Elite – Part 1

I’ve decided I am going to branch out a little with the game selections on here but this next choice should come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading recent posts. There are still tenuous links to Origin since this is/was Chris Roberts favourite game or at least that’s what he told PC Review some years back. He also supported the Kickstarter project for a sequel more recently and it’s a title with a clear influence on Wing Commander and more particularly Privateer.


I am of course talking about Elite which was written by Ian Bell and David Braben and published originally on the 32K BBC Micro all the way back in 1984. It’s a game that sold by the bucketload and remains well-known to this day but originally couldn’t find a publisher in a story that isn’t all that dissimilar to what you would expect to hear these days for anyone trying to market an original concept. After first being turned down by Thorn EMI (who cited most of the game’s major features as reasons for their decision), the game was ultimately taken up by the relative minnows at AcornSoft. Once it had found its foothold on the BBC however it ended up being ported to most of the major computers of the time.

Later still in 1991 an enhanced version called Elite Plus was published on the PC with filled polygons but largely unchanged gameplay which is the version I played the most. I spent long enough on this to reach the coveted Elite status and it’s a testament to the original game that it stood up so well with just minor enhancements. Sequels of varying quality came after that followed eventually by last years Kickstarter for a further entry in the series. It’s an IP that is still synonymous with the BBC though and when I’ve mentioned to people that I’ve just bought a BBC of my own, the first thing I’m invariably asked is whether I’ll be playing Elite on it. The answer to that is a resounding yes but before I get to that, a brief history of the BBC Micro.

In 1979 the education department at the BBC decided to start a computer literacy programme aiming to teach and promote the use of computers. This was an ambitious project which would involve a TV series to act as an introduction with books to follow on and expand upon this. The TV series was unimaginatively called “The Computer Programme” and ran for 6 episodes on BBC1. I watched all of these a while back and it’s certainly an interesting insight into the fledgling life of the home computer whilst also being incredibly dated and quaint. If you want to know how much the world has been changed by computing in the last 30 years, this sort of show makes it hit home. Further series under various titles followed on a similar theme which were less educational and branched out into uses of computing in industry and the home.


The content on “The Computer Programme” was simplistic but at least showed the sort of thing that was possible with some simple programming in an era when this was all new to the vast majority of people. It’s hard to imagine anything like this on BBC1 now, let alone back when we only had 3 TV channels but this was back in the day when ITV broadcast several hours of educational programmes every weekday morning so it was far from unprecedented. The scheme had been in planning for 4 years by the time the TV programme made it to air but in many ways the timing couldn’t have been better. When broadcast in 1982, Britain had possibly the highest concentration of computers per home of any country led largely by Clive Sinclair’s drive for affordable computing started by the ZX80. The government had also backed the computer literacy program ultimately putting computers in the vast majority of schools, many of which incorporated the TV show into their curriculum.

One thing that quickly became apparent when setting up the scheme was that there wasn’t a computer in existence which fit the requirements of affordability + a robust enough BASIC programming language to be suitable for education. The new TV show needed a new computer. Requirements were drawn up and bids invited with the main competition being between Sinclair and Acorn. This battle was somewhat acrimonious and while I’m sure it strays well from the real story, the BBC film drama Micro Men covers this and is a recommended watch for those interested. Sinclair ultimately lost out to Acorn but went on to make the 48K ZX Spectrum which dominated the home market in the UK for some years to come. Acorn had the lucrative school contract though and their machines were a part of the education of many children of the 80’s myself included with over 1.5 million units manufactured.


As for the hardware, it’s far more convincing as a serious computer than the ZX Spectrum ever was but the price tag at the time more than made up for it. £400 for a Model B was enough to mean that not many people had these in the home with both the C64 and Spectrum offering being far cheaper alternatives. For those that could afford the asking price the BBC still had a lot going for it and came with an array of interface options which allowed for adding disk drives, hard drives, extra memory, extra processors, light pens, acoustic couplers and even laser discs. It was relatively easy to use it to interface with switches and external hardware which saw it often used in industry, a famous example being rotating the dishes at Jodrell Bank. I ran into one myself when doing short contract a handful of years back for a company who were still using one to control industrial machinery. They were now down to their last working computer and finally needed to move onto something more modern. It’s a testament to the build quality that it had kept it going in that environment for so many years.

My own desire to own a BBC reached tipping point after Retro Revival recently. You can’t go to an event like that and not come back wanting to get hold of some of the hardware for yourself. The one I picked arrived in nearly fully working order but my experience is that any piece of retro hardware always needs something fixing. In this case it was only some dead keys on the keyboard. Thankfully it’s an extremely easy computer to work on and even has instructions on the back for taking it apart with all the screws that need to be removed marked. This would not happen on any electronics you buy these days. It’s all ready for some gaming now anyway, but I’ve gone on quite long enough already so it will have to wait for part 2.

Match Day

This was Chris Roberts’ second game for Ocean (who owned Imagine) on the BBC. Match Day was a massive game in its day leading to Ocean wanting to get it onto as many platforms as possible. Having just brought them a bestselling game for the BBC, Roberts must have seemed like the obvious choice for the job of porting it to the system. I know Martin Galway worked on the C-64 port so he may have been an influence also.

Match Day is a simple arcade football game. I’ve played it previously on the Spectrum and also seen the Amstrad CPC version so I’ve got something to compare against this time. The first thing I notice is that the BBC port has no cup competition to enter, no settings to alter the match length and not even any team names. It is literally just a one off game. It does have a two player option at least.

The game starts with a jaunty rendition of the Match Of The Day theme music before kick off. This is a truly simplified version of football with less than 11 men a side and only one fire button used to kick the ball. This kick lofts the ball into the air no matter what so it isn’t possible to pass the ball in the conventional sense. If the ball bumps into another player anywhere other than at their feet it bounce soff them as though they were a brick wall.

In the Spectrum version, it was possible to walk down the pitch bouncing the ball on one players head in this manner and no one could tackle you while you walked the ball into the net. That doesn’t seem to be possible here at least.

Once you have the ball at your feet, it sticks there as if glued although it can be tricky to keep hold of it with the constant harassing from the other side. Scoring a goal appears to be just a case of kicking the ball between the posts with enough power to cross the line. The goalkeepers in this game are no more than a third goalpost and rarely move other than to dive out of the way of a shot aimed straight at them. Because the ball is always lofted when kicking, long shots work better than those close to the goal.

This isn’t a game that has held up too well. The main thing that strikes me is how slow it is. I ended up putting the emulator onto 2x speed to get it up to the tempo it feels like it should be going at. This speed issue was far from unique to the BBC though. The Spectrum version was possibly a little faster but it was extremely ugly by comparison. As for the Amstrad CPC version, it had similar graphics but the speed was far worse than this and all but unplayable.

Comparing it to those other versions, this is a decent port but there is no way I could recommend this game to anyone. It’s one of those titles that you look back at and wonder why on earth we all spent so much time on it.


Wizadore was Chris Roberts’ first commercially sold game outside of magazines and was published by Imagine in 1985. Roberts got the publishing contract via Martin Galway, who should be a familiar name to most retrogamers. Galway went to the the same school as Roberts and although they didn’t get on at the time, they ended up working together on numerous games together afterwards. This continued for years with Galway working at times for Origin on games such as Times Of Lore and Wing Commander 3. He is probably most famous though for producing some of the best music on the Commodore 64’s SID chip.

Roberts originally attempted to get Wizadore published by Ultimate (who would later became Rare) having made the game in his own time. The main problem was that the BBC wasn’t seen as a games machine and was primarily used in schools, with the far cheaper Spectrum and C64 being the two major players in home gaming in the UK. At this time, Galway was working for Ocean who were trying to launch the Imagine brand. Imagine only had one half finished game and Galway managed to persuade them to publish Wizadore to expand the range. This gave Roberts his major break into the industry at the age of 16. It went on to be a bestseller and led to more work writing the BBC conversion of Match Day.

Wizadore offered entry into several monthly draws for £100 for anyone who could complete it. This wasn’t common but it was far from the first game to offer a real world prize. The example that springs to mind here was the game Pimania, which was originally published on the ZX81. The whole game was a series of cryptic clues, meant to give the time, date and location of somewhere to be to claim the one off prize. This was so obscure that it was years before anyone won it. I can’t imagine many people made it to the end of Wizadore without cheating either.

The game itself is a simple platformer with smooth horizontally scrolling screens and a 3 item inventory. Scans of the instructions are above but the basic idea is to get the 3 parts of the sword to kill the dragon. You don’t start with any offensive weaponry but there are 3 scrolls in the game which can be picked up and used to cast offensive spells. These spells each destroy a certain type of enemy, but the archers were all invulnerable as far as I could tell. There is a little flickering with the sprites, but the game runs extremely smoothly and it’s a long way from the Kong game a couple of years earlier.

Rather that the usual load of screenshots, I thought I’d do a longplay for this game and upload it to Youtube. I didn’t realise quite how difficult it was going to be when I started however. It’s fair to say that every single jump has to be pixel perfect. Even climbing ladders is difficult as the game uses the same key for up and jump. This can lead to all sorts of grief when trying to get on or off a ladder quickly. The main challenge is in jumping over arrows launched by the many archers, but if this can be mastered then the game is potentially completable with enough practice. For anyone wanting to give this a go, the first screen is a great example of just how hard this game is and getting the scroll requires a lot of practice.

The other challenge is in juggling inventory and navigating around the map. The world isn’t huge but because of the limited inventory plenty of backtracking is involved to fetch objects left behind. I nearly finished the game a couple of times only to discover I’d made it unwinnable by leaving something in the wrong place. The full playthrough is below. It won’t make for the most entertaining viewing at nearly 30 minutes but it does offer an easy way to see the ending.

The ending of the game isn’t much reward for all the effort, although I don’t expect many people ever saw it. It would have been nice to see the dragon fall over or something but it does at least have an ending which puts it ahead of most games of the era. I did enjoy the journey to get there, although I’m glad to have the modern option of savestates.

Not having owned a BBC back in the day, I’ve little basis for judging the game but comparing it to Spectrum platformers of the time it’s not as much fun as Manic Miner and nowhere near Jet Set Willy. Having said that, neither of those games had smooth scrolling and this was a great effort for a 16 year old publishing his first game. I can easily see that I would have spent ages on it back in the day if I’d gone for a BBC instead of a Spectrum. It’s a game that appears to be fondly remembered among those who played it back then but from what I’ve heard, Strykers Run is Roberts’ real classic from his pre-Origin days. Before I get to that, I’ll have a look at Match Day next which was his second published game on the BBC.