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#44 Frontier Elite 3: First Encounters played on PC, released 1995

The last of the great space sims, never equaled in it's scope and variety. You could literally go anywhere in the galaxy. The game is about being a trader, pirate or military contractor. You start by trading goods between worlds to make a buck. You can make money faster by smuggling, mining, transporting dubious people or taking on special assasination contracts. Soon you'll be upgrading your ship to more and more powerful versions which can make larger hyperspace jumps. You can end up with a freighter so large you won't be able to land and lift off of the heavier planets.

The game featured newtonian physics, none of that underwater flying bullshit of everything that came after it. You could slingshot yourself around planets and land seamlessly from space on any planet or moon you wish. It is the coolest thing to approach a planet, line up with the ground, sink through the atmosphere and zoom over the mountains at high altitude until you spot your space port. Or approach a space station manually, line up for docking and match it's rotation before gently setting it down in space dock. To make all this possible without falling asleep you can accelerate time 10, 100, 1000, 10000 times to bridge the distance between planets in a star system. The 3D maps were very cool too, seeing all the planets and satellites move around realistically.

On top of all that there were newspapers to keep track off commenting on galactic affairs, and a storyline that sends you on a wild goose chase around the galaxy. Unfortunately I've never been able to complete the story due to bugs. I didn't even notice the story the first play through, I was too busy exploring, trading and trying every upgrade possible. I finally managed to get a ship upto 1/3rd the speed of light burning all my fuel in a large ship storing nothing but fuel. It made me realize how futile it is flying between star systems, even with 10000x time acceleration it would still take over 11 hours real time to get anywhere near the nearest star, and no way to stop.

Fantastic game, whether just sitting on an alien planet watching the suns and moons move around, exploring the galaxy or blowing up a town and picking a fight with the local police. Always something to do.
Only the bugs and oftentimes pointless or frustrating combat keep this game from appearing much higher on my list.

The game is available as shareware now

There is still an active community working on a hi-res version of the game

And there is some hope, a new realistic space sim is in production called Pioneer. Alpha version 16 is available here.