The entire Milky Way on a couple of floppy discs – how could anyone hope to resist that? I certainly couldn’t, and that is why Frontier: Elite II took up an awful lot of my admittedly excessive computer gaming time as a kid, navigating the inky depths of space in search of fortune, glory, and the black hole at the centre of the galaxy. I had a fully staffed Panther Clipper – that’s fifteen crew members and two thousand tonnes worth of very expensive ship! It may have looked and handled like a hippo-sized house brick but it also had a cargo hold that could house a small moon and was so tough you got to (pretend to, honest) shout “I AM KIMIMI! YOU ARE LIKE THE BUZZING OF FLIES TO ME!” over the comm system at any pirates foolish enough to take you on. It’s also true to say that the last time I played the game our Amiga 1200 was the most powerful computer in the whole street and CDs were seen as something of a futuristic extravagance so… let’s say it’s been a while since I had any hands-on experience with the game. That wanderlust never left me though, and I’ve been as curious to play for playing’s sake as I have been eager to see if my excitable memories of a game filled with police chases, interstellar trading, and scooping fuel directly from the stars themselves were anywhere close to reality for a while now.
Now one of the main draws of Frontier is that you have a lot of freedom – real, terrifying, unfair, old-school freedom. The freedom to make terrible decisions that might instantly kill you. The freedom to take off without enough fuel in the tank to get anywhere, which is swiftly followed by the freedom to float aimlessly in space until you’re picked off by space pirates or your life support gives out. There are almost as many ways to kill yourself as there are stars in the sky, and the game will attempt to gently steer you away from not a single one of them.
Luckily for accident-prone space commanders the game also lets you save at any time you like, creating as many “just in case” saves for your hapless digital self as you’ve got floppy discs to fill. As a child I had no problem with abusing the heck out of that safety net, getting myself in all sorts of trouble I couldn’t handle – sometimes just for the heck of seeing what happens if you declare war on Earth in the spaceship equivalent of a Reliant Robin – before retreating back to the warm embrace of an earlier save. The game doesn’t penalise you for this and there’s really no reason not to do so (especially with a game as riddled with bugs as this one), but for this modern refresher I really wanted to push Frontier’s frontiers and see just how immersive the game could be if I forced myself live with every cursed decision and bad transaction I made: This time if Commander Kimimi died she wouldn’t get whisked back to safety, she’d get coldly replaced by the next Kimimi in line – a whole dynasty of virtual me(s) spread across the galaxy, living legends spoken of in hushed reverence in every city and spaceport from Sol to Lave.
Shall we see how I got on?
Kimimi I: This is all going to go so well. We’re starting on Mars which means we’re going to be mostly safe from any pirates as the core systems are reasonable civilized. After buying a few things at random on the bulletin board, taking on an easy military contract, and proudly remembering the correct take-off sequence without any prompting – request clearance, take off, landing gear up… she’s off! W-wait, what comes next? Oh, the boosters! HELPGRAVITYHASHERCLAWSINME Which button’s the boosters again how do you pause this oh no oh nonononoooo
…Kimimi I crashed into the same landing pad she took off from after proudly soaring all of 6ft into the air, exploding into countless shards of second-hand hull and unidentifiable human splatter. Being the butt of every space joke for the next century is still some form of immortality, right?
Kimimi II: Determined to escape the ignominy of her mother’s hilarious death, Kimimi II bothered to read the flight manual before setting off – and because of this she successful avoided the disgrace of instant death. There she was – contract accepted, course plotted, and just a hyperjump away fr-. Now here’s a fun little fact for you: the Eagle Long Range Fighter, the ship all Kimimi’s start with, doesn’t have a hyperdrive. That’s embarrassing but hey, she’s in space – and she’s not dead! So in theory all that needed to be done was a rather sheepish return to dock and spending some time trying to fix these new problems. Oh. You know what else the Eagle doesn’t come fitted with as standard? Autopilot. Do you have any idea how hard it is to fly in Frontier without an autopilot?! Let’s just say Kimimi II is still out there, floating around somewhere in the gap between Mars and Ceres.
Kimimi III: We all learn from our mistakes, especially when they combine a family death and gargantuan levels of public shame in equal measure. So Kimimi III sold her ship’s 1MW beam laser and used the money to install an autopilot system! Hurrah! Drunk with the joys of reaching another heavenly body and not exploding even a little bit, Kimimi III forgot that Frontier has an infamous bug – if you decide to engage the autopilot so you can soak in that wonderful view during a landing sequence instead of speeding time up you will more than likely crash and die. So Kimimi III crashed and died – but at least she took some nice pictures before her sudden AI-assisted death! That’s got to count for something, hasn’t it?
Kimimi IV: The great-granddaughter of the original Kimimi, better known as “Kimimi the Stupid”, discovered that the autopilot system’s other fun quirk is that it really isn’t too fussed about trying to avoid WHOLE PLANETS ARE YOU KIDDING ME, and that is why she had to be scraped off the surface of Mercury before burial.
Kimimi V: With the failure of every relative who’d ever sat in an Eagle weighing heavily on her shoulders and neither fame nor fortune to her name, this Kimimi decided she’d turn to a life of pretty low-level crime. Dreams of illegal trade runs and ruthlessly collecting bounties filling her head, she deliberately fired her laser while docked and took off without seeking permission first, ready to give the police the middle finger before soaring off into the unknown. The police on Mars are in very well equipped ships with a shoot-first attitude to justice and Kimimi V had no lasers, a hull made out of paper, and an engine that was only slightly more powerful than a golf cart. It did not end well.
Kimimi VI and Kimimi VII: See Kimimi IV – but with Saturn and Neptune, respectively. At least these Kimimis are spreading themselves out? It’d be unbearable if there was a single frozen clump of deceased Kimimi’s floating around the solar system, a timeless monument to the family’s space-faring incompetence.
Kimimi VIII: Didn’t crash into anything and she didn’t get shot down by the police either! But she was still a rebel with no concern beyond making money as shadily as possible, and that is how she ended up taking illegal radioactive materials off sellers of dubious legality for cash and then fly-tipping them in space. Excellent. Until the cops caught her in a bulletin board sting op – it turns out “I didn’t know it was illegal!” is no defence in the eyes of the SPACE POLICE, and this chap wasn’t the sort to accept a weak bribe and look the other way either. The good news is Kimimi VIII goes down in history as the first Kimimi to die in SPACE JAIL.
Kimimi IX: Kimimi VIII’s daughter followed the same degenerate path as her mother but with SPACE DRUG smuggling instead of radioactives before getting thrown into SPACE JAIL.
Kimimi X: Another one who thought her autopilot wouldn’t plough her straight into a planet at the speed of light. She was wrong.
Kimimi XI: This Kimimi took after her great-grandma Kimimi VIII, dumping radioactive waste in space. Unfortunately she was as lazy as she was criminal(ly stupid), and she got shot down by local police for dumping the material into an inhabited planet’s atmosphere.
Kimimi XII: Here we are, twelve Kimimis down the line, and there’s clearly not been a single brain cell between them – until now. We’ve got a Kimimi here who’s finally worked out that hyperdrives aren’t just for hyperjumps – they do the regular interplanetary stuff too! And that means… we can fit one inside the Eagle! This is it, this is what success tastes like, this is the dawn of a ne-oh. New drives don’t come with any free fuel, and if you try to use them when they’re empty… [boom].
Kimimi XIII: In the topsy-turvy world of Frontier, it turned out Kimimi XIII was the lucky one. Kimimi XIII got things done. Kimimi XIII took on missions and actually completed them – on time! Kimimi XIII traded legal goods for profit. Kimimi XIII almost died taking a parcel to a planet called Lucifer but she took out three different space pirates and completed her delivery anyway because these things matter – however because this made her late (because almost dying) she didn’t even get paid! It didn’t matter too much – she had enough money to waste fuel on tourist trips to the moon and Alpha Centauri, after all. She had plans – dreams of a bigger ship with passenger cabins, military promotions, taking on a crew…
Kimimi XIII celebrated surviving – literally surviving – her first year by hanging out in docking bay five of Sydney’s (Earth) spaceport. Bliss. With a cargo hold filled with luxury goods, enough credits to start looking at ship upgrades on the bulletin board, and an easy contract to hand in along the way she set off on a routine trip she’d already done countless times before. Until she made the mistake of thinking her autopilot wouldn’t slam her into the surface of a planet at “Oops guess you’re dead” speed. Farewell, Kimimi XIII. You were… definitely not a complete disaster, and that makes you by far the best Kimimi of them all.
So! That was my time with Frontier. It was… well it was never boring, that’s for sure! You’d think the docking/bulletin board/dock somewhere else flow would come apart at the seams quite quickly, the obvious identikit structure of the generated messages making it feel too fake to be worth engaging with – you’d be wrong. The game’s still an utterly enthralling experience with just enough of the right kind of detail to draw you in, but not so much that your imagination hasn’t got any room to thrive in the gaps. The unexpected scenarios the game keeps throwing your way – over-occupied docking bays that force you to idle away in orbit or go elsewhere, pirate attacks, desperate bulletin board messages offering high prices for things you’ve got in your hold (or could have, or did have) are all exciting diversions that bring some real life to… whatever it is you’ve decided to do within your own personal galaxy. Do you dare venture out from your safe trading route? Do you try mining and all of the thankless profitable lonely danger that entails? Do you sacrifice precious cargo hold space for better defences? Do you go on the offensive, seeking dangerous bounties and making some extra credits by scooping up the materials left behind when an enemy ship explodes?
Obviously you don’t really have the freedom to do anything you can imagine in Frontier – as far as the game’s concerned you live in your ship’s cockpit forever and never make a single friend, personal foe, or business partner in your whole life – but while you’re playing you really can believe that all of space is there for the taking, if only you can survive long enough to grasp it. It’s been twenty-six years since I first played Frontier and yet even now I can honestly say I have no idea what’s in store for Kimimi XIV, but I can’t wait to find out!