If you’ve been reading posts here for a while you’d have little doubt that Elite Dangerous consumes a fair amount of my time despite my ever increasing pile of shame. For me it neatly scratches that spacefaring itch and even when I lose millions of credits worth of ships through my own stupidity I still keep coming back for more bounty hunting and space trucking. When I look back at the previous game in the series, turns out it did much the same!
The early games had passed me by even though I was aware of them – there was no version of Elite (1984) for the Atari 8bit and it wasn’t the kind of game that interested my Commodore 64 owning friends (or me) at the time. Then when I made the jump to the Atari ST that version just wasn’t on my radar at all and when Frontier: Elite II (1993) was arriving I was just beginning to transition across to PCs for my studies and was spending a lot less on the platform. Thankfully it was only a couple of years later in 1995 when I had firmly settled into PCs that I found a CD-ROM copy of Frontier: First Encounters.
I think I was pretty lucky in getting my hands on the “remastered version”. Earlier copies were apparently quite buggy due to the publisher releasing the game before it was ready and Frontier spent a considerable amount of time releasing patches to get it in a stable form. The latest version of the game is 1.06 which should be the one most accessible to those curious enough to find the game.
Opening the box was like getting my hands on a time capsule as I found a few notes of my own (carefully typed up, of course) as well as the goodies that were bundled with the game itself. The manual covers the core mechanics of the game as well as a small guide to the ships that you’ll encounter and possibly own. I might have to search for my old game save as I had slowly worked my way up to a Panther Clipper which could best be described as a flying warehouse. It also flew like one too but it sure could be packed with a pile of guns…
The second book, subtitled “Further Stories of Life on the Frontier” includes nine short stories and is another great example of how the fiction surrounding the universe in the games has helped to build it in ways that they often failed at. Elite Dangerous has numerous spin off novels too but from the game uses Power Play, Community Goals and GalNet to help drive it’s own narrative – there’s still a chance players can miss a lot but the incentive of making big money from community goals does draw people in even it is only on the periphery.
Specs for the game are incredibly minimal compared to modern systems, requiring only a minimum 25Mhz 386DX and 4Mb of RAM but when it came to the audio and the MIDI driven tracks it didn’t harm to have a card capable of some decent output. The CD-ROM version’s only difference was the use of FMV characters popping up in the BBS screens which went a long way to adding some life to what could sometimes feel like a desolate galaxy.
To get the game running on modern systems requires a little bit of work. My first crack at the task was via DOSBox which creates a sandboxed environment that emulates an early DOS based PC. The first step was just copying all the game files from the CD-ROM into a directory on my PC. For those needing the original game files, the shareware version is easily available online through a Google search.
After installing DOSBox I used configuration files from a game I picked up a while ago on GOG.com to figure out how to set it up to run First Encounters. It did require an initial tweak to run the game’s setup application and set up the sound card (DOSBox emulating hardware like Soundblaster makes this a breeze) but once that was done the it happily runs either full screen or in a window.
There should be no reason that you can’t run the game this way on a low spec modern PC. With DOSBox handling the once annoying hardware configurations of the past you can be up and running on just about any machine that you own. On those not able to handle the latest game this could be a possible option that brings a similar experience.
Not only does the game run swimmingly under emulation but the game’s fan base also found ways to enhance the game even further. The most popular is FFED3D that enables the game to run on modern systems but also throws in a lot of visual enhancements that the community have taken further through updated models and textures. Those extras definitely bring the game up to a level far beyond the emulated version and is worth a look. It certainly doesn’t compare to the glorious visuals in Elite Dangerous but it does give the game a much needed fresh coat of paint. SpaceSimCentral.com seems to be the home of FFED3D and is the easiest way to get it but does require you to register before you will be able to download anything.
Even now it’s still pretty amazing in (either form) just how much was accomplished with the game’s engine. Players can travel to a multitude of stars and planets, landing on space stations and ground side in cities. Maybe the game’s version of Sydney and planet Earth doesn’t exactly resemble the real thing but that it’s there amongst thousands of locations in the galaxy is still pretty incredible.
One aspect of the game I definitely don’t miss though is the controls. The Newtonian flight model might be considered quite accurate (moreso than the latest game) but it can be pretty frustrating for players in general and combat feels more like a jousting competition with ships constantly zooming past rather than the thrill of engaging in dogfights.
It might seem strange for me to like a flying game where I don’t really like the flying part but in First Encounters I was firmly playing the role of space trucker and was more interested in figuring out the right trade routes and making good credits as I pursued my next great ship. I cared little for manoeuvring apart from pointing my ship in the right direction of my next destination. Combat was mainly me acting in a defensive capacity rather than proactively look for trouble. Choosing to play it that way I got a lot of enjoyment from the game.
From my own perspective, the concessions made in Elite Dangerous to the flight model have given me far more incentive to pursue different paths in earning credit. It may be considered by some fans as being less of a simulation but the result has made it far more of a game for me than it could have been.
In an age when YouTube tutorials didn’t exist, First Encounters takes a bit of time to get the hang of – especially when trying to make your first trade run. But through a bit of practise and judicious use of the “stardreamer” to speed up time you can be travelling the galaxy like the best of them. Will it steer me away from Elite Dangerous? No, but for those curious about the series who have a low spec machine with no Internet it might be a nice little distraction.