back to article In the '80s, spaceflight sim Elite was nothing short of magic. The annotated source code shows how it was done

Just a fortnight under 40 years ago, the BBC Micro was released. Although it was never primarily a games machine – it was too expensive, for a start – nonetheless one of its defining programs was a video game: Elite. Its source was released a few years ago, but your correspondent just discovered a lavishly described and …

  1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

    Francis Spufford's excellent book "Backroom Boys - The secret return of the British boffin" (which I bough after seeing it recommended by another commentard on an El Reg story about RAF Spadeadam) dedicates a chapter to Elite. Well worth a read.

    1. Red Ted
      Thumb Up

      Backroom Boys

      I would also endorse this book.

      It covers a wide range of topics. From missile systems, to the profit sharing arrangement for the Concorde, through the setup of the Wellcome Human Genome Project and development of radio propagation models for cellular phone systems.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Backroom Boys

        And there was Mrs Custard wondering aloud (as such superior beings tend to do) about what to get me for Christmas this year. A most timely recommendation methinks...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Backroom Boys

          @ Anonymous Custard - Well, she obviously has some skin in the game. (hehe)

      2. edjimf

        Re: Backroom Boys

        Further endorsement here, the Wellcome Genome project chapter is a lovely reminder that we can (sometimes) have nice things.

    2. Liam Proven Bronze badge

      Just FWIW, the link in the sentence that says the programmers originally planned to have 2⁴⁸ planets (until Acornsoft vetoed it) is to that very chapter from _the Backroom Boys_. :-)

      I think it's in my TBR pile somewhere, but said pile in itself constitutes a small library. You know how _tsundoku_ is…

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge
        Boffin

        Never trust someone who owns fewer books than they can read.

        1. deep_enigma
          Holmes

          Does that still hold if you don't have space (or at least strong enough floors) for all the books you've actually read already?

    3. Chris Evans

      <£4 on ebay

      A number of sellers have them on ebay for under £4 including delivery. I've just ordered one!

      1. Phil Parker

        Re: <£4 on ebay

        Me too!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Definitely never ever sat up...

    ...all night with a debugger removing the profit protection. Actually I was making coffee for the guys doing the work, but I was there, man, I was there!

    Non trivial hack to say the least.

    End result was a floppy copy which didn't need a manual.

    fun times.

    AC cos, well you know... that sort of activity is frowned upon by people...

    1. davcefai

      Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

      I'm impressed. On the Spectrum version I couldn't even work out what was going on with copy protection. Worked around it using that addon- I forget the name - that took a snapshot of the RAM.

      1. Clive Galway

        Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

        Romantic Robot Multiface?

        God I loved that thing. I had a legit copy of Elite, but used this to dump it to 3" disk on my speccy +3, at a point past the copy protection.

        Almost instant load, and no frigging LensLok

      2. The Basis of everything is...

        Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

        Lenslock. A pretty neat idea - display a scrambled 2-character code that you can view with the corresponding fresnel lens for that program. I think we had 3 of them in the end.

        The issue with Elite was the distributors put the wrong lens in large number of boxes and there was no way to tell if you had the right lens by looking at it. IIRC Firebird eventually worked out what happened and exchanged the lenses and gave a free game too (which was rubbish!). But it killed lenslock as a product and then of course Multiface 1 came along and debuggered most speccy copy protection.

        Curiously my mate could guess the lenslok code for Elite pretty reliably if he held his glasses at just the right angle in front of the screen.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

          I succesfully cloned a lenslok using rubber clay and resin. Those were the days! In my defence I also spent all of my pocket money and Christmas money for years on 8 bit games.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

          Never had any problems with lenslock, although I did find it easier to use as it and not adjust the lines on the screen to match the lens thingy

          1. The Basis of everything is...

            Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

            The other two we had - OCP Art Studio and DI's Tomahawk, in both cases lenslok worked fine, as did Elite once we got the right frikkin' lens. I'm starting to think a trip down memory lane helped by the miracles of emulation is in order.

    2. Richocet

      Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

      A shame you worked so hard to avoid paying these geniuses who created this game.

      I saved up my pocket money for a long time to afford this game. I sure got my money's worth by playing it excessively.

      1. rogerhill

        Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

        I definitely paid for a copy - I think I even still have the box somewhere!

        (I did eventually make it to

        Breaking the copy protection was nearly as interesting as playing the game I did eventually make it to Elite level!)

        1. RPF

          Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

          Using EOR with a small loading routine was brilliant; you could not modify the only readable bit of code otherwise it all turned to gobbledigook. Remember these guys were undergraduates when they wrote this!

          Brilliant programming and more of the same was in Johnathan Griffith's book "http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/22619/Creative%20Assembler%20-%20How%20To%20Write%20Arcade%20Games%20for%20the%20BBC%20Microcomputer%20/"

          1. ricardian

            Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

            And Raeto West wrote the definitive book for the Commodore PET. I cut my teeth on 6502 assembler after an OU course using HEKTOR and 8080 (or was it 8088) assembler

    3. rogerhill

      Re: Definitely never ever sat up...

      As I remember the tricky part was that you needed to copy it onto an unformatted floppy disk and then make sure that that specific track remained unformatted.

      Once you had done that it was easy!

      (All in the name of research as part of my CS degree!)

  3. A Non e-mouse Silver badge
    Pint

    Right on Commander!

    See icon --->

  4. Paul Smith
    Devil

    Horrible memories

    That code brings back horrible memories, not of Elite which I loved, but of a job I had in the 80's in Nuneaton programming a stock management system on a Wang CS mini-computer using interpretive basic with two character variables. Oh I was glad when I got out of there.

    1. 4whatitsworth

      Re: Horrible memories

      Out of the company or out of Nuneaton? As an aging Treacle Towner i sympathise with either lol.

    2. Dabooka Silver badge

      Re: Horrible memories

      I grew up in Nuneaton in the 70s and 80s.

      You have my sympathies and apologies. I escaped in '86 at least

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    281,474,976,710,656 planets?

    Is that all?

    *Explodes in sarcasm*

    1. wolfetone Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: 281,474,976,710,656 planets?

      Are any of them flat though?

      1. seven of five

        Re: 281,474,976,710,656 planets?

        Chances are one in a million, so: yes, quite a few, actually.

        1. Evil Scot
          Coat

          Re: 281,474,976,710,656 planets?

          you mean 9 in 10.

          There is a copy of Guards Guards in the pocket.

      2. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: 281,474,976,710,656 planets?

        Only earth

        O o o - o o o o o .

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Read somewhere that they had to scrap a whole galaxy because there was a planet called "Arse"!

    Love Elite, felt like you had your own spaceship and could do anything you wanted. You weren't in some space navy fighting off aliens for example.

    Now looking back, it does look rather simple. All the star systems look the same and you did the same thing when you arrived there, but it was fun!

    1. Victor Ludorum

      Looking back

      Yes it does look rather simple now, but the game was squeezed into less than 22K of the BBC's RAM. Try that nowadays...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I was just looking at this,

      https://www.bbcelite.com/elite-a/docked/variable/qq23.html

      Slaves and Narcotics? My Word I'm not sure I remember that being in the game as something you could buy.

      1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

        They were the most profitable items, apart from maybe gems and alien artifacts...

        1. Richocet

          I don't remember gems being profitable. Maybe I couldn't afford to buy enough to find out.

          1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

            Gems were profitable because they didn't fill up your Space Tonnage. So you could carry as many as you could buy on the cheap, and make profit on the sheer volume. (At least thats what I remember on the Beeb)

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          To be fair I was about 6 at the time.

      2. Gordon 10 Silver badge

        Oh yes. There were 3 illegal items irc Slaves, Narcotics and something else?

        Don't you remember pirating Pythons or similar then scooping up the ejector pod to sell as Slaves?

        Only trouble is it got you flagged by the Space Rozzers so you could only dock in the systems rated dodgy and littered with pirates, so there was often a chance you'd get swarmed by pirates yourself.

        And if you went pirate hunting yourself you could make yourself illegal if you scooped up narcotics then flogged them off when you docked, and again the Space Rozzer Vipers would come after you.

        Sometimes it was better to eject the cargo containers and blow them up. Always felt evil when doing that to slaves.

        Happy days though.

        1. Bibbit

          You could gun-run as well by selling weapons I think.

          I went into witch-space on my very first jump and got my arse-kicked.

          Story of my life.

        2. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
          Pirate

          @Gordon 10 - "Don't you remember pirating Pythons or similar then scooping up the ejector pod to sell as Slaves?"

          If you sold the slaves in the same system that you picked the ejector pod up in, you didn't get flagged by the Space Rozzers, I can't remember if the same was true for the narcotics.

      3. steviebuk Silver badge

        It was and very profitable but also dangerous if you were searched by the police. And if you didn't have the human habitat or whatever it was called and jumped to hyperspace the slaves turned into just meat.

    3. TonyMurphy

      If you liked that feeling of lone spaceship doing whatever you want...Eve Online may be worth checking out.

      Only been playing if for 15 years now!

      1. John Jennings

        I had to format my HD to stop playing that game. I knew I had a problem when I moved jobs so I could nip home for lunch to set up orders and move cargo.

        There was nothing like being in a battle with 700-1200 players in fleet - Never progressed to the Titans - BS & Logistics here mostly -(with some scout work)...

        CEI/Eve Razor/Northern Coalition.

        That game is digital Crack

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        ...if you really like spreadsheets and being griefed. Eve Online is very much a multi-player game, which is fine if you have the time and inclination to be part of an active corp. but that's getting very close to being a second job. At least Elite:Dangerous allows you to play solo, and doesn't have the risk of having your ship randomly blown up in space "for the lulz" while you're logged off / in the toilet / etc.

      3. steviebuk Silver badge

        Problem I had with Eve was being new and being a target for real humans. The best bit of Elite was that it was all alone, no other human to exploit whatever bug they'd found.

        Then along came the new Elite Dangerous which I backed and we were told would be offline. Then we were lied too. Not only is it online only (so no option to backup your save games) but its with other humans. Granted you can turn PvP off but still feel robbed that despite being told it would be offline it isn't. So you can't play around with your save to "see what happens" every choice you risk losing everything, which is an arse if you blow up due to docking issues and net connection, at least in Frontier Elite (the one I played) you could reload your save.

  7. TheProf Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Joysticks

    I bought the official analogue joysticks just to play this game.

    Didn't quite make Elite status before the end date to get the Elite badge so I have the shameful 'silver' medal.

    Later versions lack the charm of the flickering wireframe original spaceships.

    >>Thargoid bites space-dust.

    1. GlenP Silver badge

      Re: Joysticks

      I bought the official analogue joysticks just to play this game

      I built my own, mainly with parts from Tandy*. Apart from the analogue joystick and fire buttons it included direction switching to reverse the joystick (as you could hold it either way round) and trimming to get constant speed rotation of the ship.

      *We nearly got banned for, "playing with things you don't know anything about!" The group of us ended up, between us, with 6 computing or maths and computing degrees, including 3 Firsts. I think we knew somewhat more than the sales droid,

      1. MrBanana Silver badge

        Re: Joysticks

        We had a joystick cobbled together from a coffee tin (Maxwell House I seem to remember), a BIC Biro, and some stiff rubber bands. You tell that to young folk today with their GPS enabled, laser controlled, trackpads, and they won't believe you.

        [ Next up: Not The Nine O'Clock News, with "RS232 Interface Lead" ]

      2. Chael
        Boffin

        Re: Joysticks

        I had a bought joystick, but it didn't have a trigger on the stick so I made a footpedal for the laser out of meccano and a microswitch, so that I'd have my other hand free for the keyboard, to target missiles etc... Spent a lot of time on that game, but never got past Dangerous.

        1. Jonathan Richards 1 Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: Joysticks, and levelling up

          If I recall correctly, progression up the rating scale went in powers of two of the kill count, so it took just as long to go from Dangerous to Deadly as it did to go from Harmless to Dangerous. Well, I suppose one's kill rate increased, but not enough to make it possible for me to get past Deadly on a C64.

          I've mentioned before that OOLITE does quite a good job of recapturing the feel of Elite while expanding its horizons a bit.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Joysticks

      I seem to recall (on the BBC) you could force a drop out of hyperspace and get bounced by the Thargoids? I used to do that just to shoot up the mother ship so it would drop those little fighters, then blow up the mother ship and go pick them up (they went dormant).

      You could make good money on those (as long as you had enough fuel left to make a jump to a system somewhere).

      Never saw a Generation ship or Dredger though. Don't know if they actually existed in the game.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: Joysticks

        I seem to recall (on the BBC) you could force a drop out of hyperspace and get bounced by the Thargoids?

        Didn't you have to angle hard up as you jumped to Hyperspace to bump into the Thargoids?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Joysticks

        Had the Spectrum version, which you definitely could force a mis-jump. Can't remember how though.

        Generation ships and Dregers never existed in the original games, although there are some in Elite: Dangerous though

        1. ibmalone Silver badge

          Re: Joysticks

          One of the things that really makes Elite is the imaginative universe created, both in the star system descriptions, but also touches like including the Dark Wheel (which I've still never read, should get hold of a copy, I had Elite Plus which had the ship manual and other bits and pieces), both Elite 2 and First Encounters carried on that tradition with short story collections with each. Elite 2 came with a big fold-out star chart covering a lot of the area around Sol. It did occasionally go too far, I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out the Mirage in Elite 2 (which turned out to be a hoax, but pre-internet not an easy thing to discover).

          When you're filling out a procedurally generated universe where everything is going to look much the same it really helps to engage the imagination a bit. In a weird way the original Elite had the easiest job here, contrast Elite Dangerous where modern technology means a lot of effort can be put into creating interesting things to discover, though ultimately they all just repeated procedural elements. (The Stellar Forge used by ED is fascinating, while Elite placed stars 'randomly' across a map and chose a few characteristics, ED's galaxy is generated from the known properties of our own, to try to produce scientifically plausible stars and star systems, https://80.lv/articles/generating-the-universe-in-elite-dangerous

          1. Screepy

            Re: Joysticks

            +1 for the Stellar Forge used by today's ED.

            I went to FX17 (Frontiers own expo) in 2017 where they had all the lead devs giving talks about various aspects of the game.

            Frustratingly I forget the guys name who was lead on the stellar forge design but he gave a fascinating talk on the complexities of creating it.

        2. AndrueC Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: Joysticks

          Had the Spectrum version, which you definitely could force a mis-jump. Can't remember how though.

          Shift+F just prior to jumping (unless that was the CPC version).

          I got to Elite on all Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and BBC. I skipped the Comodore version because:

          a)It's on a Comodore.

          b)TribblesTrumbles seemed a stupid idea.

      3. Dabooka Silver badge

        Re: Joysticks

        Could on the Amstrad, certain of it, but I can't recall how.

        1. 40k slimez

          Re: Joysticks

          Amstrad CPC had the cargo bay bug.

          Buy the large cargo bay fill it with thargoids. Eject in your escape pod and u get your thargoids back + a whole new empty cargo bay. Did that a couple of times :)

          1. AndrueC Silver badge
            Unhappy

            Re: Joysticks

            Speccy had a worse bug. Start the game. Save your character before undocking. Load the saved character and now you have 255 of everything in the hold including an overfilled fuel tank. If I remember correctly when Firebird released Elite they ran a competition and Speccy owners were excluded because of this bug.

        2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Joysticks

          IIRC, there was a key combination to enter "witch-space" you had to hit during the hyperspace countdown. I have it in my head it was Ctrl-F but I stand to be corrected.

          1. AndrueC Silver badge
            Meh

            Re: Joysticks

            Same here but there was no Ctrl key on the Speccy hence my uncertainty.

      4. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Joysticks

        get bounced by the Thargoids

        Ouch! That sounds painful

    3. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Joysticks

      BitStiks were best. High precision joystick, three buttons and a twist on the stick for the throttle.

      But they were a bit pricey, and you ended up buying a CAD system and a second processor at the same time!

      1. Chris Evans

        Re: Joysticks

        £375 in 1984 was more than pricey for a joystick I doubt there are many joysticks available now at that price. Bitsticks do very occasionally turn up on ebay and sell for nearly what they cost new!

        1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Joysticks

          Yikes! My X-56 Rhino (that I bought for playing Elite:Dangerous) cost less than that, and that was last year during the "great HOTAS stick shortage" when the cheapo Thrustmaster ones were going for multiples of their RRP.

          A quick search shows that £399 these days would get you a Thrustmaster Warthog, which I believe is considered to be the Rolls Royce of flight sticks.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Joysticks

      I still have my badge at home - you had a "silver" one? Mine is just a round cheap printed thing - think the Yanks call it a "button"

    5. devin3782

      Re: Joysticks

      I played the Acorn version, it was the only machine that could handle shaded polygons at the time. People venorate the commador amiga but it really was weak in comparison.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Joysticks

        "I played the Acorn version, it was the only machine that could handle shaded polygons at the time. People venorate the commador amiga but it really was weak in comparison."

        That there's fightin' talk!!

        There were a lot of nice things about the Beeb, I had many to play with where I worked, and lots of nice add-ons the average user could only dream about, but claiming it was better than the Amiga is just...wrong. 8-bit as opposed to 16-bit for starters. The amazing Amiga graphics had incredible strengths in most areas, but could be weaker in others. It's such a shame that the port of Elite was so poor though. Fairly low res., pitiful sound effects to name but two. That port could have been soooo much better.

        1. Stumpy

          Re: Joysticks

          I suspect the original poster was referring to the 32-bit Acorn Archimedes, since that was the only Acorn machine that ran with shaded graphics. BBC was pure wireframe.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Joysticks

            Ah, ok, fairy'nuff. I never got to play with an Archimedes so can't really comment on that.

    6. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Joysticks

      "I bought the official analogue joysticks just to play this game."

      The best where the ones without auto-centring or where that could be be mechanically disabled, It made docking without a docking computer much easier.

      On the other hand, I was spoiled rotten at work playing Elite. Being an educational establishment, we had bought in some CAD package or other. Clearly not very memorable after all these years. But it was a super duper CAD package that cost a lot of money. Apart from the disks and manuals, also in the box was a 6502 coprocessor and a device called The BitStik!! The BitStik was basically a none centring analogue joystick the size of a large trackball with a knob sticking out of the top. Said knob was also a rotatable pot for Z-Axis control in the CAD package. It was also fully supported by Elite and would control the throttle making manual docking piss easy, set speed, set roll and go! :-)

      Ah, Here is the Bitstik, from Acorn themselves no less. Seems that was the CAD package name too. Interestingly it wasn't new. It was a rework of a product aimed at Apple ][ users 2 years earlier. But still, 2 grands worth of kit to play a 20 quid game LOL

    7. AndrueC Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Joysticks

      I never understood anyone wanting to play it with a joystick. I could never get the hang of it. I have always preferred to use the keyboard.

      S,X,<,> and spacebar to fire. What more does one need?

      Actually for the Speccy what you needed was a keyboard with a spacebar. Luckily my brother and I upgraded the keyboard of our shared speccy sometime prior and the 48k keyboard had a spacebar. That still meant using N,M but that was no hardship.

      :)

  8. AMBxx Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    TXA, TYA

    I'd forgotten the constant need to transfer the values of X and Y to the accumulator to do any work at all!

    Thanks for the memories.

    1. dinsdale54

      Re: TXA, TYA

      I also remember lines and and lines of ROL/ROR operators when doing graphics to move things around on screen. I guess whoever added the barrel shifter to the first ARM had experienced the same!

  9. NightFox

    It was all going well for me (C64 version) until I picked up a dose of the Trumbles.

    1. Joe W Silver badge

      ... thanks.

      Oh. So. Bloody. Much.

      This is just a nasty comment, causing a flashback about three decades (great $DEITY - I'm old) old memories to pile up.

    2. Dabooka Silver badge

      Didn't you just need to fly (dangerously) close to a sun and kill them off?

  10. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Here at the office he sits reading an article. The air is cold. He tuts under his breath.

    "The difference being that unlike Singleton's ZX Spectrum game, you can read about what Elite did on the Elite Wiki and then study the source code to see how David Braben and Ian Bell achieved it."

    There is the source code for the DOS remake available and you can read the blog by Chris Wild. Until recently there was a mobile version but the toolchain which was used to compile the game was retired which means that the game is unavailable while it's being re-written, as not keeping it up to date with the latest and greatest Android and iOS causes support issues.

  11. David Gosnell

    Galaxy generation

    I understood that the galaxies were generated based on using the BBC B ROM image as a pseudo-random number generator, and that this was one of the hindrances with releasing it for other contemporary platforms given that the ROM was copyrighted and would need to be redistributed. Not such a problem with later ports, without such constraints on static storage.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Galaxy generation

      Not sure about that, I have seen an excel spreadsheet that can generate the galaxies - just type in a number in a cell!

    2. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Galaxy generation

      Theres actually a trick to using a pseudo random number generator algorithm

      If you use the same 'seed' number for the generator each time, then the output of the generator is the same everytime

      Eg

      Set the seed to 5000 and generate the next 10 items.

      Then you'll get 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.

      Okj, move to a different PC , use the same program with the same seed

      and you'll get 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.

      So now you can generate a galaxy using nothing more than the algorithm to generate the values and a set number to ensure you generate the same galaxy no matter what.

      Its quite a neat little trick really......... unless you want to generate some truely random numbers.... say for public/private key encryption...

  12. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Ah, the halcyon days of tight hardware resources

    Back then, you had to be competent to make a game run. The difficulty getting anything on screen was already a first hurdle and, as said here, once you had your screen you had crumbs left over for the code and data.

    Nowadays, they'll just tell you that you need 16GB of RAM to run the game, but hey! there's 7,486,684,325 planets to explore !

    And they're all in memory.

    1. gotes

      Re: Ah, the halcyon days of tight hardware resources

      And they're all in memory.

      It's the 21st century, they'll all be in the cloud.

      1. David 132 Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: Ah, the halcyon days of tight hardware resources

        >It's the 21st century, they'll all be in the cloud.

        ...and you won't be able to buy the game, just subscribe to it at a very reasonable £9.99 a month.

  13. TeeCee Gold badge

    Hang on...

    Elite was pure mono wireframe, I played it to death. The telly was colour, but the game wasn't.

    I did see a BBC version that painted the wireframes with solid colour and very nice it was too. Trouble was it was on a machine with the second 6502 and the Z80 tube, which it required.

    Also an actual, honest-to-god CUB monitor standing on a bridge containing two Winchester disks, which weren't required.

    1. ChrisC Silver badge

      Re: Hang on...

      The lower part of the screen on the BBC version *was* colour. Not many colours, but definitely more than just the white and black present in the upper part.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: Hang on...

        The lower part of the screen was mode 5 (i.e. two bit's per pixel) which gave it four colours, but only 160 pixels wide. I was convenient that the vertical resolution was the same in both mode 4 and mode 5 at 256, as the mode switching did not have to do anything with the vertical scan rate.

        It was driven by one of the user programmable timer interrupts, which allowed them to insert some code, which at a set time after the video frame started, would jump in and twiddle the mode registers in the ULA. Because these timers could be upset by other interrupts, they were a little imprecise, which sometimes meant that there was some tearing at the divide between the two modes.

        On the 6502 second processor, and after minor tweaking systems with shadow RAM for the screen (B+ and later), it would work in mode 1 (2 bpp, four colours) for the whole screen, but I don't think it used solid colour anytime I saw it running on a BBC, even with a 6502 second processor. I know some other variants on other systems did.

        1. AndyMTB

          Re: Hang on...

          I had a TI-99 computer, onto which I tried to code a finite element stress engineering program. I soon ran out of memory, but then had the idea to use the full-colour graphics processor. By coding an integer into a character and shoving it onto the screen, I could then revisit the cell and work out the number eg red-upper-C = 78. Ran like a dog of course but very interesting seeing the graphical representation of a matrix being solved on the screen as the program worked its way down the diagonal.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Hang on...

            In the early days of 8-bit computers, some games used up the whole RAM as part of (or incidently) copy protection since there was no where for the copy programme to reside. It wasn't unusual back then for video RAM to be 7-bit, no lowercase letters. but then upgrades came out making the 1K video RAM up to 8 bit and a new char. gen for lower case. then copy programmes came out which loaded into video RAM so you could watch it work while it loaded then saved a "full RAM" game :-)

            (Pre Speccy/Beeb/C64 days)

          2. Stoneshop Silver badge

            Re: Hang on...

            Once did something similar by writing the Sieve of Eratosthenes prime number finder to work with its array of booleans defined in the screen memory for Mode 0. And of course with every byte representing 8 booleans.

        2. AndrueC Silver badge

          Re: Hang on...

          Similar tricks were used to get smooth scrolling on a CPC game (changing the scan offset) but most impressive I think was the 10 second countdown on the Speccy Starion game (it was something of an Elite clone). They flicked the border colour back and forth so that the digits filled the entire visible screen area.

          You can see it here, near the beginning after they finish dicking around redefining the controls.

          I seem to recall that Popeye tried to do something cute to overcome attribute clash but ended up running far too slowly to be fun.

    2. Boothy Silver badge

      Re: Hang on...

      Have a look on the (yes I know) wiki page, first screen shot is the BBC version, lots of yellow, red and green in the bottom section of the screen (power, radar etc.).

    3. Dante Alighieri Bronze badge
      Gimp

      Re: Hang on...

      Electron version was in mono.

      Really liked moving on to the Archimedes version though!

      I'm sure the Electron had a "very" prefix to ranks and I seem to recall I am "Very Deadly" on an Electron - I've still got it and the tapes to check but don't wish to be sucked into that black hole again as I would have to finally get Elite.

      Came with a set of postcards for the ships which are cool.

      Arch was great. Of course I had the commander editor to try out a few of the tweaks but still ran a "vanilla" untampered one for real. Still have the A420 and RISC PCs too...

      1. breakfast

        Re: Hang on...

        I think it could be fairly argued that the Arch release was the best version of the original Elite. It had so many neat tweaks and the way you would run into existing battles and could choose whether or not to get involved was extremely good.

  14. 502 bad gateway
    Thumb Up

    Magic indeed

    Oh the hours spent marvelling at this apparent miracle, 32kb of pure joy.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ah Elite !

    Although my gaming platform could not play it (was on Amstrad I think, back then), I've always been fascinated by watching friends play this.

    Recently, I bought No Man Sky and Stellaris due to Elite memories :)

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Ah Elite !

      my gaming platform could not play it (was on Amstrad I think

      There was an Amstrad CPC version of Elite.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge

        Re: Ah Elite !

        In colour, with filled in planets :)

    2. TheFifth

      Re: Ah Elite !

      It didn't come out until 1986 but the Amstrad had a really good port of Elite. I know this because I spent way too much of my childhood playing it!

    3. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Ah Elite !

      Recently, I bought No Man Sky and Stellaris due to Elite memories :)

      Have you tried Oolite?

      1. goodjudge

        Re: Ah Elite !

        "Have you tried Oolite?"

        I tried it a while ago and it looked good but after years of intensive playing of Elite in the 80s (only got to Deadly though) my fingers automatically fell into A/S/X and <> and refused to work properly in the Oolite keyboard configuration.

        I bought a floppy disk release for Win95 that I've copied onto successive computers since, and it still runs on Win7, but it's not as good as the BBC cassette version.

        1. dhawkshaw

          Re: Ah Elite !

          Do a search for oolite keyconfig -- it's a little tool listed in the wiki that can generate the different keymaps including the defaults from the BBC.

          oolite is still my goto for the nostagia hit.

    4. John 110

      Re: Ah Elite !

      The Amstrad CPCs played Elite very well, even including a handy bug involving approaching a station at high velocity then hitting hyperspace at just the right moment resulted in a docking computer-free dock.

      (IIRC it was a long time ago (and in a galaxy...))

      Nostalgia buffs can also experience the thrill of manual docking in Oolite...

      1. breakfast

        Re: Ah Elite !

        There was actually an even easier bug (I found it by accident, not sure how widely known it was) on the Amstrad where if you died on your way to a space station then went into the menu and hit "save" it would save the game as if you docked successfully. That really got me through the first few hundred credits until I could afford docking computers...

        1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Ah Elite !

          Also very useful if you wanted to make a tidy profit trading in anarchy systems, you could fight the pirates for profit, until you got killed, then just save into the local station!

          Got myself to "Deadly" that way. Never did put in enough hours to make Elite. I had homework to do!

    5. Dabooka Silver badge

      Re: Ah Elite !

      I recall losing many evenings on Elite on both 464 and my 6128

  16. ChrisC Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Lave Station, requesting clearance to launch...

    I hate to think how many thousands of hours of my younger life was spent piloting a Cobra Mk3 in various iterations of Elite - started on the BBC at my friends house, then got hold of the Spectrum version as soon as it was released, and finally the Amiga version. And then back to the BBC version many years later via emulation on my Android phone... thank the maker we didn't have the ability to carry Elite in our pockets back in the 80s, otherwise I hate to think of how many MORE thousands of hours I'd have lost to the game!

    In addition to all the obvious achievements of the game, an honourable mention has to go to the way it so elegantly managed to provide a clear indication of the position in 3D space of the nearby ships - that area scanner display was a work of pure genius.

    And nice to see an article about Elite that mentions both Braben AND Bell.

    1. TheFifth

      Re: Lave Station, requesting clearance to launch...

      I loved the way the scanner worked. I found it completely intuitive and very easy to work with. Oddly, I had a friend who could not work it out at all, no matter how many times I tried to explain it to him. I guess his mind didn't work in 3D (like flat earthers' minds).

  17. MajDom

    Anyone remember Aviator, before Elite...?

    Before Elite there was Aviator, a phenomenal flight simulator (Spitfire). All wireframe graphics, just one bridge and a handful of buildings. But very difficult to land! Loved it, and preferred it over the first MS flightsim, years later.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Anyone remember Aviator, before Elite...?

      I found Aviator difficult to play. I had a pair of the dreadful Acorn analogue joysticks (given as a freebie as my order was delayed so long), and in order to fly the Spitfire, I needed to extend the stick by unscrewing it, and then using a ballpoint pen barrel in it's place to make it about 6 inches long.

      And you needed to hold the joystick between your thighs, just so your other hand could operate the peddles and throttle.

      I also found Revs a bit difficult as well. Maybe I was just no good, but I used to be able to play Missile Command and Battlezone really well in the arcardes.

      1. MajDom

        Re: Anyone remember Aviator, before Elite...?

        Had those very same joysticks. Impossible to land the Spitfire with them, but that was part of the frustrating fun. ;)

      2. Sammy Smalls

        Re: Anyone remember Aviator, before Elite...?

        My Dad played it for hours with those joysticks and ended up with some elastic bands to Heath Robinson self centring. I could fly under the bridge, but landing was proper hard.

    2. ChrisC Silver badge

      Re: Anyone remember Aviator, before Elite...?

      Yes, that was another of the games in the copious collection my Beeb-owning best friend had at his disposal, and an early example of the genius of Geoff Crammond. It also, along with Psion Flight Sim on my Spectrum, kicked off a long-lasting love affair with flight sims.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Anyone remember Aviator, before Elite...?

      Aviator is the reason I have to fly upside down under bridges in all flight sims I have ever played since.

  18. Zebo-the-Fat

    Memories!

    ahhh... happy days...

    spent many many hours playing Elite on an Acorn Electron (couldn't affors a BBC) and yes... eventually made Elite!

    (the first priority was always to get the docking computer.. made things so much easier!)

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Et in arcadia ego

    1980's Silicon Fen. Happy Memories.

  20. Persona Silver badge

    Horrible game ;-)

    I spent countless hours trying to find asteroids to mine with my asteroid lasers. Years later I heard that they had been turned off in testing and not turned on again for the copy that was eventually written to the installation floppy disk.

    1. ChrisC Silver badge

      Re: Horrible game ;-)

      Mining lasers were however rather useful (though possibly only on certain versions of Elite) in combat if you had good aim, as whilst they suffered from a fairly slow firing rate compared with the military lasers most players lusted over, the amount of damage they'd cause with each hit was significant.

      1. Persona Silver badge

        Re: Horrible game ;-)

        Indeed, after not finding asteroids I used them to good effect in combat. I have a strange recollection (after 36 years) of them being sideways firing which was their biggest down side.

        1. ChrisC Silver badge

          Re: Horrible game ;-)

          I don't recall there being any limitations on which of the 4 mounts you could equip with mining lasers - IIRC the setup I settled on was military lasers to the front, left and right, and mining laser to the rear, as on the odd occasions when I did actually use it for its intended purpose, it was quite useful to have your Cobra pointing *away* from the asteroid, so that if you'd got slightly closer to it than you ought to have at the point where the laser completed its task, you could just punch the throttle and achieve a more suitable seperation distance before swinging round to make the pickup.

        2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Horrible game ;-)

          You could fit four lasers, front, back, left and right. The mining laser was definitely the best - the Amstrad version did have asteroids in it, and as well as making profit from mining them and getting the fragments (IIRC you got 0.5 creds for just blowing them up), you could take out most enemies with one or two hits. The military lasers overheated really quickly too, and were totally not worth it!

  21. Steve Goodey

    Code peeking.

    I seem to remember a work colleague looking through the code and finding the string "Does your mother know you do this?" which made us both laugh!

    I think he was trying to mod the game in some way.

    Unless I dreamt that!

  22. Fenton

    If only

    If only modern programmers had the sort of discipline, so keep code so lean without all the horrid bloat we see today

  23. Richocet

    Oh yes, that cool 3D radar display and the control panel.

  24. BebopWeBop
    Thumb Up

    When men were real men, women were real women, small green creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small green creatures from Alpha Centauri and when programmers were real programmers.

    1. breakfast

      And the Green Furry Humanoids of Diso were REAL Green Furry Humanoids.

    2. SonofRojBlake

      Interesting

      Mark Moxon was once editor of the Earth Edition of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, at h2g2.com and later the BBC and later h2g2.com

  25. NerryTutkins

    changed computer games

    I was a 13 year old kid when Elite came out. My friend already told me about it on his BBC micro, but his parents were weird so I'd never been over to see it. What he described seemed too good to be true. We had a commodore 64, but I was still used to games being a disappointment, where you look at the exciting pictures on the cassette box, and the reality of screenshots when you get things running was never anywhere near as good.

    When Elite finally came out on the c64 myself and my brother spent the entire school summer holiday playing all day. It was the first "open world" game I can remember, with no particular aim other than just to improve yourself and your ship and just go around having fun.

    I have oolite (an excellent open source homage) installed on my PCs, but my kids are unimpressed, even though the graphics are far better, it retains the charm and sticks very closely to the original, virtually identical trading screens, ratings, etc.

    That these guys put it together with such a small team and on such puny hardware is nothing short of a miracle.

  26. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Programs and games

    In the old days every bit and byte was precious, and code had to be tight due to memory and storage constraints.

    Back then profilers was also used to optimize your code, and devs would usually take their time to optimize their code.

    Nowadays there's not a care in the world as programs and the such is very bloated. If it works, ship it, no matter if the customers PC choke on it, they can always upgrade.

    Ask any modern software dev to code a wordprocessor or spreadsheet which'll work with 48k or 640k... and they will not be able to do so.

    Sad to see that smartphone programs are also starting to exhibit signs of bloat.

    Most of the time the extra functionality is not even used.

    But it probably is just me, and I'll head out to my alpaca farm to ponder over this.

  27. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    Stunning ingenuity!

    P.S: The article could benefit from some images.

  28. SonofRojBlake

    Mark Moxon was also once editor of the Earth Edition of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy... h2g2.com.

  29. Warhead1954

    Stuck in hyperspace with Thargons

    I first played Elite on a BBC B in a Learning Resource Centre at a residential training centre run by the government department I worked for in the 80s. The manager used to leave me the the key so I could stay late and try out all the kit they had in the centre, but when I discovered Elite I spent many evenings engrossed in it. There were a few occasions when I was in hyperspace and being attacked by Thargon swarms, but instead of emerging into normal space after a couple of minutes, I was stuck in there for maybe 20 minutes, although it felt like hours. I don't know if this was a bug, or intentional. Sometimes I made it through, sometimes I didn't, but I'd be soaked with sweat every time.

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