"After a couple more weeks 'cross this here Kansas prairie, we made it to the Big Blue River crossing. Shore 'nuff, we all survived unharmed, thanks to the good Lord's providence. A heavy fog then made us lose one day of travel time." In The Oregon Trail, a light simulation of American Westward expansion in the 1840s, keeping a journal of your daily events inevitably includes entries such as the one depicted above. Anyone expecting some kind of realistic simulation of a settler's life will obviously not find that with this game but, nevertheless, it's a somewhat enjoyable educational romp through the American West.
Independence, Missouri is the starting point in The Oregon Trail. After naming your character and four travelling companions and selecting an occupation, your first task is to buy supplies based on which character types you've chosen. For example, bankers and doctors will have no difficulty buying all the items they need but will have lower scores upon completion of the game. Occupations like farmers and teachers, on the other hand, provide you with only a bare bones amount of cash but huge score multipliers at the end. If your purpose of playing The Oregon Trail is to achieve a high score, though, something has gone seriously wrong in your life.
The basic goal of your party of adventurers is to successfully cross the entire western half of the United States and reach salvation (and rivers of gold, no doubt) in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Venturing out into the VGA-rendered environments of The Oregon Trail quickly reveals some lackluster project design. The small animation of your wagon being pulled by oxen looks as if it uses EGA graphics at best and the map of the United States is basically a digitized version of a real map. The icons to the left and right of the screen, though, are reasonably well designed and colorful.
The aforementioned icons, present throughout the game, are actually help functions for hunting, trading, resting and guiding. When you talk to or trade with the locals of an area, a semi-realistic portrait of an 1800s citizen pops up (seemingly out of place here) to offer advice or horribly overcharge you for one pile of goods or another. Hunting, on the other hand, initiates a short action sequence (sure to please the kids) where you mercilessly assassinate buffalo, deer and other animals you would be unlikely to encounter.
In execution, though, the real goal of the game is to hit the "continue" button, located in the middle of the screen, in order to make your push ever Westward towards glory. In fact, due to the game's somewhat flawed random design, at times it's better to completely ignore the extra curricular activities and mindlessly press "continue" and ignore anything else that occurs. Playing carefully is often rewarded with your entire party dying, yet playing recklessly by just moving as quickly Westward as possible, can easily get your party to its destination totally unscathed.
The Oregon Trail doesn't claim to be a realistic settlers simulation, merely an entertainment tool for education and, in that regard, succeeds. The mostly historically appropriate MIDI or digital songs played at various points help foster a spirit of fun through exploration and nearly every piece of text spoken by a character or used to describe a location can be read by a narrator, which changes according to the situation. Sound Blaster support is required for all of this and the soundtrack as you journey across the country to Oregon is fun.
Travelling by oxen cart to Oregon is not without randomized drawbacks, however. Children can potentially learn a great deal about the American West while playing but they can also learn quite a bit about random, completely senseless death. Party members get sick and die for no apparent reason, though that may be fairly realistic considering the health conditions facing most western expansionists in the 1800s. Regardless, countless setbacks are encountered along the way and most, aside from death, can be overcome by careful pre-planning or critical thinking, both important skills that children (and adults) obviously need to develop in their day-to-day non-settler lives.
"Day 84: I develop dysentery and die soon afterwards." The journal note notwithstanding, The Oregon Trail is an entertaining mix of education and entertainment and utilizes an easy to understand interface. It doesn't win any awards for graphical consistency or extremely deep gameplay but is always an entertaining way to spend some time.
Graphics: Graphics are not The Oregon Trail's strong point. Some of the scenes of famous landmarks are quite appealing but their realistic-digitized look also clashes with some of the game's animation and the character portraits are completely different in style from the rest of the action.
Sound: While sound effects are relatively scarce and serve only to highlight "exciting" activities like fording a river with your oxen, the game's MIDI and digital music track, which plays constantly throughout, is really quite engrossing. Furthermore, a great deal of the important text in the game can be read by a narrator at the push of a button, which adds depth to the overall sound atmosphere.
Enjoyment: While there are certainly far better and more complex games dealing with the American westward expansion, The Oregon Trail is immensely satisfying in its own way. Kicking back and watching the trials and tribulations of your tiny virtual settlers is rarely dull.
Replay Value: With several levels of difficulty and branching paths on the expedition, The Oregon Trail offers a fair amount of replay value. The problem is the repetitive nature of the graphics -- your cartwheel can break only so many times before you just wish it would stop.
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