Elite is considered by many as the grandaddy behind the kind of space-based sandbox trading/combat that later titles would update from Origin’s Privateer to Digital Anvil’s Freespace. But prior to Elite’s open universe of opportunity, another company took a stab at the limitless boundaries between the stars in doing the same thing but with a much harder edge in terms of simulation turning it into something that had a slight role-playing taste to it.
In 1983, a new company called Omnitrend arrived on the scene with Universe. Universe retailed at an astonishing $89.95 which might be partly because of its doughy packaging featuring a ring-bound manual and a huge game spread across four 5.25″ floppies. The program was also pretty complex for the time considering how much was simulated within its open-ended environment.
The story is the kind of stuff that might have been partly inspired by Marc Miller’s Traveller tabletop series from GDW, Han Solo, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Taking place in the future, and outlined in detail within the manual, Earth has developed a hyperdrive allowing them to expand to the stars. The problem was that their current drive technology limited how many jumps were possible before refueling was needed, curtailing just how far they could range into space.
That was until the discovery of an alien artifact dubbed the “hyperspace booster” that could send ships of any size vast distances previously though impossible with current hyperdrive tech. Yet this, too, had a problem: trips using the booster were only one way, yet the built in map showed countless systems that could be reached using it. So humanity started expanding outwards again using the booster as a one-way Grand Central Station to the stars.
So now we come to where you are, on the planet Axia in the center of a cluster of colonies that are called the Local Group. Every month, a ship comes from Earth thanks to the booster, delivering the latest advances in tech along with supplies. This has been going for over 200 years helping the colonists to survive. Until the ships stopped coming.
Now cut off from Earth for some unknown reason, the individual colonies have begun to descend into survival mode which means that some have even taken more barbaric steps to do so such as slavery and piracy. But fifteen days ago, rumors of a second Hyperspace Booster within the Local Group have surfaced possibly allowing contact with Earth. Whoever finds it will become the savior of the Local Group – and probably unbelievably wealthy – but only if they can survive long enough to enjoy getting there.
The game was mostly grounded in trying to be a hard sim with an incredible level of control over everything with nearly fifty pages of bound instructions with room to spare. This was a space-sim that wanted to feel like one turning your PC into a virtual control panel. Reading through the manual, the only things that seemed to be missing were the bloops, bleeps, and randomly flashing lights. The appendices were crammed with even more info such as product lists of the things you could trade along with tables that would have made Dungeons & Dragons green with envy.
Players started out by mortgaging their ship, picking a hull for what they want to do (being a trader requires a different kind of ship hull than it might for someone with piracy on their mind), and eventually purchasing additional systems from cryogenic storage to hyperdrive types and then placing them.
A good crew will also be needed to man your ship, or act as a boarding crew or a surface assault force for unfriendly planets, and you’ll need to hire on some bodies to help stay allive. Activities also have multiple layers of detail from mining (making sure you have the equipment, running the mine, having the bodies to defend it from unfriendly natives, etc.) to raiding enemy ships for goodies.
Deciding what orbit you want to take around a planet is also something you need to pay consideration to. The manual even has a map of routes to take from system to system using your hyperdrive which you’ll also have to mind – fuel costs money and you’ve still got a ship to pay off while searching for that Booster.
With so much to do not only in managing your ship and your activities, there’s still the actual exploration not to mention the combat you’ll inevitably get involved with when others see a juicy ship like yours all alone in space. Players looking to immerse themselves in the detailed trappings that Universe offers up will get to scan systems for potential ports of call, pore over the detailed readings, and then take the steps needed to actually get there and back. Did you leave port before your cargo was loaded in your shuttle? Too bad. Say goodbye to that along with the cash you paid.
As tough as the learning curve seemed t obe, the manual did a decent job in walking you through basic operations with a sample trip. Like many early games, copying the player disk was also recommended to avoid the lengthy swapping and data transfers waded through at the start of the game. In case you were blown out of the stars, you still had that to fall back on.
Omnitrend’s ad didn’t skimp on its detail outlining the story and describing what the game had to offer including a few screens showing off the wireframe ship graphics and tactical view. Universe would also usher in early success for Omnitrend which followed it up with a sequel before creating a niche for itself with tactical titles blending strategy and RPG elements in the years to come.
Universe offered a vast tapestry of stars to explore and the tactile feel of running a digital starship at your fingertips. Though not quite as popular or as well-known as Elite which would come out later, this early space sandbox deserves to be remembered for the innovative features it brought to the bridge of more than one would-be captain.