Tag Archives: Frontier

I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today Without… Frontier: Elite II

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.

Okay, okay: it doesn’t look great these days but you had to be there. I have no idea who Len is, incidentally.

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.

Bulletin boards were always full of missions and images of ugly people in strange hats.

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.

Hardwar – what is it good for?

Hardwar box art
Hardwar box art

Title: Hardwar
Format: PC
Release date: 1998
Obtained: On release
Place of purchase: GAME
Price: Approx. £30
Completed?:Yes

I’d been a huge fan of Elite and Frontier: Elite II, so the prospect of a game that was a little bit like it but not exactly held a certain amount of appeal. Hardwar is one of those titles that isn’t really remembered all that much nowadays, having had a pretty minimal impact on the world. It was set on the Saturnite moon Titan, which appeared to be rather rocky with lots of pink fog and poor draw distance. Your task as Player Character 1 was to work out a way of getting off the moon and off to somewhere else, possibly to be featured in a sequel that never happened.

You flew around in a ship called a moth (incidentally, I hate moths, with the horrid flappy wings and general persistence on being as bloody irritating as possible), and you had a certain amount of freedom in the way that you made money in the game. You could be a pirate (aaarrr etc.) or a legitimate trader, or something in between, as you travelled between the different craters that made up the gameworld, connected by a series of tunnels. There were some cool touches to the game, including the fact that you needed to recharge your ship every so often by hovering over a recharging point, leaving you potentially vulnerable to enemy factions, pirates or the local law enforcement if you happen to have annoyed them in some way.

Sadly, to me the game seemed to be one that never seemed to get particularly interesting. The world, despite the involvement of funky Wipeout designers The Design Republic, was just a bit dull, and everything moved at a pretty slow pace. The storyline didn’t grab, not helped by the fact that most of the cut-scenes had some awful acting and dodgy costumes. Like the player character, I wanted to explore the universe away from Titan, and it seemed a shame that just as we manage to escape the game ended.