Frontier Elite 2 at 25

It won't surprise anyone reading this that I'm a big fan of Frontier Elite 2. After all, I've had this website which combines the Elite and Frontier games with astronomy running since 2001. But as FE2 has reached its 25th birthday (released on 29th October 1993) I thought I would mark the occasion by relating my experiences with the Elite & Frontier games and what made the Frontier games - in particular - so good.

I'm a member of the "Class of '84" - in other words, someone who first sampled the amazing world that David Braben and Ian Bell created when Elite was released for the BBC and Acorn Electron home computers in September 1984.

Although my parents were kind enough to buy me a BBC Model B, money didn't stretch far enough for a disk drive. This meant I was forced to endure the 5-minute loading time from cassette tape, though I have no particular recollection of this being such an issue - I would just go and do something else while waiting for it to load!

A friend of mine had the disk version, which really was the "classic" BBC Elite and I remember being quite envious of the missions and extra ships. Mind you, another friend had to make do with the inferior Electron version, with its monochrome graphics and missing suns! So I was definitely in the middle ground as far as that was concerned, though I would have killed for the disk version.

The strange thing is, despite loving the game I was never particularly good at it. In later years I came to regard this as the pitch-and-roll versus pitch-and-yaw argument, as Frontier Elite 2 employed the latter system which worked so much better for me.

Personally, the pitch-and-roll never clicked and I would struggle endlessly to align my laser sights on an incoming hostile ship. As for the Thargoids - my ship was destroyed within seconds whenever they ever showed up. Despite my limitations though, I'm fairly sure I managed to reach "Competent" in the Elite ranking system.

What I really loved about the game was the world it was set in - space. The late Robert Holdstock wrote a brilliant novella - The Dark Wheel - which was included with the game, in printed form. The combination of this and the Space Trader's Flight Training Manual - also included in printed form in the game - made Elite the greatest 8-bit computer game I ever played, even though I was pretty rubbish at the game itself.

Through the late 1980s and early 1990s I didn't really give Elite much thought, although I had an interest in science fiction novels and astronomy. So, like many, I was taken by surprise when it was announced that Frontier Elite 2 (FE2) would be released for IBM PC, Commodore Amiga and Atari ST in October 1993.

At that time, I had just upgraded from an Amiga 500 to the more powerful Amiga 1200, which was just was well as FE2 ran at about 2 frames-per-second on the older machine. My Frontier "career" had started.

I took to this game like a duck to water. The pitch-and-yaw system of control was completely natural; the analogy of sliding on ice being accurate. Firing your main engines made the ship move accordingly; yawing the ship through 180 degrees and firing them again would work against your initial velocity until you eventually overcame it and then you'd start moving in the new direction. Inertia made much more sense to me and enabled me to pretty much master this game, reaching Elite ranking fairly quickly.

Another plus point of FE2 was it being set in the "real" galaxy - in other words featuring our own Sol system. All the planets and moons were included, and our solar system nestled amongst the other stars we can see in the night sky, depending on our location on Earth. For me, this brought the program away from being purely a game - which Elite still was, with its fictional stars spread through eight galaxies - and made it a simulator in many ways.

A stroke of genius by David Braben was to safely avoid the tedium of long interstellar journeys - by implementing the "Stardreamer" time acceleration feature - whilst maintaing the program's overall scientific accuracy. No mean feat, but somehow he pulled it off.

The next winning aspect was the ability to land at spaceports on planets - with city buildings and other landmarks adjacent to the port itself - as well as at orbiting stations and trading posts. Even now, Elite Dangerous doesn't have this facility and, by all accounts, won't for some considerable time. In 1993, however, we already had this. Clearly, when this feature is added to ED it will be far more detailed and interactive than FE2 can offer, but nevertheless Frontier had it there a long time ago, with truly seamless transitions from space to atmosphere to planet surface and vice versa. This latter element can't even be replicated by Elite Dangerous in 2018!

Frontier Elite 2 allows the player to land on inhabited and uninhabited planets. This is Sirocco Station on Merlin in the Ross 154 system, where humans live in cities underneath huge transparent domes. This is to protect them from the harsh planetary conditions, where temperatures average -4C. In the picture above, the gas giant Aster can be seen to the upper right.

This is Olympus Village, on Mars in the Sol system, which has been terraformed by the time the game is set in (year 3200). Terraforming is a process by which a previously unhospitable planet - such as Mars - can be converted into a living, breathing world. Olympus Mons can be seen in the background in the picture below.

FE2 featured the ability to launch from a planet, accelerate up through the atmosphere and continue to outer space with no cut-scenes, loading screens or any other fudges. The reverse trip was the same. It was the first game to feature this, which helped preserve the immersion as well as allowing the player to experiment with sling-shots and orbits around planets.

The Solar system in which we live is modelled very accurately, as shown in the picture above. Slightly more is now known about our local system, but 25 years ago this represented the knowledge at the time. The completeness and accuracy allowed the player to visit any body in all star systems, such as Jupiter in the picture below.

To get more details about Frontier Elite 2 and its sequel Frontier: First Encounters, visit the FrontierAstro Frontier page

Frontier Elite 2 can be downloaded and played on PC by following the instructions on the FrontierAstro DOSBox page

To play Amiga or Atari ST FE2 (via an emulator) visit the Obtaining Frontier page

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