Firebird's Elite: A Look Back at the Greatest Game Ever Made

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Matt Barton's picture

Firebird's Elite, released in 1984 for British computers and quickly ported to the major platforms of the day--is the greatest videogame ever made. It is to videogames what the movie Citizen Kane is to film--a Mozart standing boldly against the Saliere's of his day. It was one of those rare games that was able to accomplish two feats simultaneously: One, introducing a new kind of game that would last, and two, doing so well enough to itself remain a classic of that genre. Whenever we get frustrated with game shelves laden with "me-too" games and sequels of sequels, it's useful to go back to such games as Elite and ponder what made them so great. For Elite, that greatness stems from its staggering vision; an arrogance matched only by the genius of its coders, who were able to deliver where lesser developers cried "impossible."

Most games that establish a new genre are themselves quickly supplanted by derivative games from other companies. A groundbreaking title may be celebrated, but it's really more of interest to developers rather than mainstream gamers. These other developers see the potential of the new genre and are quickly able to bring it to fruition. How many times have we seen the cycle? A small company releases a "concept" game; it gets glowing reviews from critics; it doesn't sell. Meanwhile, bigger developers take the idea and run with it, turning it into a multi-million dollar juggernaut.

What was the first platform game? That's an interesting historical question. The game everyone knows about is Super Mario Bros., the game that really demonstrated the possibilities of the genre. Yet, when it comes to the space trading sim, the name "Elite" is never far from the discussion. After Elite, the only thing left for other companies (and sequels) was to improve the graphics and other frills. The core of the game was perfect; a brilliant diamond now passed from jeweler to jeweler, who dares not cut it--laboring only to forge a more dazzling band to bring out the beauty of that stone. Who plays Space Invaders? It's Galaga that has remained viable, still selling in big numbers despite its "obsolescence."

Yet, when it comes down to listing the greatest games ever made--those masterpieces of the genre that will outlive us--a seasoned critic must ignore such questionable evidence as sales figures and advertising budgets. She must also adopt a more mature attitude towards graphics and technological "limitations," seeing older games not in terms of "obsolete" but rather as part of a different "era" or "style" of computer game aesthetics, much like an art critic doesn't judge every piece based on its adherence to the principles of realism. No, a good game critic will judge great works from some plateau far above the millings and mewings of the marketplace, as well as the cooings of nostalgic-ridden curmudgeons who refuse to acknowledge the promise of contemporary works.

First, though, for those totally unfamiliar with the game, let me try to sum it up briefly. You start the game as a humble merchant trader, somewhat in the position of a 15th century sea trader--there are fortunes to be made, distant civilizations to encounter, and sums of unimaginable wealth to procure. However, the stakes are high. Pirates wait to destroy your ship and steal its cargo. Just docking your ship can be an extreme challenge; you'll need skills at the helm even in "safe" territories. But you'll also need a head for business--and a willingess to take risks. In short, you will be making thousands of decisions, including how you want to play the game. Do you want to become a pirate yourself, preying upon ships and trading only with pirate stations? Or would you mine the asteroids for untold mineral wealth? Perhaps you style yourself a bounty hunter? Or a glorious merchant marine? Elite doesn't tell you how to play. It just gives you the toys. The rest is up to you.

Let's look then at what makes Elite such a masterpiece.

If there's one thing you can say about Elite, it's that its designers were thinking big. Very big.

If you were lucky enough to play Elite back in the mid 80s, you'll probably remember just how big this game felt. You literally had whole galaxies on a floppy disk, just waiting for your Cobra to make that hyperjump to them. There were suns and planets and moons, and an almost infinite expanse of unexplored territory.

Of course, to some extent, all this size is merely an illusion. It's becomes pretty obvious that the near infinite number of planets is achieved by algorithms. Planet names might be randomly generated, as are their types of governments, populations, and exports. It's a pattern familiar to folks who grew up playing games like ROGUE and HACK, "role-playing games" that traded linear storylines for replayability.

Nevertheless, Elite was able to convey a sense of traveling great distances better than any other game. I can't imagine how the first sailors must have felt when they drifted so far out to sea that they lost sight of land. David Bowie and Elton John have explored the sort of soul-destroying effect that deep space exploration might have on the human psyche; the utter loneliness that is always coupled with that unpleasant realization that Earth is actually a very very small (and ultimately insignificant) place. Elite does more than tell you about this experience; it puts you in that pilot's chair and blasts you into hyperspace. You become Major Tom or a dashing Rocketman; take your pick. Either way, it's nihilism of the best sort.

C-64 Elite: The opening screen of Elite for the C-64. Ah...Beautiful, isn't it?C-64 Elite: The opening screen of Elite for the C-64. Ah...Beautiful, isn't it?And isn't there something dire about being 13, just on the brink of grasping the full terror waiting for you at childhood's end? What a relief to find another universe on your 1541, a ship there waiting to take you out so far beyond girls who laugh and fathers who would be proud, would they knew the glory of their sons, the Elite.

Although ignorant critics unaware of our past may hail such games as Grand Theft Auto as some kind of revolution in open-ended gameplay, it is Elite, not GTA, that took gamers on that magic carpet ride. It's hard for most modern gamers and game developers to accept the simple fact that enjoying games asks of much of a player as it does the game. The best games are able to reach out to the player, helping her identify her dreams--then enabling her to reach them. The "open ended" game is one of the hardest to get right. If the game is "too open," it just seems directionless; empty and utterly pointless. A blank canvas is not a painting. No, a better game would not be "open" in the sense of pointless, but rather "open" in the sense of an open door--through which players walk to find the places they never knew they wanted to visit so badly.

A good example of what I'm talking about can be seen in J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the one hand, these are books with coherent characters, plot lines, and definite closure. However, only very boring people experience the books like that. No, the best readers will discover that their love of Tolkein only begins with the story Tolkein tells in those books; the true adventure begins when the reader puts himself in that world, imagining all the possibilities and living out his own dreams there. One of my friends once confided to me that, should he die and go to heaven, that heaven should be Middle Earth. In that world, he'd be able to realize the dreams and ambitions that were denied him on this Earth.

It's difficult, if not impossible, for the limited gamer to fully appreciate a game that enables, rather than provides, those dreams for the player. For these withered souls, a game is about accumulating points; mere numbers and statistics on some scoreboard in the sky. These are the type always looking for the "quick fix," the latest graphical infusion that might stun their dulled senses long enough to pulse their lumbering heart. They know nothing of glory. To enjoy a game like Elite, you must know something of what that word means, and how good it feels to achieve it.

Challenges and Ambitions
There are essentially two types of challenges in videogames: The kind that you care about overcoming, and the ones that serve merely to prolong a game or increase your sense of frustration. The challenges of Elite are fixedly in the first category.

BBC Elite: Yeah, it's going to be tough getting in there. Better get ready to call the Waaahmbulance.BBC Elite: Yeah, it's going to be tough getting in there. Better get ready to call the Waaahmbulance.Let's take the station docking procedure. For the Elite novice, it seems impossible. You must somehow guide your ship length-wise into the station's rectangular docking bay. Sound easy? Not so when you consider that the station is "spinning," or rather, you are, and everything is orbiting a planet. It's like trying to park a car in moving traffic. Undoubtedly, many gamers gave up right away, convinced (and they were right) that they simply lacked the intelligence to ever become an Elite.

Welcome to Newtonian Physics. It's A+ or die trying.

Yet, there were others who recognized in this docking procedure that the game was taking a chance on them. It was saying, "You can do this. Now go do it." That's a strange message to hear in an age where games say, "If you can't do this--here, let me do it for you." No, Elite would never do that. It's not the kind of game it was. It was the game that pushed you out of the nest, and, if you fell, you fell.

But if you flew, you soared.

The "trick," by the way, was to head away from the station and towards the planet. Then you could spin around, and with the right tilt, angle, and velocity, you could dock just perfectly. And, of course, after you'd managed to do it right several times (enough times to know you've got it), you could buy a docking computer could do it for you. But first, you had to prove yourself.

Likewise, the battles with pirates seemed hopeless at first. Your ship, a humble Cobra, was outgunned and outmanned in every sense. You begin the game with a "pulse laser," a slowly-firing weapon that does little damage against your enemies. It's not until much later in the game that you are finally able to afford the weaponry and defensive systems to survive these attacks--much less initiate them. Yet, even with the best equipment in the game, these battles do not suffer fools.

In many ways, Elite can be compared to the computer role playing game, particularly if we define them in terms of a leveling-up system. Elite's system is called "Rank," beginning with the Douglas-Adams inspired "Harmless" and "Mostly Harmless" and winding up to Elite. Though the game doesn't officially end when you reach "Elite," it's at that point when you begin to realize that you've won. You've picked yourself up from a barely noticeable (and likely to die) neophyte into a legendary space trader; the best of the best. You've reached a point when even those who most bedgrudge you must, at their pain, acknowledge your greatness.

And, as Sinatra sang it so well, you did it your way.

Concluding Thoughts
If you've never played Elite, I would like to see you try it. Perhaps my lofty rhetoric here has given you some desire to at least see the game. My advice would be to avoid the many sequels and contemporary versions and seek out one of the classic releases. I would recommend the version I grew up with: Elite for the Commodore 64. This version is also recommended (alongside the original BBC Elite) by David Braben, who co-wrote the game. Although it's technically illegal to download the game and play it on your C-64 emulator--don't feel bad about grabbing it from here if you so desire. You can thank our corrupt senators, representatives, and supreme court justices for making you into a criminal so you can enjoy this historically-vital game--but that's another story.

Vega Strike: Photorealism might appeal to some, but give the wire-frame an honest chance to grow on you.Vega Strike: Photorealism might appeal to some, but give the wire-frame an honest chance to grow on you.There have been countless sequels to Elite, and I'd be foolish to discredit all of them. The original version featured Wire-Frame graphics, which might strike some players as hopelessly inferior to modern fully-rendred and textured polygons. Whatever. If you simply must have a more photorealistic experience to enjoy the game, I would recommend Vega Strike. It's a free download (both in the sense of money and copyright), and it looks fantastic.

However, I argue that you lose a little something in the process. One of the advantages of the wire-frame version is that it allows you to do more of the "graphical" work yourself; what's seen on the screen is just the basic idea. It's up to you to fill in those polygons. While this might be taxing for some players, trust me--you'll get more out of the game if you'll exercise your brain a bit more and actually use your head for something other than a dandruff deposit.

In short, Elite was and remains a masterpiece because of its grand vision, bold ambitions, and utterly uncompromising emphasis on building the player's own competence. When you become an "Elite," you are, in fact, an Elite. There's no hand-holding here, no "training mode," no "EASY" difficulty slider to let you take that title without working and sweating for it. Likewise, there's no real story or characters grafted on to make you feel more like you're watching a movie or reading a story. When you play Elite, you are the story. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but if that story is boring, that says more about you than it does about the game.

If there's a lesson in Elite for modern developers, it's this--don't baby the player. A babied player doesn't grow up. A "challenge" fails to interest him; it becomes just an annoyance to be bypassed by a cheat-code. Make the player work to overcome a challenge from the get-go, and it's an investment. Make the player realize, "Uh oh, this isn't going to be easy." Of course, and I know, there are players who will immediately stop playing at that point. I say, have the integrity to let them go. Catering to this type of person will only ruin your game, and, in all sincerity, reduce the value your original game had to offer.

As a professor teaching 18-19 year olds, it depresses me to see how many of them have been conditioned by the baby-stepping games of the last five years. I only wish that more of them could be challenged as thoroughly and rewarded as graciously as I was, weaned on games like Elite and Pool of Radiance. Those games taught the lesson--great rewards for great efforts. Modern games are all too willing to offer even greater rewards, but for little to no effort. The idea is that they'll offer so many rewards and incentives that the player will be reduced to a sort of sensation-seeking monkey, pushing a button that briefly flares some pleasure region of his spinal cortex. Bah. Leave such games to the plebs.

For the Elite, I have another.


Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Yes, it's funny how one's

Yes, it's funny how one's tastes can change regrading favorite games. When I wrote this post, I wasn't aware of Elite's many predecessors, such as Space, Empire, Spasim, and Universe. I also hadn't spent much time with Star Raiders. After all that, I've come to see Elite as a brilliant combination of what had hitherto been two separate genres, the space trading game (i.e., Universe) and the space combat game (i.e., Star Raiders). That didn't diminish my enthusiasm for it, but it certainly broke less ground than I had originally thought. That said, it still remains one of my personal favorites, with brilliant gameplay and limitless potential for growth (EVE Online is probably just the start of what could be accomplished in the genre).

It also holds a special place in my heart for being the first game I really played a LOT, logging hundreds of hours (I'm sure). I spent similar gobs of time on Frontier. Fun, fun, fun!

Daniel Wolff (not verified)
I can't say anything about

I can't say anything about this review that other 80s teens haven't said... but, for what it's worth, here it is:

Best. Game. Review. Ever.

Anonymous (not verified)
Tears in my eyes. Thank you.

Tears in my eyes. Thank you.

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