By Holger Weets
This was the most interesting and distinctive entry to the recent
'Little Big Competition', as sponsored by MagiC Online and the Place2Be
news site. Quite simply, this is the Atari GEM version of a freeware
project to convert the classic space combat and trading game 'Elite' to
as many diverse systems as possible.
'Elite' and me have had a long association, going back to the original
BBC (Model B) version, back in 1985. Relatively new ideas, such as a
genuine 3-D environment, a 'trade and upgrade' motive, tied in with the
vast scale of the thing, where you literally had a whole universe to
play with, proved to be a winning formula, and soon, Elite spread beyond
the Beeb, onto almost every other popular 8-bit home computer of the
era. It even sustained its popularity into the 16-bit age, gaining a
tweak and polish with a bit of an update, for ST, Amiga, and early
versions of the Wintel PC, amongst others.
We'll gloss over the lengthily delayed sequel 'Frontier', which was a
much more complex and slower paced game than the original, and move
swiftly to the present, where GEM Elite comes in.
To look at, it initially takes the form of the later 16-bit versions of
the game. A solid polygonal Cobra mk3 spins into view, inviting you to
go on into the main game. From there, everything looks pretty much like
business as usual, as all the familiar trading, navigation and viewpoint
screens (once in flight) are all present. These are accessed via the
function keys. The flight controls coalesce into a combination of
keyboard and mouse, and where available, the traditional 9-pin joystick.
No Jagpads, just yet, but these may come in a later version! In addition
to the familiar aspects, some extra options, as you can customise look
and feel to a large extent.
So it is possible to install something other than a plain system font,
if you are running NVDI. Also, it is possible to opt for different
levels of detail, so you could bring back the classic vector line days
of the BBC Model B, or opt for planetary details that you've only seen
on the SNES version previously! A large part of how you decide to
customise your game depends a lot on the ability of the supporting
hardware to run it, or possibly not. We shall discuss this in the next
This is possibly the first game on Atari TOS computers that requires an
800 x 600 screen mode as the default minimum! This rules out an awful
lot of hardware right away. So forget this for the majority of machines.
You are looking at either heavily modified hardware, or something like a
Hades or Milan. Or something with a third party graphics card, and a bit
of accelerated CPU....
After an initial bit of misunderstanding, where an 800 x 592 screen mode
on my CT2 Falcy was deemed "insufficient", (I managed to get it going by
the simple expedient of reworking it to an 800 x 608 pixel mode!) I was
off and running! This does run in a variety of screen colour modes,
right up to truecolor, and probably on any third party 24-bit mode too.
I would suggest a very powerful machine if you are going to run it in
something like 256 colours upwards, as on my CT2, it looked very pretty,
but moved very sluggishly. Sixteen colours was better, but I had to go
right down to a moody magnificent expanded monochrome viewpoint before
the game became smooth and fluent. And don't forget, this is on a 50 mhz
CPU, with a special FPU-friendly executable, which is faster than normal
in any case!
As I said, choose your hardware with care!
There are some sounds present, for any machine able to support these. I
suspect they are sampled from the original Beeb Model B version of the
game, as the extremely 8-bit sounding hyperspace jumps seemed to prove?
It is almost complete at this stage, there are still some more or less
incidental things missing. Such as the docking computer, escape pod, and
some of the special missions later on in the game. Also, the dreaded
Thargoids have still to make an appearance. This is a deficiency passed
on by the incomplete state of the original free source code, to be fair,
which is waiting to be made good there. Other bugs are small, but there
is one crucial bug in this version. I can manage quite well without a
docking computer, being the hardened Elite player of many years
experience that I am. But a scanner which half-displays in a cocked-up
(or coked-up?) fashion in the wrong part of the screen is no use to
anyone! Holger, fix that scanner NOW!
In spite of this, I have been making quiet progress, gradually upgrading
my ship, flying simple trading missions, whenever the odd hour or two
has been going spare. Even in its present form, it is a perfectly
serviceable version of a classic game. I've even managed to kill off the
occasional ne'er-do-well, so now I'm 'Mostly Harmless' (Which is a good
a summing-up of my life as you can get!)
Once this game has been fully implemented, and promised extra features
such as Jagpad control have been put in, it will rock! But only for
those fortunate owners of fast TOS machines. In the meantime, just one
or two small fixes are needed to make it properly playable, such as a
GEM-Elite, the bugfixed edition, how about it?
CiH for Alive! Mag, June 2001.