If you attended public elementary school in the United States between 1985 and 1995, chances are pretty good that you played some variation of The Oregon Trail on an 8-bit or 16/32-bit computer.
Originally, The Oregon Trail was created by student teacher Don Rawitsch as a teaching aid for his history class. The game’s copyright was held by the Minnesota Educations Computing Consortium (MECC), which encouraged schools to invest in the Apple II computer to ultimately host the game. Meanwhile MECC invested to port the game to the Apple II and eventually DOS and Windows, and the game spread across school districts nationwide (which probably helped convince some parents to buy computers for the home as well). The Oregon Trail was a huge hit with students and created a cash cow for MECC. It ultimately fed one-third of their total annual budget raking in millions of dollars in revenue.
The game was created with the intent to teach young students the rigors and harsh realities of pioneering life. It did this through a “choose your own adventure” format offering list-driven choices for players decide how to survive stagecoach travel across two-thousand miles of harsh terrain. Players were required to manage a limited amount of funds to buy food, ammunition (for hunting), oxen, clothing and “miscellaneous” supplies, which could include medicines and other sundries. It was this careful management of supplies and money that steered most young gamers to their doom, enlightening them with a touch of history and economics along the way. The game’s infamous cold-blooded “calamities” would sometimes thwart even the most careful pioneers with random perils. To this day, the game’s abrupt declarations of your fate live on in quips like, “You died of dysentery” or matter of factly, perhaps as a dry means of comfort, “Many wagons fail to make it all the way to Oregon.”
My first exposure to the game was on the Apple II with a green monochrome monitor and very crude graphics (at the time I was impressed!). But in the mid-80s some Commodore 64s came boxed with educational software that included a disk with the relatively generic name “Expeditions”, also published by MECC. This disk came loaded with three different adventure games, one of which was simply labelled “Oregon”.
And “Oregon” is one of the original lo-res versions of The Oregon Trail written for the C64.
All of the basics are there, including the various creepy ways to die. Should you so expire, you’ll even be given the chance to hire a minister, have them inform your next of kin, and even have a “fancy funeral”. All of this takes money, of course, so if you died broke, I presume your body just got dumped on the side of the road into some ditch.
Incidentally, the other two interesting game options on the disk involve fur trading and canoeing and are worth a look, too.
In any case, as an adult, Oregon is rather easy to beat as long as you don’t encounter a random death sentence via pure bad luck. It’s still a lot of fun to play, and if you manage your funds and consumption of supplies wisely, you should succeed more often than not. But for most kids, the difficulty level hits a sweet spot not reached by many games, especially adventure games. And, it doesn’t take very long to play, which is nice.
Having affected so many children for so many years, this game has endured as the epitome of video game nostalgia from the 80s. It also introduced an adventure-style game most had never seen before. Even though graphical and fast-paced action games were all the rage in arcades at the time, The Oregon Trail inspired and delighted many of the kids who played it.
And that explains why, over thirty years later, the brand lives on. This time it has been reborn as a card game, only available at Target stores (an odd choice in retailer). The game hit store shelves in the summer of 2016, and flew off those shelves to the point that the game became a collectible on Ebay before anyone even had a chance to understand what was going on. It has since been restocked and is available online as well. http://www.target.com/p/pressman-the-or ... A-50562794
This speaks volumes to the popularity of the brand. It also helped that the box design paid huge homage to the game’s 8-bit roots, and even plopped “You died of dysentery” right on the front cover to nail the point home even stronger, just in case you doubted yourself as you rolled your shopping cart down the games aisle as to what this was about.
Naturally I had to give it a go.
-) The game tries to stay pretty close to the original constructs of the video game considering it’s a completely different platform.
-) Players take on the role of pioneers in a cooperative fashion. It’s not whoever gets to the end wins, it’s if anyone makes it to the end we all win. Interesting twist.
-) The card game also doesn’t include money management like before, but instead introduces “card management” of the various supplies. In this regard, I think they do fairly well in crossing over ideas.
-) The building of the trail with one’s cards is also a pretty clever idea, although fairly reminiscent of the classic Saboteur, but with far less strategy and more about luck (which makes sense, I suppose).
-) The graphics, while trying to play the nostalgia card (rimshot!) simply are too high-res! They don’t match the box cover at all. You might be scratching your head wondering if the game graphics, which are supposed to be leveraging the look-and-feel of the game era of yesteryear are simply too well-defined and miss the mark by about a decade.
-) The directions are incredibly incomplete in some very key places (what constitutes the end of a turn, a round, when to play cards, etc.) . I sat down and played with a colleague and we ultimately had to throw our hands in the air at one point and create our own “House Rules” on how it should work. We did our best to assume what the game designers would have wanted, but they certainly didn’t make it obvious.
-) Way too hard. A “House Rule” we created: when there are less than 4 players, you should remove the “instant death” cards (of which there are 4). This makes the game simply not fun if you ever encounter them, especially if a 2-player game. if there are 5-6 players, it feels more “acceptable”. But even by removing these cards, your chances of success are slim to none. The game is likely very enjoyable for a large party (e.g. 5-6 players) and the cards should be kept in that case. But for tiny games, just get rid of them or there’s really no point in playing. It’s not fun to ultimately go through the motions with the knowledge you’ll only make it half-way no matter what you do.
All-in-all, it was an interesting and entertaining attempt that could have been good, but feels like it wasn’t play-tested enough. It does an excellent job of bringing back a brand that is beloved by so many people, gamers and non-gamers alike. But the lack of clear instructions and lopsided difficulty makes the game the kind that’ll sit on the shelf and not get picked up.
My working Commodore 64 version, however, still rocks. I’d recommend steering clear of the card game and firing up Oregon on the Expeditions disk. You’ll have way more making funeral arrangements in the video game.