When I was 7, my dad let me stay up past my bedtime to watch Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I didn't understand all of what Sagan said, but I was deeply impressed by the realization that the universe, if anything, was huge and mysterious beyond my understanding. This impression was reinforced by an educational poster that hung in my childhood bedroom for years. It depicted, among other things, a map of the solar system, a calendar of the known lifespan of the universe, and a "powers of 10" sequence of 39 images that zoomed, in stages, from a carbon atom to an image of the entire known universe.
Yet, as a child of the Star Wars generation, I was raised on science-fiction as much as science fact. My imagination populated the cold, sterile universe depicted by that poster on my bedroom wall with exotic alien races and epic conflicts. I yearned to leave my humble planet and explore those timeless, endless worlds.
I'm still entranced by the thought of glorious exploration and dogfights among the stars, yet I look at the science-fiction games of today and I can't help but feel saddened by the realization that in-game space flight is almost entirely absent. Instead, fast-paced shooting, roleplaying adventures and battlefield strategy are the order of the day. You'd think that travel and combat in the depths of space were no more alluring than the prospect of a coach seat on a flight across a few time zones.
It didn't used to be like this.
In 1984, college undergrads Ian Bell and David Braben created a massive universe within a few dozen kilobytes of data orbiting the center of a single floppy disk. Their game was Elite, and for the space sim genre, it was the big-bang.
Elite put its players aboard a tiny spacecraft and launched them into something remarkable: a fully 3-D representation of vast, explorable space. Though capable only of wireframe graphics, its engine provided groundbreaking freedom of movement, and its eight separate galaxies contained more than 2,000 planets for players to visit. At the helm of the Cobra Mk III craft, the universe was the player's oyster.
Elite's initial release had no storyline or plot. The only explicit goal it presented was a gradual increase in ranking, from "Harmless" to "Elite," earned by defeating hostile craft piloted by adversaries including aliens, pirates and bounty hunters. Success in battle depended upon purchasing equipment and weapons upgrades. In addition to space combat, Elite provided the enterprising space entrepreneur with a robust galactic trade market, each planet buying and selling commodities according to its population's needs.
Elite's massive universe predated modern "sandbox" game design by more than a decade and a half. Acclaimed by both critics and gamers, during the mid-1980s, it was ported from its original BBC Micro and Acorn versions to nearly every home computer on the market. It even made an appearance on the NES. In the years that followed, a number of unremarkable Elite-style clones tried to duplicate the game's winning formula, but it wasn't until the following decade that the space sim really came into its own.
The 1990s were the golden age of space simulation, owing in large part to the commercial successes of two major PC franchises: Wing Commander and the Star Wars: X-Wing series. Both focused on fast-paced outer-space dogfights, but they eschewed Elite's focus on trade and exploration in favor of scripted, plot-based missions.
From 1990 until 1998, the Wing Commander titles captivated gamers with space-based combat and character-driven, interactive storytelling. The series' fourth installment, released in 1995, purportedly had a budget of more than $10 million. The franchise eventually spawned an animated television series, a series of novels and even a major motion picture.
The Star Wars universe, on the other hand, had been a science-fiction mainstay for nearly two decades when Star Wars: X-Wing was released in 1993. Though not as personality-driven as the Wing Commander series, the X-Wing titles and their expansions, released up until 1999's X-Wing Alliance, sold joysticks by the thousands.