Back in the dark age of computer games, when having a ‘multi-screen adventure’ was something to shout about on the back of a cassette tape inlay, along came a game called Elite that changed peoples’ perceptions of the possible. It’s hard to understand the impact the game had at the time, but if you just look at the influence it still has some thirty-odd years later, you might begin to grasp its significance.
I did play the original Elite (I had a copy on the NES, of all things) but it’s the sequel, Frontier, that I remember most fondly. Released in 1992 on the PC, ST and Amiga, Frontier basically took everything that was great about the original – the freedom, the expansive Universe – and dialed it up to eleven. Freed from the memory constraints of 8-bit computers, author David Braben created in Frontier a game that featured a singular open world (well, galaxy technically) long before the likes of Grand Theft Auto came along and popularised the concept.
You could travel to Earth, Barnard’s Star, Arcturus and thousands upon thousands more places that I can’t remember the names of, on a map intricately plotted based on real observations of the Milky Way. Apparently, anyway: I’m too stupid and ignorant to know if they were lying.
What really made Frontier stand out for me was the setting. Like many of the ‘big-box’ titles of the time, Frontier came with an extensive manual and also a copy of ‘Stories of Life on the Frontier’, a separate collection of short stories that provided some insights into the game’s world, particularly the conflict between the two galactic superpowers of the Federation and the Empire. Throughout the game you could choose to ally yourself with either faction (or both, if you wanted to be a double-crossing sneaky sneakster), completing missions for them that would raise a rank with them that was separate to your ‘Elite rating’ that gives the series its name. Higher faction ranks resulted in more dangerous missions which would reap higher monetary rewards. A bit like real-life, really, but with more lasers.
In truth, there wasn’t actually that much to do in Frontier. There were lots of missions available through the bulletin boards of the game’s various space stations and planetary bases, but the variety of these was limited to a few different types, such as ferrying passengers, delivering packages or assassinations. This didn’t matter, though: it seemed that there was a universe of possibilities through your TV screen. The procedural generation Frontier employed (again, long before the term was in common use) was clever enough to allow you to suspend your disbelief, and make it feel that everything was hand-crafted. If you’re interested in the technicalities of it all, go and look at jongware.com who have some great articles exploring it.
The Amiga version that I played is, like many early 3D games, almost next to unplayable now for the modern palate. The graphics, which at the time seemed revolutionary, now look so abstract with their lack of texture mapping and horrendous jagged edges that its like being in an explosion at a geometry factory. On the hardware I played it on as well, the frame-rate can plummet in planetary locations to figures you could count on one hand, if not one finger. Space combat – honestly, never Frontier’s strongest aspect – now feels barely controllable.
None of this really matters, I guess: Frontier was amazing at the time and helped cement my love of science-fiction. I distinctly remember reading and re-reading the manuals and fiction book, buildinmg up a world in my mind. This was a game designed in some ways for the teenager, with free time coming out of their pimples. I’m not sure, even if it looked and controlled better, that I’d have the patience to play this nowadays. Frontier and – I assume – its successors such as the modern Elite: Dangerous – are games that reward a time investment that I just couldn’t commit to now.
For a time, though, Frontier was to me the greatest game ever made. Well, maybe apart from Super Mario Bros. 3. And that intro sequence will stay with me forever. I haven’t got my own video of it, so here’s one by YouTuber Trypsonite:
Note: All images in this post are from MobyGames.