If you’re of a certain age, one of your fondest elementary/middle school memories is getting to use the Apple IIe computer(s) that your teacher(s) had. And while there were any number of fun games for it–Number/Word Munchers, the Carmen Sandiego games–there was one game in particular that all the kids wanted to play, regardless of their coolness. It’s a game that falls into the dreaded “edutainment” genre, yet defied the odds in a couple ways. First of all, it was actually fun. Secondly, other than “going across the country in 1848 was freaking hard”, I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn a darn thing from it, nor did my classmates.
According to Wikipedia, The Oregon Trail was first released in 1971, and has seen numerous re-releases on everything from DOS to Wii to cell phones since then. Each version has its own tweaks to the gameplay and difficulty (There’s an online version that gives the non-Banker classes advantages on the Trail to make up for their not having as much money, for instance). Today, I’ll be talking about 1985’s Apple IIe version, AKA “The one everyone played in elementary school”. This version was developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. In it, you play as a party of five people traveling from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, a roughly 2000-mile trip. Right off the bat, besides naming your party, you’re faced with a couple choices that will influence the game, such as “When do you begin your trip?” Too early and there’ll be no grass during the hottest part of the year for your oxen; too late and you risk being snowbound in the mountains. The other main choice you make right off the bat is your leader’s class, which influences how much money you have at the start of the game, and the number of points you earn should you make it to Oregon. Bankers have the most money; Farmers have the least, but receive a triple bonus to their score if they do manage to survive the trip. After purchasing supplies–food, clothes, oxen, etc.–it’s off to Oregon!
One of your main obstacles in your 2000-mile trek will be the numerous rivers you’ll have to cross. You’ll have several options, ranging from hiring a ferry to caulking your wagon (Basically sealing it off so water can’t get in, then floating it across), each with its associated chances of success and penalties for failure (Ranging from a loss of some supplies to some of your party actually drowning). But let’s face it, there was only ever one option (Seizure warning, I guess?), which usually got you killed. Maybe this is why actually getting to Oregon as a kid was so hard.
Other obstacles include bandits that will steal your supplies, randomly losing the trail and time as a result, and even you pushing your party too hard, causing their health to suffer. To help offset these, you can rest any number of days (But know that you consume food on rest days), and stop and hunt for game. The game that gives the most food is actually the easiest to hit, but you’ll only be able to take a small portion of that food back with you. You’ll also periodically stop at forts, where you can purchase or trade for additional supplies.
Even ignoring the educational aspect of the game, there’s some cool stuff here. Near the end of the trail, you can either do a river-riding minigame (I can’t remember anyone ever not doing this) or hike the last of the mileage to Willamette Valley. There are a couple other trail forks throughout the game; typically, taking the longer one will reward you with a valuable rest stop or fort along the way.
The other neat thing is that, when you lose the game, you have the option to write an epitaph on your tombstone, which later players can then read. It was always cool seeing what your classmates had left on their tombstones (Shockingly, I don’t recall any with naughty language like you’d expect out of elementary/middle schoolers, although there were certainly some non-sequiturs in the bunch).
One game of The Oregon Trail is actually not very long, probably taking in the neighborhood of a half hour to complete providing you don’t die anywhere beforehand. And the game is simple enough that you’ll figure out, if not the optimal path to victory, at least one possible path, fairly quickly. Put simply, it’s a game that’s optimized for 30-60 minute turns at the computer like you would likely have gotten in school, not marathon gaming sessions you go through as an adult.
Still, it’s a fun game, and influential in memories of a lot of people who grew up with it. As mentioned earlier, it was re-released and tweaked numerous times. If you’d like to play the Apple IIe version, you can do so here. Try it out, and see if you like it as much as I did.