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The game starts as all Elite games do by setting you into the open world with 100 credits and a lightly armed cargo ship (the Cobra Mk III in this instance). The main thrust of the game is to simply earn credits through trading goods between different space stations and making a profit by taking advantage of the variable prices of different products between systems. This was not the only method by which you could earn credits however. and Elite was revolutionary in that it allowed you free choice in which role/roles you entered into during gameplay. Ships encountered could be destroyed and plundered, military missions could be taken up, asteroids could be mined for resources and lucrative bounty hunting contracts were available. You were never tied into a career and could jump between jobs at any point. Beyond this there was no overarching story or even back story with the aim of the game being simply to explore and earn credits.
Gameplay revolved around travel between planets (planetary systems were not available) by way of a hyperspace drive which required fuel to be replenished at the destination port. The skill behind the gameplay was in choosing the right items to trade so the maximum credits were earned from different trading runs. Mission variety beyond trading was exceptional. Military missions were mostly destroying ships or transporting sensitive cargo, but aimed to take you to parts of the universe not often explored, such as anarchic worlds never worth the risk of travelling for a simple trade run. Similarly, destroying ships would often revolve around attacking unique prototype ships leading to intense dogfights of a higher difficulty to those randomly encountered travelling between planets. Bounty hunting ran along similar lines with missions taking you into dangerous territory and often involved fighting higher quality ships for which you received far greater monetary rewards. Credits could be spent on ship upgrades which in turn unlocked varied types of gameplay. Mining lasers allowed mining of asteroids which often gave up valuable minerals whilst making you a tempting target for pirates and the fuel scoop allowed you to catch fuel by skillful flying close to the surface of stars.
The notion of an open world game at the time was unheard of. With eight galaxies and 256 planets in each galaxy the game had to be procedurally generated to due to the limitations of the 8-bit computers of the time (the entire game fits into 22KB of memory on the BBC Micro, for example). As such each galaxy, whilst being unique to each player, will all have planets with a pre-determined composition. The issue with creating the galaxies by this method is that it would occasionally lead to galaxies being in positions where upon reaching them, the hyperspace drive would not be powerful enough to transport the player out again, which in essence broke the game. Planets varied in terms of safety with some entirely safe and others more prone to attack by the games primary antagonists, the Thargoids (whose home world was highly dangerous) and pirates who would intercept you in more lawless territories. Technical limitations ensured that one could not land on planets, with every planet having a space station orbiting with which you could dock but not explore.
With the game garnering high critical praise and selling handsomely sequels were forthcoming. Frontier: Elite 2 was released in 1993 adding textures, an expanded game world and a new control method, moving the game away from its arcade-style along with a raft of other expansions. This was followed by Frontier: First Encounters which garnered significant negative press due to its premature release resulting in the game being filled with game-breaking bugs. Elite 4 has been in development since 1999 for PC and modern consoles yet the lack of information on it has led to fears of the game being vaporware. All that has been heard is that the game was once an MMO before being restarted due to technical limitations and more recently a source indicated to eurogamer.net that pre-production has been put on hold indefinitely while Frontier Development's title "The Outsider" was completed.
As of November 5, 2012, a Kickstarter project is running which aims to accumulate enough funds to develop a new sequel: Elite: Dangerous.
- It was possible to come across a product named 'Tribbles' when visiting space stations. If you decide to buy it and then undock into open space again, after a short time of flying, small light-coloured blobs will start to appear on your screen. After a while the whole screen will be completely filled with these blobs making it completely impossible to fly. This is a reference to the Star Trek (the original series) episode called "The Trouble with Tribbles", where small furry animals get into a space station and start breeding at a phenomenal rate until they completely infest it. This is only available in the Commodore 64 version.
- In certain versions when docking the Blue Danube Waltz is played as a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Stills of the game were displayed in the music video for 'Pump Up The Volume' by MARRS.
- The launch of game was unique for the time. A special larger box housed the game and came with a novella on the game world to gain extra attention. The game was launched at a launch party at Thorpe Theme Park in the UK (an unheard of marketing move at the time) and there was a contest for the first gamer to reach "Elite" rank within the game.