I Heart… Space Sims

I sat down to do an ‘I Heart’ piece and as I pondered over my choices I realised that, apart from a small handful, the games I have the fondest memories of and have devoted the most time to were all in the same genre – a dying genre at that. To that end I’ve bent the rules of the ‘I Heart’ format and am not focusing on a single game; instead I’m on a mission to remind everyone just how awesome the space sim genre is.  My first experience occurred back in the eighties and it was a mind-blowing one. I am, of course, talking about Elite – David Braben and Ian Bell’s piece of perfection.

Not only did I have a seemingly-infinite universe to explore, free from the strictures of platforms and walled areas, but I had choices, too. Did I want to be a renegade, killing traders and stealing their cargo?  Did I want to be a trader and risk the wrath of pirates? Did I want to clean up the anarchist systems by taking out the pirates? While lacking in narrative, the game allowed me to create this persona and decide how I wanted to play. Even to this day I often find this type of freedom lacking in most games.

The experience went much deeper than many games that came before (and after). I could name my character and customise the ship, the first personalisation I’d come across in a game and it instantly connected that character to me. I was invested in Commander Stupot and that wireframe Cobra Mk III. Elite will forever hold a place in my heart as my first real long-lasting love affair with gaming, so much so that I also bought the Amiga and PC versions, and the very disappointing Frontier follow-ups (but let’s just pretend they don’t exist!).

While Elite offered trading, combat, ship upgrades and exploration as its hook, a very different beast was released when I had reached the Amiga-age of gaming. Wing Commander took away the freedom of exploration, the trading – instead replacing it with a strong narrative, cutscenes and wingmen commands. You were no longer a lone wolf in the universe, there was a galaxy that needed saving and only the crew of the Tiger’s Claw was up to the challenge. The graphics were amazing compared to anything around at the time, there were branching plots depending on outcomes of missions and performance in combat with a campaign ending in triumph or disaster – something still rarely implemented nowadays.  With Wing Commander came some complex controls, and as the genre became more popular, the controls get ever more insane. I still remember the cardboard keyboard overlay I had with I-War, amongst other games. You knew you were in for a learning curve when 60% of the keyboard had a function.

A halcyon period for space sims then followed. The genre was filled with sequels, homages, clones and new IP. I still remember the excitement when I found that the guy in Tachyon: The Fringe was none other than Bruce Campbell. Add to that Mark Hamill in Wing Commander when the FMV period of gaming was in full swing… well when you have gone from six 3.5” 1.44mb disks to one 720MB CD what else are you going to fill it with? Then Clive Owen portrayed Ser Lev Arris in Privateer 2 – a seminal piece of space-faring gaming. It was a few years later that the FMV craze had died out, with Wing Commander and Command & Conquer being the only stalwart franchises sticking with it. Great things never last forever and eventually the Wing Commander series was laid to rest after Prophecy – my eventual favourite of them all. The Roberts brothers continued with Starlancer and the amazing Freelancer before calling it a day with gaming, and instead went off to make a movie that shall not be named.

There were other great IPs out there such as Freespace and the Star Wars games (Xwing & the followup Tie-fighter), but then the well started to run dry. Egosoft made a bloody good stab at reviving the Elite-styled genre with X Beyond the Frontier and its sequels, but other than that the whole genre just collapsed in on itself. What happened? Why the sudden apathy towards the genre?  I have suspicions. Every game seemed to boil down to escort missions, combat missions and the odd package retrieval. There was never anything new. Add to that the fact you were either someone who ‘inherited’ a rogue ship (Darkstar One, Hardwar, X-BTF Tachyon, Freelancer) or someone in the military (X-Wing, Wing Commander, FreeSpace, I-War) which made most plots identical: save the universe from an evil threat that was either military or alien. The complexity of the games got a little ludicrous too; I-War (like the Elite follow-up: Frontier) used Newtonian physics and had a wall chart for control reference as well as the keyboard overlay. Insanity!

Consoles also began to massively replace non-PC computers in the home. Amigas died out, N64s and Playstations came in. Before we knew it, PS2 had a stranglehold on the home console scene and with no keyboard there was no way to implement all the functions and features of a space sim. Cross-platform genres like FPS, racing and RPG took the lead and space sims just seemed to get forgotten about. Attempts have been made though; Project Sylpheed on the Xbox360 was an interesting effort at a space combat game and a port of Darkstar One also made it to the Xbox amid mediocre to poor reviews.

All is not lost though. Eve Online is one of the MMO stalwarts, having maintained an active user-base for many years. Egosoft are still working on the X series – albeit slowly – and both Chris Roberts and David Braben have had successful Kickstarters based around a return to space sims. Perhaps the innovations of this console generation in terms of UI and controller capability (selection wheels via bumper buttons, etc.), the rekindling of almost-forgotten memories by an Elite remake and a general boredom with the myriad of average military shooters may herald a second coming for the genre.  I, for one, hope so – too long have I sat in a vacuum bereft of any new space sim fun. Like a space-pilot sat in an ejected pod, I’m awaiting a call from the mothership and a new ship with which to retake the stars!

Last five articles by Stu



  1. Richie Rich says:

    The reason why I’ve not bought a better gaming PC is because all I’d do is fire up Freelancer anyway.

    Darkstar One was a bit bollocks but I enjoyed going back to the genre.

  2. Chris Toffer says:

    Freespace 2 remains the pinnacle of space sims for me. I don’t own it anymore, but part of me doesn’t want to buy it as to not ruin my memories of it.

  3. Lorna Lorna says:

    I’ve never delved fully into the world of space sims, which is a shame as it is something that I have long held an interest in. I also know that if I found the right one, what little free time I have now would be sucked away quicker than a whippet out of an airlock.

    I don’t recall seeing a real flagship title announced to be sailing over the horizon for a long time now (although I think that there is another X game on the way) which is a shame. That said, it just takes one to capture people’s imaginations and suddenly the whole genre will see a revival. I suspect that Kickstarter may well be a real boost for it in the same way that it has been for point and clicks – an equally overlooked genre until recently. Fingers crossed.

  4. Kris Kris says:

    Ah yeah, I loved Darkstar One, and did you ever play space rangers? That had some interesting points to it such as text based adventures on some planets. I can’t help but feel the same love for the sea based trading/exploration sim genre such as Patrician, Anno XXXX, Sid Meier’s Pirates and such like.. explore the open space (sea) and muck it up in your own way. I actually enjoyed FTL because it brought back some of these memories in a way.

    I take it I’ll be seeing you in Star Citizen at some point?

  5. Stu Stu says:

    Actually no, Space Rangers doesn’t ring any bells but I know what you mean about games like Sid Meier’s Pirates, it is great. I’ll definitely be taking a look at Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous but it will be the single player element that interests me, I don’t fancy getting teabagged by some other douches Cobra MkII! ;)

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