back to article Elite name on Brit scene sponsors retro video games preservation project at the Centre for Computing History

Spotify is to music what Steam is to video games – sometimes you just want to spin some classic vinyl while picking through the liner notes, feel the gatefold between your fingers. Fortunately, Cambridge's Centre for Computing History harbours the largest documented collection of video games in the UK – real, physical copies …

  1. nagyeger


    Doesn't *look* like the original. That had wireframe graphics, not solid colour. It must be a later version.

    What was really amazing about Elite was the way it switched video modes half-way down the screen, giving high-res monchrome for the view out of the window and glorious multi(4) colour below, albeit at lower resolution.

    Fiendishly clever stuff. Common opinion was that someone must have been counting CPU cycles per opcode /execution path to get that right.

    1. Death_Ninja

      Re: Screenshot

      MS DOS version.... EGA.... ick

      1. Excellentsword (Written by Reg staff)

        Re: Re: Screenshot

        Closest I could find quickly that could be emulated in a click.

        1. Dan 55 Silver badge

          Re: Screenshot

          How about this one?

          And you'll probably need this.

          1. Graham Cunningham


            Floppy drive noises on F10 launch!!

            1. Graham Cunningham


              I have no touch whatsoever on the inertial controls!

      2. Fading

        Re: Screenshot

        CGA (cough)

        There was an Elite plus on PC that had MCGA graphics.

        1. John G Imrie

          Re: Screenshot

          I bought my first PC to play Elite Plus on.

          1. Graham Cunningham


            I spent a year's university grant (remember those?) on a model B, a 100kB single-sided 5.25" floppy drive, and a 14" portable TV, primarily motivated by seeing an Elite demo in the bookshop on St. Vincent St, Glasgow.

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Screenshot

        "MS DOS version.... EGA.... ick"

        Not even that good. The screen shot is 320x200 4 colour CGA. Not sure if there was an EGA version but if there was it would 16 colour 640x350.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Screenshot

          IIRC, there was also a wireframe version for the PC, for the slower machine!

    2. Peter Ford

      Re: Screenshot

      The screen split wasn't that hard to do - one of the magazines at the time had an article with a demo done in assembler that did much the same thing. Revs used the same trick to get the track view and dashboard in different screen modes - that might have been a Braben game too...

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: Screenshot

        Other games on other platforms did a similar trick of changing mode mid-screen draw.

      2. jasha

        Re: Screenshot

        Revs was Crammond.

      3. The commentard formerly known as Mister_C Silver badge

        Re: Screenshot

        Beebug magazine. April '85. Page 13. (I remebered the Beebug bit, the rest was searches).

        The article mentions that no system calls were used because speed. I think elite used its own graphics routine for the same reason. Back then, finding which pixel was being refreshed by the CRT gun was reasonably trivial as it was required for getting lightpen(*) input and had (IIRC) OS calls available. Unfortunately, my advanced beeb user guide is in storage so I can't verify the *FX or OSWORD.

        (*) Lightpen - an optical sensor held up to the screen (usually like when your boss prods your monitor with a biro) that picked up when the CRT gun passed beneath it. Location on screen can be calculated from time elapsed since start of screen refresh

      4. Nick Sticks

        Re: Screenshot

        Revs was created by the genius Geoff Crammond. Another favourite of his on the BBC B was The Sentinel, a fiendishly hard to start game.

    3. juice Silver badge

      Re: Screenshot

      > Fiendishly clever stuff. Common opinion was that someone must have been counting CPU cycles per opcode /execution path to get that right.

      Definitely clever, but I think it was a fairly common trick, at least on the 8-bit Atari and Commodore machines, with all their fancy (but still deterministic) graphical hardware.

      And on a slight tangent, people have been doing similar cunning stuff on the ZX Spectrum. This infamously suffered from colour clash since it used a character-mapped display, and you could only have two colours per "text cell" - foreground and background.

      However, with some very clever hackery, some people have managed to put together engines which lets you change the colours on each pixel-line. Giving you the ability to set colours in 8*1 or even 4*1 blocks, rather than 8*8.

      It's a bit of a shame these were developed after the ol' Speccy's commercial decline. Still, it's a pretty impressive bit of engineering!

      1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

        Re: Screenshot

        Split screen, and similar tricks, were very easy on systems such as the Commodore 64 due to the very useful and flexible IRQs. Changing everything about the display from the display data source and display mode to the background colours and the overlaid sprites allowed for some very useful techniques. It was very commonly used to separate vertical sections where one section was scrolled and the other was not - for example a status/score panel separate from the gameplay area.

        1. Def Silver badge

          Re: Screenshot

          Using the horizontal blank interrupt to switch hardware sprites or otherwise modify GPU state was a common trick on a lot of old consoles.

          In the case of sprites, the hardware would allow you to display x hardware sprites on screen per frame, which were usually controlled by a few registers that just needed to store the start address of the sprite data, its position on screen, and (optionally) its size. Once set up, moving those sprites was just a matter of updating their position registers.

          However, it was soon realised that the "x sprites per frame" limitation could really be thought of as an "x sprites per scan line" limitation. By hooking into the horizontal interrupt (which was triggered as the monitor's electron beam was being repositioned at the start of the next scan line) you could update at least one full hardware sprite per line, and thus fool the hardware into rendering more sprites per frame than it claimed to support.

          1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

            Re: Screenshot

            Yep. I can't remember how many sprites were possible, but it was a lot compared to the standard maximum of 8 on the Commodore 64 (I think it was 8 anyway). Many very clever things were done involving just these 8, although from memory depending on the display mode of the sprites the number available was halved...

            1. juice Silver badge

              Re: Screenshot

              Probably a bit late coming back to this, but Racing the Beam is a good book about how people came up with tricks like this for the Atari 2600 - a machine which was so primitive, it actually made hacks like sprite multiplexing easier!


              Then too, I seem to recall there was a recent kickstarter to cover similar stuff from the 16-bit demo/crack scene. Really need to see if I can dig that one back out...

    4. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

      Re: Screenshot

      I remember being very impressed as a kid when I found out that the real secret to smooth animation on the BBC Micro/Master was colour-palette cycling. It's a neat trick that makes the best use of a very limited system. I'm guessing Elite had a number of tricks like that up its sleeve. It was also absolute genius how they used a pseudo-random number generator to create all the star systems at run time, meaning they could get round the problem of the (then) vast storage space that would otherwise have been needed.

      But ah, I can still remember the smell of the box that glorious 5¼" floppy came in.

      1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

        Re: Screenshot

        It didn't use a pseudo random generator for all the star systems. It used a procedural method of star system generation with specific overlays for some systems. This was very clever and innovative for the time and produced a lot of star systems without having to store details any form of details on most of them. In fact it represented much more data than the computers of the time could possibly store.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Screenshot

          In theory it could generate billions of galaxies, but the publisher suggested leaving it at 8.

          I did read one galaxy had a planet called "Ar$e", so had to be scrapped

      2. Mystic Megabyte

        Re: Screenshot

        In the description of one planet it stated that, "the inhabitants have a hatred of arts graduates". LOL

  2. Dr_N Silver badge


    I picked up a nasty infection on my C64 version with the Sprites handily blocking your view.

    1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

      Re: Tribbles/Trubbles

      Reminds me of the Best. Cross-over. Ever. Also contains an awesome reference to the crapness of the Klingons in the original ST.

      1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

        Re: Tribbles/Trubbles

        Aye, and then Enterprise had to go and try to explain it. Such is life.

  3. David Pearce


    Oolite is an excellent descendant of Elite, with the spirit of the original game on beautiful graphics

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Right on Commander!

  5. The Dogs Meevonks

    The first proper computer I ever laid my hands on was some version of the BBC micro... and yes, I even played Elite... Well... I 'tried' to play it. I was still a kid, so it was a little too complicated for me back then. I tried Elite 2 on PC in the mid 90's as I was now a teenager... and still struggled to grasp the full scope of it.

    So it wasn't until around 2015 when I picked up Elite Dangerous and it's expansion... that as a mid 30yr old... Finally understood and could play it, to it's potential.

    But the grind man... the damn grind. It's all well and good having such a huge scale... but you can't play online with others without getting creamed every single time... unless you grind away for months to get the best upgrades... Even the bots are flying heavily modded and upgraded ships if you choose to play via a private of offline server.

    It kinda makes the game annoying... You need to earn ridiculous amounts of money to buy the biggest and best ships... before you can even attempt to earn a decent amount via mining and so forth. if you want to be a merc/pirate... same thing.

    If you want to be a trader... prepare to get blown up every few missions... the easiest thing to do is do passenger runs... and there's a few runs out there where you can earn a few million an hr to try and reduce that grind... just do the Robigo, Sothis route... if it's still viable today as it's been a few months... some youtubers claim they can earn 100mil an hour... but my average was just 10-15 mil.... maybe they had more luxurious and better equipped ships and could take more passengers... I was trying to earn enough money to buy a dedicated cruise liner.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Elite:Dangerous is like joining a game of Monopoly where the other players have been playing for several hours.

      1. Def Silver badge

        Not entirely unlike real life then?

  6. D.A.

    Much more important than any of that though:

    Maddie & Greg did Let’s go Live from there last Saturday.

    (If you know, you know)

  7. rmtca

    I had a quick chuckle, as my Beeb has just come out of storage and I have the boxed game (cassette) on my desk right now.

  8. Binraider Silver badge

    I’m probably in the minority that didn’t enjoy the original elite or the 2014 remake. I was an early backer on Kickstarter, and ran a huge group on Facebook for a while to drum up more support. Ultimately, I think it comes down to the choice to make all ships handle by pitch and roll. In an aircraft, yes. In a space game, all my favourites have yaw as primary way to turn. ED looks spectacular but the weird substitution of time acceleration for FSD grates me for some reason too. Yes, I know, because multiplayer. That feature all games have had to have for 2 decades, and usually sucks. Core systems should not be trolled consistently by player character pirates, while “anarchic” systems are basically safe.

    Frontier, and the bugfest that were First Encounters were the ones that hooked me. Kerbal, strangely enough, probably is the next iteration on that form of handling and at time of writing has well into the hundreds of hours of screen time. Can’t say the same for ED.

    1. Cederic Silver badge

      I've always avoided the 2014 reboot. Elite is a single player game and I have no wish to share my galaxy.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Can sort of play in solo mode - you won't see any other players, but they will still affect "your galaxy"

    2. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      The whole game, while potentially amazing, was (is) hopelessly let down by the total absence of consequences. To anything.

      Capital ships that were basically pointless light displays while PC ships could zip around and seem to produce more firepower?

      Players who could attack other players with impunity safe in the knowledge that their chosen "pirate", or usually more accurately, just griefing and newbie-slaughtering, had no real repercussions in the game other than driving away a huge amount of the potential player base.

      A really dumb "co-op" grind type mechanism which apparently affects some kinds of factions. But only if one either wanted to have their ships destroyed with even less repercussions and all with the promise of, well, nothing much useful really when it came to it.

      As for the really stupid random-number-generator based upgrades of euipment which just defied any form of logic. Just no...

      Something with the potential for a really great game, savagely let down by no vision.

      1. Binraider Silver badge

        I stopped playing at all the moment they added the randomised upgrades. Hiding the purchase of certain ship models behind arbitrary thou-shalt-do 2000 identical boring-as-hell courier missions for one faction. Or the ability to create more than one character on PC - though on Console it is possible to create more than one without buying the game twice.

        Regarding the absence of consequences, EVE online were looking at this very problem for multiplayer 17 years ago. Secured space have police that; while they don't prevent you taking actions, are 100% effective in causing the loss of your ship.

    3. andy gibson

      A lot of backers dropped out when they changed things mid way through production. Something about removing offline play?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Yeah, something like that. Still have solo mode - shared galaxy, but you never meet anyone.

        On a side note, with a Prachett reference - does it ever come up with an "Error- reinstall Galaxy" type message?

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Funny is I'm the opposite. I found that Frontier/First Encounters were too realistic to be fun - meant to be a game, not rocket science..... That and the main control was a mouse and it just felt wrong, clicking on icons to lower landing gear didn't seem right.

      I stayed away from the kickstarter and waited a while before I bought it. Damn if I was going to play for the privilege of beta testing! I've hardly played anything else, though I do agree it can be a grind - but I find things like asteroid mining like of relaxing.

      It's a marmite / pineapple on pizza type of game!

  9. FatGerman


    Speaking as one of the Elite, who got there on the original version, and who has also been to TNMoC when it was open, and who has always regarded Braben as something of a fucking outright legend, this just makes him seem even more of an all-round super human being.

    Yes, Beebug had an article on how to do the split screen modes thing, but where do you think they got the idea?

    There's an interview somewhere where Braben talks about how he and Bell spent hours disucssing how to save a byte here, a byte there, so they could implement a new feature. The programming of Elite should be taught in computer science courses, it's a object lesson in how understanding how the hardware actually works can allow you to do amazing things. Proper programming, not like this modern scripting shit that I do for a living :)

    1. cshore

      Re: Glorious

      There is a brilliant chapter on the development of Elite in Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford. A book well worth reading anyway but that chapter is superb.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Glorious

      I've always admired stuff like this and "old" technology. They had limited resources in terms of memory and hardware, and yet managed to create solutions to problems.

      Compared to nowadays - add more memory and just push out updates! (I realise that this is a bit of a generalisation - but considering I have a firmware update for a KEYBOARD (with a Smartcard reader) that fixes a problem with random keys not working, I'll stand by my comment.

  10. big_D Silver badge


    At college, a couple of us were sent to a local hospital to help write software on their BBC Micro for the kids department. Those sessions took twice as long as planned, although the software was written in less time that envisaged, because, unbeknown to the college, we were playing Elite when nobody was looking...

  11. ChrisC Silver badge

    Eite co-creator, surely?

    Seems a bit off to be, in the same sentence, accepting that he's merely a co-founder of Raspberry Pi, yet implying that he alone created Elite...

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022