Elite (NES)

I was looking through my great list ‘o NES games when this one caught my eye. “Surely it’s not the Elite,” thought I. The BBC Micro original is a legend among space sims. How would you ever port it to the piddly old NES? But of course, it was done; otherwise this review wouldn’t be here. And though I suppose no one should be surprised that it fit on a cartridge (the original Elite took up just one 5 1/4″ floppy after all) it is a bit of a wonder that it runs on the NES, and runs so well.

It’s honestly impressive work, and makes you wonder why this never made release in the States. The NES port is completely authentic, right down to the 3-D vector graphics. Not a single planet seems to have been cut (though that’s hard to determine with all the places you can go), and the trading and piracy is still fully realized.

Coming in for a landing

But I’m jumping ahead of myself a bit. For those who haven’t heard of this title, Elite is a freeform trading simulator – a genre kicked off by 1974’s Star Trader, but rocketed to fame by this title. You may also know this genre from the fancier¬†X series and Eve Online that now dominate the genre. To be fair, these are the only games to really follow in Elite’s steps, so they mostly win by default. After all, trading sims, not just ones that take place in space, have been something of niche market. This is to be expected, considering that you spend months building up an unrivaled trading empire, and then realize you have no one to show it to. You’ve simply been pretending to buy and sell imaginary goods to the computer. Hard to gain mass appeal with the prospects of work and planning nearly on par with starting your own real corporation, and nothing tangible to show for it. Still, for those who enjoy any form of trading sim, this title unquestionably set the bar.

The achievements are impressive for such an early title (the original Elite was out in 1985). A full market of goods and suppliers is replicated, as well as 2,000 (yes, that’s right) planets across eight galaxies. You can visit every single one of them. Now granted, this is only possible because the planets are dots on a map, or identical 3-D globes in the cockpit view, and their individual details make up only two text screens. Still, there are measurable differences between them, and with a bit of imagination, you’ll soon be cruising the stars with an entire universe to explore.

Oh, and don’t despair; there’s also plenty of excitement to be had. You could take up an honorable blue-collar asteroid mining job, blasting, scooping, and selling ore. You could try your hand at trading in the most dangerous, lawless systems imaginable while fending off pirates as you race for the docking station. You could become a pirate yourself, living the life of a right bastard and killing unarmed ships for their cargo. You could smuggle illegal goods, and dodge the cops for fun and profit. Or you could deck your ship out with the toughest guns available and kill pirates for the bounty placed on their heads. I suppose, if you wanted, you could even do all of the above in your quest to become the greatest pilot in the known universe.

It’s a big galaxy out there, and this is only a small part of it.

To accomplish your dreams of galactic fame and fortune, you’ll spend all of your time in the cockpit of your ship; looking out over the stars, or over screens of information to plan your next move. You cannot purchase a new ship, such as a dedicated freighter or a more suited fighter. Therefore, you will always be limited by the small upgrades you can purchase for your existing ship. This has the effect of ensuring that you’ll never make that “one big score” and end up rolling in wealth. If you want to move your status from “Harmless” all the way up to “Elite,” you have to work hard for it. Being “stuck” with one modular ship also has the pleasant effect of ensuring that you never get boxed into one role.

You start on the planet Lave with a basic laser and 100 credits. Your ship always maxes out at enough fuel to get you seven light years, which is helpfully shown as an expanding radius on your map screen. Other planets inside the circle (you’ll usually have five or so options on a full tank) are reachable. You can select them from this screen and call up information on their technology level, population, and general status. Tech level determines the quality of the ship upgrades they can offer. General status breaks out into titles like “Poor Agricultural” or “Rich Industrial.” This tells you the kind of supplies you can expect them to sell and be interested in, and it’s the only basis you have for planning your trades.

You can only look at the market prices and availability for the planet you’re currently docked at. Any profit you might make from other systems will require your own notes, or a fair guess at what they might pay highly for. Poor Agricultural colonies will obviously sell food and textiles cheap. Industrial planets will have some wealth and necessity to buy that food, and can hook you up with technological goods needed by agricultural planets. You won’t make serious profits without foreknowledge of the cheapest supplier and the wealthiest buyer, but you can usually do well enough to buy low and sell high with this basic status information.

The life of a space trader does involve lots of text screens.

Greater money requires greater risk, either in the form of trading to the lawless systems your competition fears, or in the trading of contraband like guns and slaves. You’ll continue in this fashion, buying goods and fuel then offloading them as you can, until you make enough money to seriously jump into one of the side professions. I call them “side” because they will be fun, but trading will always be the most valuable profession you can take.

Should you get tired of a certain galaxy, you can buy an expensive one-shot jump drive to cycle through the eight galaxies available. The galaxies appear to be generated “on the fly” (which obviously saves on storage space and makes the whole show possible), so there’s not a particular benefit to heading to a new one. One will not be vastly wealthier than another, though you might luck out and buy cargo in one galaxy for next to nothing and offload it to a planet in another galaxy for ridiculous sums. Still, cross-galaxy trading is made prohibitive by the cost of the jump drives, and the drives are really just meant to offer a change of scenery. Switching galaxies may also trigger special missions (the same added to the C64 port) that add a little variety, or a special cargo, or an alien attack, but nothing vastly outside the confines of what you’d normally be doing.

I suppose I can’t call the game graphically impressive, but the 3-D effect is pulled off convincingly. Most important is a speedy framerate, which the NES is able to keep up consistently. The vector-like ships move and spin crisply, and the engine even knows to block out lines that would be hidden by opposite sides of the ship, making them look solid instead of like wireframe models. Their lack of other detail make identification sometimes difficult, especially at a distance, but different ship and ship types do exist and are distinguished through their exaggerated shapes and outlines. Though some ships reuse wedge and triangle shapes perhaps a little too often, their wide difference in sheer size help in identifying them. You’ll never mistake a small police craft for a lumbering transport. Your enemies will also help you recognize them by shooting at you eagerly.

The ship’s controls work reasonably well, with obvious changes to accommodate the two-button setup of the NES controller. Pitch and roll are mapped to the D-pad. You have no yaw control though, so any turns to the left or right must be made by rolling 90 degrees in that direction and then pulling the stick back. It’s a mild annoyance, but you don’t have that many things in space you can hit, and it doesn’t seriously impede your tracking of other ships. Most of your ship driving will simply be pointing your nose in the appropriate direction and waiting. Holding down the B button acts as a shift key for the D-pad, allowing you to change your speed or scroll through your options.

Combat does surprisingly well for only two buttons.

All the commands that were previously activated with the keyboard now are represented by a row of icons you toggle through with left and right while holding down B. The icon system works well for navigating because you rarely need to rush in selecting any of the icons. The real trouble comes in combat, where you must hurry to launch missiles or activate your ECM. A cool head will prevail though, and you can always park your cursor on the missile launch icon and activate it right away with a quick tap of B. A will always control your lasers, allowing for a ready defense in the event of a surprise attack.

You’ll have enough feedback on the screen to make navigating a snap. A large radar will provide you information about the location of ships or objects in combat, while a smaller compass will always point in the direction of the nearest space station. Each planet has one station, and the journey from your hyperspace arrival point to that station is the longest and most dangerous of any part of your trip. This is where you will be jumped if any pirates intend to, and as you must do this every time you enter a system, it can get pretty hairy. If no one is around though, it stands to be the most boring part of the trip. A “fast-forward” icon helps with this, which jumps ahead until you’re attacked or get too close to the planet. From there, you can try to manually dock with the orbiting station (more trouble than it’s ever worth) or pay 50 credits to auto dock. It is here that the only music in the game will play, as you dock with the station to the tune of “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” – a scene shamelessly lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Elite NES is noteworthy for bringing the scope and depth of the original successfully home to the couch and TV. It’s been outdone severely by later space trader endeavors, but remains impressive compared to other NES offerings. And though later titles expanded on the concept and offer more to do, I’m not sure that any of those fancy-pants bump-mapped offerings have come close to offering as expansive a galaxy as this one. Hard to recommend, especially when Elite Plus is now apparently considered the definitive version of the original, but a damn nice and damn impressive NES port.

Note: This title was released in Europe only, so make sure your emulator is set to PAL emulation, and/or don’t pick up this cartridge if you don’t have a PAL TV. The display discrepancy on NTSC makes the game pretty much unplayable.


The Good

Astoundingly well-converted version of the space trading classic. Probably not the best version, but a fine choice if the NES more closely suits your habits and setup.

The Bad

Two-button controller limitation is made as painless as possible, but is still a bit of an annoyance. Certainly not a game for everyone.


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