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19 July 2015 @ 12:25 pm
Game Review: Oregon Trail  
This is probably the earliest game I'm going to review on my blog, unless I do end up going back and replaying Below the Root (1984) or trying to get those last few points in Adventure (1977).

So, Oregon Trail. Played by millions of children who would go on to be the very first millennials. The game that launched a thousand memes, 999 of which are about dysentery and the last one is about fording the river and your oxen dying. It seems to me like it'd be a waste of space to spend any time explaining the game because surely everyone has played it, but of course that's not true at all. Exposure required a specific set of circumstances involving a bunch of Apple II computers all in one place and teachers who thought that Oregon Trail had some sort of educational value, which I suppose is true, since learning that life is horribly unfair and you will constantly be screwed by circumstances beyond your control is an important life lesson. As is the idea that the rich are literally playing on easy mode.


Why would a rich banker be heading to Oregon anyway?

After choosing a profession, which is effectively a difficulty setting, you name your other family members, buy your initial set of equipment, and head out on the long road to Oregon with a spring in your step and hope in your heart. Gameplay is almost entirely reactive and based on a few landmarks here and there and various random events along the way, like a wagon axle breaking and needing to be replaced, a thief coming in the night and stealing some of your supplies, or various diseases and ailments afflicting you. This time, I named the five members of my party after the five people in Oregon, and while I broke my arm, softlykarou came down with cholera, and my sister contracted dysentery, smart management of food and pace kept everyone alive.

Food and pace are really the only option to control your journey for most of the time. You can pick a steady, a strenuous, or a grueling pace and bare bones, meager, or filling rations. There's not really much of a choice here, though, because strenuous pace and filling rations is the best way to go fast and maintain your health. You can slow down for a bit if people are sick, or speed up to grueling if everyone is in good health, but don't reduce rations no matter what. The plains are crawling with buffalo, so you'll have plenty of food.


Pew pew.

Hunting is a great way to get food, both because it's the only part of the game that doesn't come down to picking options from a menu (except the end, on which more later) and because it's incredibly easy. Animals practically hurl themselves into the paths of your bullets, and their corpses form a satisfying wall around you when you're finished. And then you can only carry a hundred pounds back to the wagon. Sure, you just shot six buffalo and have enough food to get all the way to Oregon, but apparently your shiftless asshole travel companions can't be bothered to help bring back the bacon. Dysentery is too good for them.

This actually does a lot to undermine the themes of the game. There's an option to trade with other settlers at landmarks, and the material they have changes as you go farther west. Originally they're trading a bunch of extra food for various materials, like extra clothes or wagon tongues, but the balance shifts along the trail until everyone wants food. With the ease of in-game hunting, it just seems like everyone else is terrible at it other than the protagonist, whose amazing deer- and bear-whisperer powers allow them to fill their larders at a moment's notice as long as they still have bullets.

I suppose I could have dropped rations down while I was hunting, since each hunting attempt takes a day, but on average I'd eat 15 pounds of food a day and bring home something like ~75 pounds of food, so frugality was pointless.


That is one unrealistically happy ox.

The other choices occur at specific landmarks, which give you the option to trade with other settlers, talk to other people coming along the trail, and usually one other location-dependent option. American forts have (very expensive) goods for sale, rivers need crossing by fording or floating or hiring a ferry if one is available, and some places like Chimney Rock are just there to mark your progress along the route. Unlike food and hunting, to this day I've never gotten the hang of river width vs depth vs weather conditions, and I always take the ferry if it's available and float across if it's not. Trying to ford the river always stands out in my mind due to so many past failures.

A few places have unique options, like how the Snake River affords the chance to hire a Shoshoni [sic] guide to help with floating across, but mostly you can tell on the main screen what you're up against. If it's a river you cross it, if it's a fort you buy things, and otherwise you admire the view and move on.

A couple places give you the option to pick a route. This is mostly take the longer route and go to a fort or take the shorter route and waste less time, but at the very end you have an option to either float down the Columbia or take the toll road overland. And you will float down the Columbia, because even though it's an awkward minigame it's still easy and leaves a lot less room for random disaster than taking the road does.


How are they steering?

There are a few messages that pop up later, like "bad water" or "inadequate grass," that I'm not really sure what they do. Inadequate grass has some effect on the oxen, but what is bad water? Maybe it makes you more likely to get dysentery? At least finding fruit bushes has an obvious effect. All of this was almost certainly explained in the manual, because as much as people love old games with no tutorials because they don't hold your hand and blah blah blah, a lot of the reason for that is that there was no room in the code for explanations while still fitting on the disk. And Oregon Trail is actually pretty good about providing the option for explanations. When you choose your traveling pace or food levels, there are four options. The first three are the options given and the last one is "What do all these mean, anyway?"

Random events screwing you is a great and glorious Oregon Trail tradition, but I didn't run into any this playthrough. The wagon can break down, food can spoil, thieves can come in the night, a wrong trail can waste days of time, but all I ran into on this playthrough was a single thief, who stole 5% of my bullets, and a few weeks of wrong trails, which don't matter because hunting is easy and fun. I've run into all kinds of trouble in the past, but not this time. Maybe it's luck from actually making it to Oregon after years of being away.


Flawless victory!

And it's still fun.

Maybe I'm just saying that because I actually made it to Oregon with everyone alive, but I had a great time. Sure, it's minimally interactive and almost entirely luck, but it has a bit of the draw that later games like Crusader Kings II do. It's easy to invest personalities into your faceless characters based on their mishaps. Why did the character named after me break his arm? Maybe he was trying to drag back some of those extra dead buffalo and fell, thus explaining why the hunter takes everything back by themselves. My most memorable game involved one person. The other four were dead and he was riddled with cholera, but he dragged himself from the Dalles toward the Willamette Valley, growing sicker and sicker until, one day from the end of the trail, he died. That's XComOregon Trail, baby! Should have rafted down the Columbia.

There's not much gameplay here other than the hunting minigame and the grand strategy of trying to insulate yourself from all the terrible things that could go wrong on the trail, but that's really all it needs. Adding a barter game or some navigation minigame or anything else would just dilute the purity of the experience. About the only thing I think could improve it would be random personality traits for party members, but that would require a subsystem of character interaction that currently doesn't exist and might not add anything.

Otherwise, thirty years later the original is still a great game. Give it a go.
 
 
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
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q99q99 on July 19th, 2015 10:07 pm (UTC)
- With the ease of in-game hunting, it just seems like everyone else is terrible at it other than the protagonist, whose amazing deer- and bear-whisperer powers allow them to fill their larders at a moment's notice as long as they still have bullets. -

From what I remember, the amount of large animals around goes way down as you go on, and if you hunt a lot you're less likely to find food.

So yea, running out of food, and/or having to stop to hunt constantly for rabbits/squirrels, is a thing that happened. Especially if you lose some oxen earlier on and thus travel at a slower pace.

-Trying to ford the river always stands out in my mind due to so many past failures. -

Fording really is for ultra-shallow conditions- which don't come up often, but if they do, you don't want to float because you'll crash in the shallowness.
dorchadasdorchadas on July 19th, 2015 10:23 pm (UTC)
From what I remember, the amount of large animals around goes way down as you go on, and if you hunt a lot you're less likely to find food.

I may have just gotten lucky again, but I never ran into that. Even almost all the way to Oregon I could still pull in hundreds of pounds of food with a week of hunting from all the bears I shot.

Fording really is for ultra-shallow conditions

I assumed that 3.6 feet would qualify, but I was wrong.  photo emot-argh.gif After that, I just floated or took the ferry everywhere.
q99q99 on July 19th, 2015 11:28 pm (UTC)
3.6 feet is still up to your waist! I've seen water that's under 2 feet.

What point you leave also affects food abundance at different points.
dorchadasdorchadas on July 19th, 2015 11:33 pm (UTC)
I did appreciate the explanation of the benefits of leaving at different months so you didn't have to blindly guess. I left in April, so by the time I was actually hunting it was high summer, which might have been why animals were hurling themselves to their deaths on my bullets.