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Game Name:  The Oregon Trail: Classic Edition
Developer:  MECC
Publisher:  MECC
PC Release Year:  1992
Review Date:  November 17, 2015

Occasionally, a video game is released that functions as the ambassador for its platform, and is so beloved that it fundamentally alters not only gamer culture, but that of the broader populace.  Children, who were fortunate enough to be born among the last Gen-Xers or earliest Millennials, experienced a number of these monumental titles.  Most of them happened to fill the crowded console space, but it is hard to argue the impact of a seminal PC game like The Oregon Trail.  Back in the strange days when phones had cords and the internet was just a wildly imaginative dream, naïve teachers escorted scores of elementary school students into computer labs so they could play games under the guise of learning.  While the district I attended was far too poor for such edutainment frivolities, how could I justifiably call myself a gamer without experiencing the westward adventure that birthed the “you have died of dysentery” meme?  Based solely on its historical importance, I am happy to have finally checked this title off my bucket list.  It is hard to escape the fact, though, that even 1992’s upgraded Deluxe Edition was designed with children in mind.  A simple premise and straightforward design are enjoyable enough to lure players in, but a modern adult audience will quickly grow bored when the gameplay never develops past that point.

For those like me, who failed to experience The Oregon Trail at the zenith of its popularity, it can best be described as strange hybrid between a resource management sim and a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which was a series of children's novels that guided readers towards different endings based on the decisions they made for the main character.  With a premise ripped straight from a fourth grade history text, which fits considering the intended audience, players are tasked with leading a group of settlers from Independence, Missouri, which was then known as the gateway to the American West, on a 2,200 mile trek into the fertile lands of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  Along the way, they will battle blizzards, droughts, disease, and most important of all, the slowly deteriorating health that comes with 1840s life in a covered wagon.  While a random event generator will occasionally strike an otherwise fit pioneer down with a tragic drowning or poisonous snake bit, preventing an untimely death in the party is most often about making sure everyone has enough time to rest and food to eat.  Unfortunately, both always seem to be in short supply.

One of the first decisions a prospective wagon leader needs to make is when to embark on the long journey.  Leave too early or too late in the year, and an unseasonal snowstorm can quickly end a game of Oregon Trail in the type of desperation and despair that beset the ill-fated Donner Party.  Knowledge of the impending winter adds to a player's anxiety level with each delay, be it a wrong turn on the road or a stop at a river crossing that is temporarily impassable because of heavy rains.  As a result, there is always the pressure to pick up the pace.  While this can and will help to make up lost time, it provides little opportunity for sick party members to regain their strength.  Equally important are the choices that go into provisioning the wagon.  All party leaders have a former profession, which functions much like the difficulty level in other titles.  Since the enemy in any resource-based game is an income constraint, the banker’s larger pool of starting funds will give them a distinct advantage over a farmer or teacher.  No matter how much money there is to play with, though, the competing need to purchase oxen, ammunition, spare parts, and clothing means food stores will inevitably dwindle down.  In those times, if a hunting expedition yields little in the way of fresh meat, and passing caravans are unwilling to trade away some of theirs, a regimen of rationing is the only way to sustain the group.

While this may seem like a rather bleak and joyless way to spend one’s gaming time, The Oregon Trail’s great strength is that it makes investing in the characters both easy and fun.  Oddly enough, this is all done with a simple feature that allows players to name the rest of the wagon’s migrants, in order to play out a form of alternate reality.  It was a rough weekend for friends and loved ones.  One of my two best friends suffered through a broken arm and exhaustion, while the other struggled with a nasty bout of cholera that had us frequently stopping on the road so he could relieve himself and rest a little bit.  At least they both survived the worst of it.  The same could not be said for my lovely wife, who finally succumbed to the snake venom that had laid her low for the two days prior.  If I had avoided that mountain shortcut where she was bitten, perhaps things would have turned out differently.  What choice did I have, though, when a bandit had stolen the last of the food while the women were caring for my buddies and I was out foraging?  No, the cruel hand of fate had made the decision for me; if I had taken that safer road, the supplies would not have seen any of us through to the safety of civilization.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few in such a cruel world, and so while I eventually led the party to our final destination on America’s West Coast, victory tasted bittersweet.

As great as a personal and ever-changing narrative like this is, it is hard to remain immersed in the gameplay when the rest of the title falls flat because of its presentation and delivery.  Countless editions of this classic have been released across a broad range of platforms, from the original 1971 script running on an HP 2100, all the way to a 2011 remake for nostalgic iOS users.  However, none are as fondly remembered as 1985’s version for the Apple II.  Considered by many as the quintessential Oregon Trail experience, it is the benchmark against which the Deluxe Edition falls short.  Part of the problem is this DOS release pushed the graphics envelope too far in an attempt to provide as much detail as possible with what are essentially two-dimensional sprites and static backgrounds.  Screen resolutions were only so high in 1992, so the imagery looks muddy and unclear compared to both today’s beautifully hand-drawn side-scrollers, as well as the blockier, but still aesthetically pleasing, visuals from earlier games on the Apple II.  The other big strike against it is the hunting mode, which is eerily reminiscent of those Big Game Hunter arcade cabinets that are so frequently found in shoddy restaurants and bars.  The first-person perspective, combined with the point-and-click nature of the shooting model makes this integral portion of the game just a little too easy compared to the third-person positional requirements of its classic forebear. 

Even without these version-specific complaints, I would be hard-pressed to make a recommendation for any edition of The Oregon Trail.  It is not that the gameplay is bad; it really is rather charming in a simple sort of way.  No, it is because the underlying formula has been so vastly improved upon by today’s developers, who grew up with and were influenced by this classic combination of resource management and decision making, that they have rendered their own well of inspiration obsolete.  Organ Trail and FTL: Faster Than Light were both shaped in the mold of Don Rawitch’s brainchild, but their plots revolve around a zombie apocalypse and an intergalactic rebellion, respectively, so they have a pretext for combat encounters to make the experience that much more enjoyable.  Toss in an upgrade system for each game’s iconic vehicle, and the engagement level gets ratcheted up as well.  At some point, I will undoubtedly subject my own child to the joy and frustration that comes with an adventure on the Oregon Trail, but only because it eschews the adult themes of its clearly superior brethren, which are the better options for a modern audience. 

Verdict:  Not Recommended