Elite and its descendants have much to offer fans of science fiction, but also satisfy more basic desires, such as accumulating great wealth or earning a stellar reputation as an intergalactic badass.
However, unlike science fiction universes like Star Trek in which capitalism is downplayed or even nonexistent, space sims make it an indispensable part of the gameplay -- even though Braben stated that Elite "was never intended as a pro-Capitalist game in any way."
Nevertheless, the game's emphasis on accumulating capital and rewards for ruthless, unethical behavior seem to represent anything but a critique of capitalism. In Elite, space is not so much the final frontier as it is the final free enterprise.
Although there are various ways to play Elite, most players end up balancing buying and selling with combat. It's possible to avoid combat by sticking to the well-policed trading routes of stable governments, but much bigger profits lie in exploiting less harmonious civilizations. The manual outlines other possibilities, such as bounty hunting, smuggling, and pirating.
Players are of course free to pursue whatever path they find most fulfilling, and many of the same upgrades that make one successful in one are also helpful in others. For instance, the fuel scoop can be used to save money by allowing players to refuel their ship by flying close to a star, retrieve ore from asteroids, and salvage freight from ships the player has destroyed.
Later derivatives would require players to focus on one activity or the other, inhibiting the more jack-of-all-trades possibilities of Elite.
Shown here is a combat sequence in Elite. The numbered bars on the lower right indicate the strength of the shields. The player can also select rear, left, and right cameras. Additional weapons can be mounted in each of these positions as well.
These later derivatives of Elite would also focus more on fulfilling vital missions or following a preset storyline, but the original is almost entirely focused on combat and economics, in spite of the author's direct inspiration from the pen-and-paper role-playing game (RPG) series from Game Designers' Workshop, Traveller (starting 1977), and popular science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.
Perhaps to compensate for the lack of story, the publishers commissioned a novella named The Dark Wheel from noted sci-fi and fantasy author Robert Holdstock. This surprisingly readable novella does an excellent job setting the context for the game, and is highly recommended for anyone interested in Elite.
It is tempting nowadays to disregard such materials and focus entirely on the game itself, yet even such things as a well-designed box had a significant effect on gamers of the time. A game historian -- or really anyone who really appreciates Elite -- should take the time to read the well-written manual and novella in their entirety. Thankfully, both are available for free online.
The starting system in Elite has several planets for the player to visit. Although the ship cannot land on planets, it can always dock at the stations in orbit around them.
Elite does have some missions sprinkled about the vast universe. However, these are quite rare, and the details vary from version to version. Bell comments that he wanted the teams making the ports to "do their own thing missionwise and have fun with it."
For instance, one of the more memorable missions from the Commodore 64 version is inspired by the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," where tiny, adorable fluff-ball creatures who are Klingon-averse interfere with Captain Kirk and crew's mission to protect a shipment of grain. For the most part, though, players were left to create their own narratives.
This colorful screen effect represents hyperspace, or faster-than-light travel in Elite.
 See http://www.hooplah.com/encounters/trivia.htm and Rusel DeMaria, Johnny L. Wilson, High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, pages 340-341. 2002, Osborne/McGraw Hill.Berkeley, CA.