bestowed elsewhere in the media over the years.[57][58][59][60][61]


Two official sequels have been created: Frontier: Elite II (1993) and Frontier: First Encounters (1995), both produced by Braben's company Frontier Developments. A third sequel, Elite: Dangerous, was crowdfunded through a Kickstarter campaign, after languishing since 1998 under the title Elite 4.[62][63]

Bell had limited involvement in the first sequel, and was not involved in the production of the second. Both games were a considerable advance on the original Elite, with filled 3D graphics, missions and a complex economy. This time, the player was not confined to orbit but could land on and explore or mine planets. The number of flyable ships was greatly increased, and a new political backstory was introduced enabling the player to gain ranks in competing interstellar empires. The games appeared on the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PC.

Both existing sequels were significantly flawed in a number of respects. Both games had many bugs, First Encounters in particular, due apparently to being published in an incomplete state, and First Encounters had to be extensively patched; this became the subject of a three-year lawsuit between the publisher — GameTek — and Braben.

The existing sequels employed a realistic flight model based on Newtonian mechanics rather than the original arcade-style engine. While this was more realistic, many players also found it frustratingly difficult, particularly in combat. Most space trading games since Elite have stuck to an arcade-style flight model, in which the ships behave as though they are flying in an atmosphere.

Elite: Dangerous promises to add a multiplayer option and to extend the use of procedural generation - perhaps allowing players to fly down into a unique cloudscape for every planet of every size in a galaxy containing billions of stars.[64][65]

See also


External links

  • Ian Bell
  • Frontier's Elite Website
  • MobyGames
  • World of Spectrum
  • Gamasutra's by Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
  • Masters of their universe - an excerpt from Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of The British Boffin, by Francis Spufford.
  • GDC presentation David Braben
  • David Braben
Preceded by
The Way of the Exploding Fist
UK number-one Spectrum game
February 1986
Succeeded by
Winter Games
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