Oregon Trail is an educational computer game
first published by educational software producer MECC
(since acquired by The Learning Company
, now under the aegis of Mattel
). The original version was produced for the Apple II
, and through a succession of versions, editions, and platforms, Oregon Trail games have been produced ever since. If you live in the USA
, there's a good chance your local elementary
or middle school
has a few copies.
Players would take the role of settlers following the historic Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to the Willammette Valley in Oregon (some later versions allowed you to choose to instead follow the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City). A game could be played in around 45 minutes, and if it ended in success, the player was given a score based on the number and health of surviving family members, and amount of cash and other supplies on hand.
Players would begin by setting their own name and profession and naming the members of their family who would accompany them. In earlier versions there were few professions, which functioned as a difficulty setting - different professions would simply begin with different amounts of money, with the poorer options rewarded with a points multiplier at the end of the game. In some later versions, however, professions were more varied, and the choice affected some aspects of gameplay - a doctor might more easily treat injuries and infections, while a carpenter might have more success fixing a broken wagon wheel. This accomplished, players would choose a month to begin their journey (which would affect the condition of rivers and the availability of water and food for cattle), purchase supplies (including oxen, food, bullets, clothes, and spare wagon parts) and begin their journey on the trail.
Day-to-day navigation was handled automatically (although not perfectly, as players would occasionally be delayed due to "losing the trail".) Players could choose the rate at which they wanted to proceed and the amount of daily rations, and could at any time stop to rest or hunt, but would otherwise press relentlessly forward. This monotony would be broken up by landmarks, random special events, or if the player so chose, hunting.
Landmarks included forts, natural features, and the like. When a player arrived at a landmark, he would be presented with a picture and some information about the landmark, and was able to speak to other members of their wagon train (or rather, "listen" to them as they provided individual accounts of period life for your personal and educational gratification). In addition, some landmarks had special features associated with them. Many forts played host to trading posts, where players could replenish their supplies (though at a progressively higher price, the further west they got). At forks in the trail, players would choose one of two paths to continue along – a direct route or a longer trail which included fewer dangerous river crossings, a fort with a trading post, or better land for grazing. Similarly, when players came to a river, they would be given several choices of how to cross it. Options could include fording the river, caulking the wagon and attempting to float it across, taking a ferry (for a small fee), or hiring an Indian guide (in exchange for spare sets of clothing) to lead our bold settlers to the optimal crossing point. A "wrong" choice could lead to the wagon capsizing or sinking, losing vital supplies or family members. On the other hand, some landmarks had no game effects whatsoever. Oregon Trail was, after all, designed as educational software, and historical accuracy and information are goals unto themselves.
Special events, for their part, included a variety of weather- or trail-related delays, theft from your wagon, the discovery of wild fruit or spare supplies from an abandoned wagon, the breakdown of a wagon part, or what is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the game, sickness. Broken wagon parts, if they could not be repaired, would have to be replaced from inventory before you could proceed (you did buy spare wagon tongues, didn't you?). If you didn't have one handy, and couldn't work out a favorable trade with fellow wagoneers, you were pretty much screwed. Sicknesses represented a variety of period-accurate injuries and infections, although in my experience seemed to have the same effects - I've had about as many family members die of a broken leg as from measles. Sickness was less likely if your characters were kept healthy (through generous food rations, slower pace, and occasional rest), and in any case never seemed contagious. This being the 1800s, the only way to treat sickness was with a few days' worth of rest. What was most memorable about sicknesses, in my mind, at least, was the matter-of-fact manner in which they were introduced. To this day, I cannot seriously take in anything relating to America's period of western expansion without something like "Mary has cholera!" rising, non sequitur-like, to the front of my brain.
The only thing remaining to cover are the two minigames, hunting and the Columbia River. Hunting could be undertaken at any time, though it would require a day to attempt, and as such would use up food. The actual mechanics of hunting would change from version to version (I've played it no fewer than 5 different ways), but the concept would remain the same. You, the hunter, would go out into the wild, wait until animals ran in front of you, and then shoot them. The animals which would appear varied according to what part of the trail you were on, and ironically, the large, higher-yielding animals were far easier to bag than the small ones. A buffalo, yielding around half a ton of meat, was orders of magnitude easier to take down than a 2-pound rabbit. In any case, your personal carrying capacity limited you to 200 pounds on each trip. Given the relative cost of bullets and food, hunting could pay amazing dividends, and if you wanted to get the highest scores, you were essentially obligated to rely on your hunting skills.
When you got within 100 miles of the end of the game, you were given two options. One option was to take a toll road for about $20 and continue on land to your final destination. The option everybody actually took was to put your wagon on a raft and float it down the Columbia River. This would begin a brief minigame unlike anything else in the game in which you would attempt to dodge rocks as you floated down the river. Striking a rock would lead to negative repurcussions similar to an unsuccessful river crossing. Almost anyone could navigate the river perfectly by their second playthrough, however, and would survive intact to see the ending graphic and recieve their score.
This is by no means a "hardcore" game. The pace is slow, the action nonexistent, and the "story" (in the form of historical background) uninspiring. If you have anything better to do, replay value is quite low. But then again, that's not really what it's intended for. It serves admirably in its role as an amusing introduction to history for young students, and that's good enough. If you played it "back in the day", it's worth checking out for retro value alone.