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MSX Elite

May 13, 2024

We hope you die a horribly long lingering death at the hands of a slimey green lobstoid if you’re not blown to bits by our sun

The above text is from the game Elite, by David Braben and Ian Bell, more precisely from the MSX disk version of the game. Elite was originally an 8 bit wireframe 3D-game, the earliest predecessor of Elite:Dangerous, a game I also enjoyed, but that is for another time. “Wireframe” in this context means that the surfaces of the 3D-objects in the game are not filled in, but rather only outlined, like in the screenshot below. Through the viewport of the player’s spaceship, four more ships are visible: a Krait, a Mamba, a Wolf, and an Asp Mk. II. You can clearly see the shapes of the ships, but not their colouring or textures.

Elite cockpit

Anyone who has played Elite:Dangerous will instantly recognise the scanner in the middle of the console below the window, indicating the position of each ship, relative to the player’s.

Elite was originally created for the BBC Micro, but subsequently ported to several platforms, such as Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64, the Apple II and 16 bit machines such as the Atari ST, Amiga, and PC. All these versions differed in their ships, missions, and other game elements. The MSX version of Elite was programmed by Rob Nicholson of Mr. Micro and released by Firebird in 1987, who also programmed the Atari ST and Amiga versions. Although the MSX2 standard was already a year old then, the game was made for the first generation of MSX computers. It came in two versions, a tape version and a disk version, which also had different ships.

The box and the manuals that came with the disk version were actually for other versions. Through the sticker reading “MSX” that was on the box, “ZX Spectrum 48K” could be read easily.

Elite MSX sticker

The manual mentions a ship called “Fer-de-Lance”, which is in the tape version of MSX Elite, but not in the disk version of the game, and omits many that are. The screenshots do no correspond either. The one on the back of the box is in black, white and pink, further betraying that the box was created for the ZX Spectrum version. The MSX Elite version uses 16 colours.

Elite box back

The box contained the disk, a manual, and a novel called “The Dark Wheel”, written by David Holstock, to get the player into the atmosphere of the game. For me, as a kid in the eighties, it worked. The game has a clock that betrays one's total playing time. When I finally made Elite, it said 8 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes.

For those who never played any of its successors or variants, Elite is an open-ended space game. The player starts out with a badly outfitted ship and a hundred credits in a relatively safe but not very lucrative solar system. There is no set goal but to attain the rank of Elite. To get there, one needs to slaughter ships, about 22,673 of them, at least in the MSX version of the game. Indeed, this must be one of the bloodiest games I’ve ever played. And whether those are hostile aliens, pirates, other traders or even police ships, the game doesn’t care.

To play effectively, the ship needs upgrades, such as more powerful lasers, cargo bay extensions, anti-missile systems and laser cooling boosters. Most of these can be bought at stations, but some can only be obtained by performing missions. To make money, the player can trade, which means flying between two systems and buying merchandise for a lower price than selling them. Trading is easy. Agricultural economies export food and textiles, highly advanced worlds export computers. The more valuable the merchandise, the higher the margins. Moreover, beating pirate ships is awarded with bonus credits and points towards your elite ranking.

Universe

Elite’s universe is pretty straightforward. There are eight galaxies with 200 solar systems each. Every solar system consists of one star and one planet. Near the planet is always a space station. The station is where the player buys their merchandise (and missiles) and sells whatever’s in their cargo hold. Ships that are blown up often leave canisters behind for the player to pick up, so leaving a bit of room in a cargo hold is usually a good idea. To jump between systems, ships require a hyperdrive, which spends fuel. Fuel can be bought at stations, but a fuel scoop allows scooping it up for free by grazing a star while simultaneously making sure not to burn up. To jump from one galaxy to the next (or from the last one to the first one again), a special galactic hyperdrive is needed, which can only be used once and which is a bit harder to come by than other equipment.

The mechanism which allowed these limited platforms to consistently contain data about eight times 200 solar systems, each with a name, a position within its galaxy, an economy type, a tech level and other attributes, is called procedural generation. The game retains a fixed number called a seed, from which all other numbers are calculated using a simple formula. For example, a sentence, like the one in pink in the picture below, can be formed by having the resulting numbers select words like “cursed” and “lobstoids” from a list. The other attributes work the same way.

Planet data screen

Anarchies are replete with pirate activity, well worth the risk

Sidenote: In the lore of Elite:Dangerous, the original game is mentioned as being in that game’s past. I find that odd. The original Elite has galactic hyperdrives, all kinds of aliens roam about and trade with the player, and Earth is nowhere to be seen. Pilots in Elite:Dangerous cannot leave the Milky Way, the only aliens are the extinct Guardians and the Thargoids, and humankind is still firmly fixed on and around Earth. I’d say the original game is in the deep future, long after the events of Elite:Dangerous. Then again, the build dates of the ships, as mentioned in the manual, state that most of them are to be built in the early 3000s, which is three centuries before the Elite:Dangerous timeline starts. End of sidenote.

Hostiles

During their travels, the pilot will, of course, encounter all kinds of dangers, the most frequent being pirates. Depending on how safe the system is, these will come solo or in waves of quartets and quintets, which significantly slows the game down until one or more attackers are destroyed. Hyperjumping away could provide an escape, but there is a ten-second countdown. Since the ships in each pirate group always come similarly armed, it is always best to destroy the lightest ships first, also because the larger ones carry freight that can be more easily picked up when undisturbed by as-yet-unslain pirates. Unlike in other versions of Elite, most notably the Acorn Archimedes version, the player is the centre of the universe. Pirates, even those of different groups, leave each other alone while focussing solely on the player.

The other, rather grave, danger is formed by Thargoids. These aliens fly large hexagonal ships which are slow to turn but all but impervious to missiles and need a lot of firepower to beat. They also launch lots of Thargons, small heavily armed drones that keep attacking the player even when on the run. With some skill though, these Thargons can be picked up like cargo canisters and sold for a handsome price at the nearest station.

Thargoids sometimes enter regular space, but more often they are encountered in hyperspace. Right after a jump, the player is notified of a drive malfunction, after which the objects in the universe become blue. The player has entered witch space, and it appears the only objects there are Thargoids. The engine will repair itself, but that takes time, during which the player needs to survive the swarm of alien ships. There is, however, another object in hyperspace. Since the big Thargoid ships aren't very fast, it is possible to go and look for it.

The blue planet

The mysterious world in hyperspace

The game will let the player know when the ship’s hyperdrive is repaired, after which they can set a hyperspace destination within fuel range and jump to (relative) safety. Of course, the jump is preceded by the usual ten second count down.

Missions

Five times during the game, the MSX Elite pilot is asked to do a mission. They are always announced when the player docks at a station. The first time, it mentions a prototype of a naval ship has been stolen. The player has to find it and destroy it. First, they need to follow the directions given to them after landing at each station they visit. This goes on for a while, after this instruction will follow: “There is a nasty and hostile ship here.” After taking off, the player will be attacked by a Constrictor, the prototype of the ship in question. When successful, a bounty is paid.

The second mission will provide the player with a naval energy unit, which will greatly enhance their ship’s lasers. For this, they need to transport Thargoid battleship blueprints to another station. Despite reassurances to the contrary, the pilot will meet heavy Thargoid resistance. For the third mission, the player already needs to have a galactic hyperdrive. They are told the local sun will go supernova, so the station’s inhabitants have to be evacuated. Payment is 50 Kg worth of jewels. Like any mission, the player can, of course, decide not to bother, in which case an insult follows, like for this particular mission, the one cited above.

The fourth mission is more of a special event than a mission. After exiting of hyperspace, the pilot will be attacked by a ship identifying as a Cougar. The Cougar is equipped with a cloaking device that makes it invisible to both the player’s eyes and their radar. After destroying, pick up the container it leaves behind. It contains the cloaking device.

Two groups of pirates attacking

Two pirate groups of four each, rapidly depleting front shields and only three missiles left

The cloaking device is a bit odd. When switching it on, one would expect enemies to keep firing on the pilot’s last known location, at least until they stop hitting anything. Then, as soon as the player starts firing, they would again know the location of their target. Instead, when the cloaking device is on, all enemies instantly stop firing, even if the player fires at them. Using the cloaking device costs a lot of energy, which adds a limit to its usage.

Sidenote 2: cloaking devices are often misused in science fiction. When a ship is cloaked, it is invisible, which means it lets through all light from behind. This means that this light is not entering the cloaked ship, which means that cloaked ships must be blind. This would be a fantastic story element since it greatly disadvantages any cloaked ship, but it is always missed.

The fifth and last mission takes place when a system has been invaded by Thargoids. They’re using a space station as their base. The player has to fight their way through an entire Thargoid fleet and destroy the station. Payment is an ECM jammer, a device that stops enemy anti-missile systems from destroying their missiles. A very useful device that also works with Thargoids. When combined with a cloaking device, the ship’s energy reserves are used up rapidly.

Grind

When the missions are over, the player has a very nicely outfitted ship, and they need it because obtaining the rank of Elite is only for the very patient, especially in the MSX version. The player’s Elite rating depends on the points they get for each kill. On average, a kill in MSX Elite earns 74 points. The table below shows the number of points at which ranks are awarded. The figures for the other platforms, are significantly lower, but largely follow the ratios of MSX Elite.

RankScoreWhich isZX, BBC, C64, Apple II kills
Harmless0Start0
Mostly harmless2,00025 to 30 kills8
Poor4,0002 × Mostly harmless, ~55 kills16
Average8,192213, ~113 kills32
Above average16,3842 × Average, ~227 kills64
Competent32,7682 × Above Average, ~453 kills128
Dangerous131,0724 × Competent, ~1,814 kills512
Deadly655,36010 x 216, ~9,096 kills2,560
Elite1,638,4002.5 × Deadly, ~22,673 kills6,400

It appeared that each platform’s version was made by someone else, and that they all tried to improve on the original. Anyway, there is quite a bit of grind to this game. Trading is mostly interesting at the start of the game, but when the player has enough money to replace any destroyed equipment, bounty hunting is basically all that’s left. Especially after all missions are completed, apart from different enemy ships and the occasional mis-jump, there is no variation to the game any more. Of course, you can pick a fight with the vipers for a change, but it always takes both a lot of tenacity and a lot of time to slowly crawl towards the rank of Elite.

Promotion notice

Commander ACE is an ELITE pilot with a rather questionable legal status.

Concluding

I had a lot of fun playing this game. Despite the crude graphics, there is an atmosphere to this game that spoke to me as a kid, and it was the only game that felt like I was flying a spaceship. The game is difficult and slow at first, before a docking computer can be bought. Once the equipment is there, you still need to learn tactics to be able to beat a group of four or five heavily armed pirate ships. Despite the grind, I loved this game and still have fond memories of it.

Categories: retro-gaming

Tags: msx, 3D

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