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Elite on the BBC Micro

Secrets of the Executive version

Infinite jumps, retro-futuristic fonts, speech support... and Pizzasoft?

Note that in the following article, there may be a swearword or two, so I guess it should come with a NSFW warning. I never thought I'd be writing that in an article about Elite, but there you go!

The Executive version of Elite has always had a whiff of mystery about it. According to the alt.fan.elite FAQ, it was coded up by Ian Bell and given out to just a handful of people, and it was never intended for official release. This makes sense when you consider some of the more risqué aspects of this version, but as some of the new features are clearly there to make life easier for players - such as a maxed-out commander and infinite jumps - there's a possibility that it's a special version aimed at reviewers, so they could check out the more advanced features of the game without having to spend days grinding their way to a decent ship.

Although its true purpose has never been confirmed, one thing is sure: it's never been particularly clear what the differences are between this version and the standard 6502 Second Processor version on which is it based. Let's see if we can rectify this, with a comprehensive run-down of what makes the Executive version so... "executive", I guess.

Obvious changes
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Some of the differences in Executive Elite are pretty obvious, so let's cover those first.

  • As soon as the game has finished loading, the demo kicks in, whether you like it or not (see the next section for a discussion of what's different in the demo itself).
  • The game uses a totally different font to the other versions, which all use the standard BBC character set. The chracter set in the Executive version is based on the 1960s Westminster font, which is similar to the machine-readable numbers printed on cheques - "retro-futuristic" is probably what we'd call it these days, though I suspect it was a little more "futuristic" back in 1984.
  • You start out with a maxed-out commander, called Firebud instead of Jameson. The name is presumably a seven-character riff on "Firebird", the publishers of the non-Acorn versions of Elite, and there's also a "Firebird" string buried in the code, so presumably this version has more to do with Firebird rather than Acornsoft, though it isn't clear why.
  • The in-flight messages are rather more polite, saying "ENERGY LOW,SIR" and "INCOMING MISSILE,SIR" when things start getting hairy.
  • Lave and Riedquat have extended system description overrides that are unique to this version, and which you can see by landing at those systems and looking at the Data on System (see the full feature list below for more details, but you can see the Lave override by pressing F6 after starting the game).

Now these are out of the way, let's look at the demo in more detail, as that's the very first thing you see in this version.

Pizzasoft
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Anyone who has fired up the Executive version will know about its most blatant change. As soon as the game finishes loading, it jumps straight into the demo mode that was first introduced in the official 6502 Second Processor release, though the Executive version has quite a few differences in the scroll text.

The very first part sets the scene, announcing "PIZZASOFT PRESENTS" instead of "ACORNSOFT PRESENTS" - presumably to underline the fact that this is far from an official release. The scroll text then introduces "THE EXECUTIVE VERSION", and instead of talking about the galaxy being in turmoil, as the standard release does, it goes on to say "CONGRATULATIONS ON OBTAINING A COPY OF THIS ELUSIVE PRODUCT."

Note that it says "ELUSIVE", not "EXCLUSIVE". It's all part of the mystery, I guess. Who wouldn't want to get their hands on an elusive piece of gaming history?

(Also, it's worth nothing that the interactive "mock battle" that's described in the alt.fan.elite FAQ doesn't actually exist. The demo is still just the standard 6502 Second Processor demo, which is not interactive in any way; the only differences are in the scroll text.)

Infinite jumps
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The Executive version has a new configuration option that lets you jump an infinite distance with your hyperspace drive, and without using any fuel. To enable this option, pause the game and press "@"; you will hear a ping when it is enabled, just as with all the other configuration options.

Once enabled, you can move the crosshairs to any system in the galaxy, and can use your hyperspace drive to jump there. No fuel will be used, and although the jump range circle is still shown on the charts, it is ignored.

This is a particularly useful feature if you want to check out all the extended system description overrides, which only get shown once you dock at the relevant system. Using the system search feature ("F" in the system charts), you can search for a system and jump straight there, so the only challenge is getting to the space station (though given the maxed-out Firebud commander, you can just use your escape pod to dock instantly). It's much easier than hacking your commander file.

There is a subtle clue to this functionality in-game: the extended system description override for Riedquat says "Only this executive version has the @ toggle", though you do have to be docked there to see this.

Sweary speech support
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The Executive version supports speech, but only if you have the Watford Electronics Beeb Speech Synthesiser fitted. You also have to enable speech, which you can do by pausing the game and pressing ":". Interestingly, toggling this configuration option won't emit a beep at any point, so be careful to only press it once to enable it (enabling speech disables a number of system beeps, presumably to stop them clashing with the speech, which is why toggling the option is a bit of a challenge).

A warning: if you enable speech and don't have a Beeb Speech Synthesiser plugged into the user port, the game will crash with a Bad Command error whenever the game tries to speak.

For those of us without a real BBC Micro/6502 Second Processor/Watford Electronics Beeb Speech Synthesiser combo - so that's most of us, I guess - it's actually a bit tricky to emulate a system that can run both Elite and the Beeb Speech Synthesiser. The only emulator I know that can emulate the Beeb Speech Synthesiser is MAME, which is absolutely amazing at emulating esoteric hardware; unfortunately, its 6845 emulation isn't currently sophisticated enough to run Elite properly. I'm not aware of any other emulators that can emulate the Beeb Speech Synthesiser, so the only way you can currently enjoy this feature is by owning the original hardware.

In lieu of a working emulation, here are some recordings of the speech from Executive Elite. There are four phrases that are implemented, as follows:

  • It says "Elite" when the title screen is displayed:
  • It says "Incoming missile" every time the "INCOMING MISSILE,SIR" message flashes on-screen:
  • It says "Energy low" every time the "ENERGY LOW,SIR" message flashes on-screen:
  • It says "Oh shit, it's a mis-jump" when we mis-jump into witchspace (this happens with both accidental and manually triggered mis-jumps):

Given the last one, I think it's pretty obvious why this version was never considered for an official release. I mean, that pronunciation of "jump" is just terrible...

If you want to try out the speech implementation with MAME, you just need to download and install MAME, then the BBC ROM set from Stardot, and then fire up the emulator with the following command:

  mame bbcb -userport beebspch -window

You can then enter the following commands to hear the above phrases, which are broken down into allophones like this:

  *TALK EH LL EY TT1

  *TALK A NN1 PA2 KK3 AA MM IH NG PA4 MM IH SS I LL

  *TALK N ER1 G PA4 LOW

  *TALK O PA2 SH IH TT1 PA5 IH TT1 SS PA4 A PA4 MM IS PA2 JH UW1 MM PP

This is exactly what Elite does - you can see these phrase commands in the SPEECH variable, while the TALK routine actually sends these commands to the speech synthesiser. And if you want to improve the pronunciation in the last one, try ending it with "JH AX MM PP" instead - that's noticeably better.

A full list of unique features in the Executive version
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That's all the main features covered. For a full and comprehensive list of all differences in the Executive version when compared to the official release version (SNG45), see the list of all 6502 Second Processor releases.