In the 1800s, settlers gathered in Independence, Missouri. They sold their belongings, piled into a wagon, and then headed west across 2,000 miles of rough terrain before finally arriving at the verdant valley of Oregon City. Their adventures changed the course of American history, and eventually, those brave men and women were immortalized in computer game form. For years, students have learned about that famous journey by playing video games. Now they can do so in Oregon Trail for the Wii. Unfortunately, the new update is a visually unappealing, shallow, and repetitive mess of a game that is likely to leave older players pining for the days when a few minutes on the computer with virtual pioneers was the highlight of their school day.
The Oregon Trail is structurally faithful to its predecessors. As in the history books, you start in Missouri and from there head west along the familiar route. You can stop to trade with Native Americans and other travelers, purchase supplies at forts, and hunt for food, but you can also lose your belongings to robbers and fall victim to illnesses brought on by a grueling pace and harsh conditions. There are tweaks to the familiar formula that help to make things more active and contemporary, however.
The most obvious tweak is the manner in which you progress along the trail. Early versions of the game found students staring at a monitor while oxen slowly plodded from right to left, with occasional prompts when something occurred that required input. It was possible to speed things up, if a wagon party could handle the rougher pace, but mostly there was a lot of waiting. On the Wii, that waiting has been mostly eliminated. The wagon and oxen are controlled with the analog stick. There are obstacles such as rocks and mud bogs, so you need to steer around those and avoid falling trees and boulders as you collect horseshoes, wagon wheels and crates. Such resources might restore health to the oxen, prevent the wagon from taking critical damage, and perhaps even add some supplies to your waning stock.
There are enough obstacles along the trail that it's difficult to avoid everything, so picking up lots of wheels and horseshoes becomes necessary. However, it can be difficult to tell if you're properly lined up with the loot. If you misjudge, no amount of analog stick nudging allows you to correct your path sufficiently. If you want to reach the end of the trail ahead of winter, you also have to move pretty quickly by periodically swinging the remote as if cracking a whip. Then, because you're moving so swiftly, any mistakes you make have a more significant impact. You have to spend a lot of time resting, and that consumes food that you then must replenish by hunting.
Periodically, you come across welcome diversions. Sometimes you find a wagon that you can scavenge for vitals, and occasionally you locate a berry patch that you can potentially raid for enough berries that you won't have to worry about hunting for a little while. The amount you obtain really comes down to luck, since you merely have to indicate that you'd like to search, and then the game tells you if that search yielded anything of value. The same is true if you invest money to try your hand at prospecting for gold.
Hunting and fishing require more of your attention. The former is viewed in a first-person perspective. You look off to the side of the trail, and animals run back and forth or toward you. There are trees and bushes that can prevent you from firing a clean shot, but mostly it's a low-stress shooting gallery. You have plenty of time to bag a bunch of animals (if you brought enough bullets), and there's no limit to the number of times you can hunt. If you stop near a fishing hole, you can try your hand at that sport instead. You simply toss your lure into the water, let it bob around until some fish find it, and then try to reel them in without letting the line get too tense and snap. It's about as involving as the fishing in Animal Crossing.
The hunting game sounds fine on paper, but it's a dreadful bore. There are a few buffalo and deer throughout the game, but mostly you're shooting arthritic rabbits and wild turkeys. Sometimes they head into view from the sides of the screen, but often they appear out of nowhere. If you're lucky, you have two or three rabbits limping comically toward you at once. If you're less fortunate, there are one or two, or you just stare at the bland environments for a few seconds before a turkey suddenly materializes. In addition, you're deprived of the morbid satisfaction of watching animal corpses pile up; any woodland creatures you shoot vanish amid a burst of stars. Sometimes you kill a critter and receive credit for the kill, but it keeps moving around the screen, freshly invincible.
The presentation leaves a lot to be desired. The Oregon Trail looks like it might have been released during the late Nintendo 64 era. The wagon itself is detailed (with an appearance that you can eventually customize), and the oxen are well animated, but the environments are barren and uninteresting, and there are draw distance issues. Forts look like they were assembled out of building blocks, and you see the same few traders and Native Americans a couple of dozen times between Independence and Oregon City. The game shows its roughness in other ways, as well. There are 20-second load screens before each leg of the journey (and even before the title screen). Options must often be confirmed by clicking on-screen arrows, rather than with a simple button press. Dialog boxes sometimes require multiple pages where only one should be necessary, and tutorial tips are obnoxiously prevalent (though you can disable them).
As a result of the disappointing production values and the awkward gameplay, reaching the end of the trail even once feels a lot like work. Some memorable vistas, a greater variety of critters to kill, more unique characters to meet on the trail, and a smoother menu interface could have gone a long way toward producing a compelling experience. Instead, you're expected to head along the trail multiple times so that you can unlock new chapters in brief plots that are interesting only when they're bizarre (such as when the journal repeatedly discusses not telling the children about mating dragonflies). Additional gear, score tallies, and alternate routes don't do enough to add life to an adventure that should be full of it. Perhaps the franchise would have been better left as it was. Dying from dysentery never used to be this dull.