Platforms: PC, Apple //, Atari, Commodore 64 | Genre: Adventure
Publisher: MECC | Developer: MECC | Released: 1974
Educational gaming is almost a lost art in this day and age. When you think back to the era of the 1980s, and even to part of the early 1990s, games like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and Math Blaster were all the rage in elementary and middle school computer labs everywhere. What was great about this era of educational titles was that, for the most part, the kids playing the games didn't really notice that they were being educated. Most kids were happy to have the opportunity to play games on school time and didn't even think about these games' educational elements unconsciously teaching them about geography or algebra while they tracked master thieves or raced cars. While most of these games faded into obscurity as their audiences outgrew them, one title stands out from the roster of "edu-taining" games of that era as the most addictive, most enduring, and most memorable offering of them all. That game was MECC's Oregon Trail.
Equal parts adventure and strategy game, Oregon Trail put you in the role of the head of a group of travelers in 1848 who were hoping to make it to the Beaver State, via covered wagon, by following the fabled Oregon Trail. At the beginning, you decided if you wanted to be a banker from Boston, a carpenter from Ohio, or a farmer from Illinois. Then you decided what month of the year you were going to begin your journey and subsequently started stocking up on supplies for the trip. You needed to buy oxen to pull your wagon, sets of clothing for your party members, as much food as you could afford, bullets for the purpose of hunting for more food along the trail, and spare wagon parts in case of a breakdown. Every single purchase and choice made at the beginning of the game played into the strategy of what was to come once you hit the Oregon Trail.
Each profession had its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the banker started off with significantly more money, thus allowing you to purchase more supplies for your journey. However, if you chose the carpenter, you'd be able to fix broken wagon parts on your own and wouldn't need to buy spare parts. Ultimately, your goal was to reach Oregon with all party members intact--and with as many supplies left as possible because they would tally in to your final score. However, this wasn't as easy as it sounded. Along the trail, you would have to manage your pacing so as not to strain the oxen; you had to manage food rations; you had to hunt animals when food supplies ran low; you had to periodically stop to rest, talk with locals, and attempt to trade with other travelers; and you had to attempt to ford river crossings, either by paying to take a ferry or by attempting to cross it yourself. You'd also have to keep track of your party's health, as all manner of diseases would rear their ugly heads during the course of your journey. Even the month of your departure required an element of strategy because leaving too late in the year would force you to have to deal with the cold winter months, thus opening your party even more to disease.
Oregon Trail wasn't an overly difficult game by any means, but at the same time, it had an aesthetically addictive quality to it. The game was so simple to figure out from the get-go, yet a nearly endless number of combinations of disasters and misfortunes could present themselves as you traversed the trail. In fact, your party's fortune could reverse and "re-reverse" so many times over such a short span that there was no way to properly predict what could happen. Furthermore, despite the game's relative simplicity in presentation, there were a number of different things you could actually do besides managing your party. The game's hunting simulation put you down in a patch of terrain off the trail and let you shoot your own animals as they scurried across the screen. Furthermore, as you went along, you would encounter tombstones for previous players of the game who didn't make it. If you died yourself, you could write your own epitaph on a tombstone so that future players of the game could eventually stumble upon it. On top of all of this, the game also managed to teach you a thing or two about the frontier era by presenting you with rudimentary concepts about how people in that time lived and by also presenting bits and pieces of information about various landmarks that were found along the trail. Of course, if you asked someone who played the game, he or she wouldn't admit to having learned anything from it. Deep down, however, he or she knows more about Fort Bridger than probably anyone else because of Oregon Trail.
Although Oregon Trail's brand of edu-tainment games have all but faded into obsolescence at this point in history, it's hard to deny what Oregon Trail accomplished for its time. Never before had a game based on the concept of education featured such levels of replay value and enjoyable gameplay. And never had they been presented to such an extent that even if the game weren't trying to educate you, you'd still want to play it based solely on its merits as a game. Oregon Trail wasn't the longest, deepest, or most thrilling of educational games, but it helped set a precedent for what an educational game could be. Namely, it was something that managed to both teach and entertain, and it did both extremely well.
|No one thing on this earth reminds me of fifth grade computer class quite like Oregon Trail. In fact, throughout the latter years of my elementary education, most any time spent in the school computer lab consisted of me sitting around trying to get the highest score I could on our school's copy of Oregon Trail while using one of our many green-screened computers. Practically anyone I mention the game to confesses to a similar habit from earlier school days. We'll lament together on and on about the fact that no matter how many times you tried playing through as the farmer, you just couldn't get through the trip with all of your party members intact. Though gaming may have long surpassed the need for the kind of simplistic, educational-minded fare that Oregon Trail represented, I'll always hold a soft spot in my heart for the game that taught me the word for a group of oxen, which is "yoke."|
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