Elite is an open ended space trading game with an element of combat. The player starts out owning a small Cobra Mk III spaceship. Through buying and selling of cargo at space stations in orbit around other planets in other solar systems, the player is able to buy better equipment for their ship.
The player starts the game docked at a space station orbiting the planet Lave. Their ship has 7 tons of fuel on board, enough to get them to a few other local solar systems but not much further. The ship also comes armed with a small laser and a small cargo hold.
Apart from the ship, the only other thing the player has is 100 credits to spend on whatever cargo they want. Commodity price information at other solar systems is vital to making a profit, as is other general information on the system. For example, slaves could be highly profitable, but are illegal in many solar systems. The player could risk trading in illegal cargo, but the local police would be after them and their chances of escaping alive would decrease.
The player progresses by making money and attaining a new status linked to the number of 'kills' they achieve during space combat. Starting off as 'harmless', the ultimate aim of the game is to become 'elite' - hence the title of the game. Different versions of the game have additional 'missions' that give the player a specific task to complete. The reward is usually money or a new piece of equipment to add to their ship.
The player buys and sells at the space station, then chooses a new solar system to travel to. Having chosen their next destination, they launch from the station and then engage their hyperdrive. On arrival at the next solar system, their main priority is to find the nearest space station and manually dock (which is difficult to do at the best of times until they can afford a docking computer!). Once safely docked, trading can begin again.
There was, of course, the chance of other ships engaging the player in combat enroute to the station. If the player is feeling brave enough, they might even have fired first! Combat is simply a matter of getting close enough to the other ship and firing at it. Obviously, the other ship would try to avoid being hit, so you would often try and anticipate the other ship's moves before firing. Heat seeking missiles can also be bought and fitted to some ships, allowing more accuracy to come into play during combat. A "Right on Commander!" heralded the player's next step up the ladder towards elite status.
The graphics in all but the 16-bit conversions of Elite are 3D wireframe, with additional static screens giving the player information on prices, solar systems, the ship, their status, etc.