The Loneliness Of The Data Runner

A few years ago, after a games convention in Glasgow, whilst we were all sat around a room drinking the last of that evening’s brew there came a question. “What is your favourite game you’ve played so far in your life?” asked one person. Everybody in the room thought for a while, some for far longer than others. There were many, varied answers but then it got to me. I looked out to the room and said, without any doubt whatsoever, the NES version of Frontier Software’s Elite.

NESelite
Yes, this.

A small portion of the room were too young to have heard of it, some had and wondered why I’d picked it, others remembered it as a game that came out during the dawn of time and I was therefore telling a lie concerning my actual age. Apparently I wasn’t 30 but more like 45.

When I was given my NES on Christmas Day 1990 it arrived with both the original Super Mario Bros and Konami’s Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles game (the one with the near impossible underwater bombs level). Most the games that I bought for my new console were fairly simple affairs of running, jumping and beating people up in Double Dragon. Upon reading a review in Total Nintendo magazine of Elite, seeing it was about space flight and dogfights among the stars I took a chance on it. Christmas of 1991 saw the arrival of the game under the tree in our house. It was the first game to really, truly grip me. I spent hours and hours within the randomly generated galaxies of Elite. I regret nothing.

It was probably the first game I had played in which your own stamp could be put on your character and play style. Everything else I had played, from Mario to Zelda, gave you a character to play and get on with whatever goal the game had in mind. Elite gave you the basics to start with and then let you do pretty much what you wanted. If you wanted to upgrade your cargo hold capacity and spend the entire game simply hauling goods from one planet to the next then you were fine doing that. If you fancied taking on the criminal elements of the galaxy by updating your laser rifles and missile launchers then that was also perfectly fine. The game was flexible enough to suit whatever you wanted to do with it and it was completely mesmerising. The sounds of the Blue Danube playing when you auto docked have been in my head for a long time.

This is from the Commodore version but still..

I only really stopped playing Elite a few years later when I upgraded to a SNES and left the game behind. The entire of my 8-bit collection went up in my parent’s attic and seems to have vanished into thin air (I moved out 16 years ago and my Mother insists she hasn’t chucked it out even though it’s not anywhere obvious in the full cavern above the house). I imagine that my Commander is still on the last planet I landed on, living a good life in retirement.

A couple of years ago David Braben (one of the creators of Elite way back then) went to Kickstarter to find funding for a new version of Elite. He wanted around £500,000, he ended up with £1.5 million. The PC version of Elite Dangerous arrived in 2014. My simple laptop wasn’t going to be able to handle something like that so I missed out on it. Then Frontier made a version for the Xbox One which I also didn’t own but I was heartened by the fact that a console version existed. Then rumours began that Microsoft only had a timed exclusive deal with Frontier for the console rights. A Playstation 4 version of Elite Dangerous existed somewhere in their office in Cambridge.

That version saw the light of day this past Tuesday.

It became the first game I had ever digitally preordered (I know, I’m old school and usually prefer to have discs on my shelf).

I started playing it when I got home from work that night and I expected the magic to have gone. I thought the whole thing would have been rendered so complex and detailed that I would no longer have the time free to play it properly. Half of me thought I’d wasted the £20 asking price as I’d probably only play it for a few hours before finding some impenetrable wall of numbers that I couldn’t make sense of.

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Cannons!

Within the first hour I had got the basics of taking off and flying the starting (incredibly basic) ship. I had picked up some data at the first space station and taken it to the desired location. My pay cheque of 10,000 credits went through and I then consulted my star charts for the next hyper jump location. I was back in and it felt great.

The two versions of Elite I’ve played have a 26 year gap between them. I still found myself rediscovering small tips and tricks that worked in the NES version and still applied to this new, shiny PS4 edition. It’s one thing to be able to remember how to throw a Hadouken from Street Fighter 2 Turbo to Street Fighter V but I’m here remembering docking procedures, each ship’s jump radius and each planet’s economic structure. Either Elite Dangerous has been simplified to suit new people or I played it far more than I thought I had back in 1991. I strongly suspect it’s the latter.

As I type this I’m thinking about what I’m going to do next in my travels around Elite’s universe. I’m mainly doing data runs to gain enough money to buy a completely new ship. Elite Dangerous has tapped into a long forgotten part of my brain dedicated to virtual space travel. Sure the Playstation 4 version clunks a little when transferring between star charts and your cockpit, sure it might not look as good as a 4k PC set up but I don’t care. Elite Dangerous could have been just a nostalgia trip for me and whilst it does give me that warm feeling of yesteryear it also goes way beyond that. Everything I found wonderful about the old NES version has been updated and expanded here. It’s a fantastic modern day update.

It’s also one of the best feelings I’ve had in recent gaming.