5 of the best games for exploring the depths of space

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on – these are the best spacebound games
Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance

Ever since we first gazed up at the night sky, we've dreamed of travelling to the stars.

Sadly we don't have a Saturn V rocket or a hyperdrive, so we'll just have to make do with these games.

FTL: Faster Than Light (2012, PC, Mac)

Who hasn't wanted to be the captain of a space vessel, to sit on the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica or the Enterprise and order luckless redshirts into battle? 

FTL puts you in command of a spaceship, hopping between jump points, exploring and taking on enemies, while taking on resources in a bid to improve your boat.

It's more reminiscent of a board game than a PC game, but it's unforgiving – leading to some frantic battles with rebels and pirates, as you desperately try to repair your frazzled life support system while repelling boarders and keeping your weapons online. You can almost picture William Shatner hurling himself out of his chair as someone shakes the camera.

Get it here

Kerbal Space Program (2011, PC, Mac)

A space exploration game in the truest sense of the phrase, KSP puts you in charge of a space program, with a mission to explore the solar system in which the planet Kerbin orbits.

Furnished with an infinite supply of willing Kerbal volunteers, you construct rockets and other flying machines to blast them off into space – more often than not, bringing them back alive is a secondary concern. The Kerbals may be cartoonish, but the game is anything but; its accurate orbital mechanics have won it a fanatical following among physics and spaceflight buffs.

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Elite (1984, BBC Micro)

The granddaddy of all space exploration games, Elite used procedural generation to cram a galaxy's worth of planetary systems into 22K of memory.

Awe-inspiring in its scope, it gave you a whole universe to play in – and you could choose your path through the game, whether that meant trading in commodities or slaves, or just becoming a pirate. Profit was the only measure of success, and morality was a secondary concern – making it perfectly in tune with the 1980s and its yuppies.

Braben's revisiting the game this year, using Kickstarter to fund a sequel – Elite: Dangerous. Find out more in our interview with the great man himself.

Play it here

Wing Commander (1990, PC)

"Every image on this box was taken from the game!" promised Wing Commander's packaging. My 10-year-old mind was blown by the graphics. But it was the space dogfights and compelling storyline – with branching missions! – that turned the game into an obsession.

And not just for me; the game spawned several sequels, a truly wretched movie and even a cartoon. But its lasting legacy was the space combat sim genre, which burned brightly for a few years before fizzling out.

Space combat sims have been languishing in the doldrums for a decade or more – but Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts is mounting a comeback for the genre with Star Citizen. It's raised a whopping US$40m through crowdfunding, and you can read all about it here.

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X-Wing Alliance (1999, PC)

The X-Wing and TIE Fighter games were brilliant – unlike arcade-style Star Wars games like Rogue Squadron, they put you in full control of a Rebel or Imperial fighter, juggling shields, power and engines with the sort of attention to detail you'd expect from a full flight simulator.

X-Wing Alliance was the best of the lot. As well as the space action – you even get to fly the Millennium Falcon in the battle of Endor – it wove an intricate story around the events of the films, casting you as one Ace Azzameen, youngest member of a merchant dynasty whose involvement in the Rebel Alliance threatens to tear his family apart.

Inexplicably, LucasArts never delivered a follow-up to the series, and new Star Wars owners Disney have shown no signs of picking up the baton. Maybe the US$40m success of Star Citizen will convince them – give us a proper X-Wing Alliance sequel, Disney. With Oculus Rift support. It'll fly off the shelves.

Find out about the X-Wing Alliance Upgrade project here

READ MORE: Stuff's 200 Greatest Games of All Time