The Oregon Trail

What better place is there to start a video game backlog than Independence, Missouri?

I'm beginning this journey with some edutainment software originally produced by MECC that requires some thought and resource management skills in order to navigate your party safely across the wild west.

It's The Oregon Trail, and I'm looking forward to playing it.

I've heard of The Oregon Trail, but didn't know too much about it. I knew it was a resource management kinda game, I knew it was somewhat important in game history, but didn't really have a clue why. When I found out you could play it online over at the Internet Archive though, I was pretty psyched up - not only was I able to play a classic so easily, it looked far better than I thought it would.

Alright, it's not the very original, and I'm viewing it on a modern monitor with all its crisp detail, but I'm still thinking it's going to look like the back end of an Ox. It doesn't. It's great. It's simple, it doesn't do anything it doesn't need to do, and it drew me in within a minute.

Fun Times

One thing I did know about the game is that it's famous for introducing kids of all ages to the word 'dysentery'.

Dysentery. Infectious diarrhea. Intestinal inflammation with bloo--  I wanted someone to get dysentery on their journey across America, and I think anyone playing The Oregon Trail who knows at least a little bit about it wants to see it too.

Just the once, at least. I don't need to see it every single playthrough.

Unfortunately for poor Utah, he'd have to live with dysentery until he drowned in a failed river crossing, taking three sets of clothes, one wagon wheel and his brother Loco with him.

That's The Oregon Trail for you. Miserable. Life sucked and times were hard. Be you a banker, a carpenter or a farmer, if you decided to head west, you best have prepared yourself for breakdowns, disease, hardship and more.

If the ground was in your favour, the weather wasn't. If you had success hunting wild animals, the food was plentiful but you couldn't carry any of it...

I shot those buffalo like I was aiming for a Red Dead Redemption achievement...


I don't know if I was being stupid (probably), or the emulation had problems, or I should have used a computer with a number pad, but my hunting sessions consisted of standing near one corner and only being able to spin on the spot. Only being able to eat when animals dare to walk into the line of sight at one of your four cardinal directions is a tad annoying, especially when you can't shoot through trees or over the deer carcass that you did manage to shoot.

Good job I had a clear line of sight to that bear

As such, starting the game with close to 2000 rounds of ammo was quite the dumb idea, but I was living the American dream. Or one of them, at least. I really thought I'd be doing a whole lot of shooting on my travels. That many rounds seemed more than adequate, yes, but what else would I spend my entire savings on? Food?

Does the Ox count as a party member, or does the game just assume someone has died by this point?

Fond Memories

Look at these guys. This sums up how I feel when I play The Oregon Trail. Just kicking back, soaking up the sun in some majestic surroundings. I don't know what she's doing in the lake, but she's not at all concerned about the problems we've faced, and will no doubt continue to face.

One Ox got injured pretty much right from the off; another two drowned in a failed river crossing, taking 333lbs of food and half of a wagon with them; Scalper broke an arm; an ox wandered off, perhaps reaching Oregon before us; a thief stole 44lbs of food, but neglected to touch the 1600 rounds of ammunition I was still carrying around at that point, and Canyon got dysentery. Because dysentery is all the rage in 1848.

To say it's a thrilling game would perhaps be the wrong choice of word, but I was definitely leaning forward in anticipation for the next problem to deal with. Would my wagon catch fire? Would I starve? Would I get lost?

To my surprise, it was another game within the game: navigating the rocks while floating downriver to our next destination.

This one wasn't so much of a problem. Scalper had been another mouth to feed, frankly, and I wouldn't need so many oxen after I'd dropped that much dead weight - when was I ever going to fire all those bullets? 

There are no mechanics in the game for how much weight your oxen can pull or where you'd store all that stuff or just what Scalper's eating habits were (relative to the rest of the party that is - everyone can be on meagre rations if you want, but maybe Scalper stole from the others, the bastard), but just that one list, in a game of lists, is conjuring up all these stories and images.

It looks like the worst is over. It never is. You're playing The Oregon Trail, there'll be more trouble ahead.

It's a strip of blue pixels on a bit of a peachy backdrop. It looks like no river on earth but I was invested in the outcome of my little wagon drifting through those rocks.

Feels like

The Oregon Trail is like a spreadsheet to give your imagination some structure, and I don't mean that to sound harsh.

Sure, it throws dysentery your way like it's going out of fashion, but you do make your own story out of your game. You can choose what you take, how fast you go, how much you eat on the way, when you hunt, what you trade, where you head and how you get there. It's not open world, and much of it is out of your hands entirely, but you get out of it what you put in and then some.

It goes beyond resource management, to the point where I'd easily have more fun if I forgot about management entirely, and just gave myself a tough time at the start, in a game that would only ever get tougher.

I want to go and play the game with absurd inventory lists, I want to make stupid decisions, I want to fail in as interesting a way as possible. I ended up in Oregon with $1 to my name.

Actually, if we make the final points into the story we should be reading them in, I ended up in Oregon butt naked, with someone else, both of us in very poor health, leading two oxen tha were dragging a wagon full of bullets into town.

I didn't run out of food though, but I did score about 7000 points behind the scoreboard leader at the time...

Points won't bring back what I've lost, you know...

Final Word

This game was a great starting point to this backlog. You can pick it up in seconds, you can play it for hours.

Don't want to talk to anybody on your journey? So be it. Who needs flavour text, eh?
Don't want to trade? I don't blame you; dog eat dog world out here.
Don't want to play Oregon Trail? Get out.

Go play it. It's highly recommended. I've not played any other version than the one available at the Internet Archive, there are probably improved versions in some departments, but I wouldn't immediately go for those versions with fancy graphics, for example. There's a charm to those that I've seen here, and you do so much more in your head anyway - the game simply serves as a detailed launchpad.

You've got to say you've played it, and you've no excuses when it's so readily available.

Fun Facts

An estimated 268,000 people travelled to the west coast of the United States via this and similar trails. Each of these people would need to find enough gold in them there hills to buy over 240 copies of The Oregon Trail in order to reach the estimated sales figures of the game, clocking in at over 65 million copies over its many versions.

The Oregon Trail, developed by MECC, first released in 1971.
Version played: MS-DOS, 1990, via the Internet Archive (browser emulation)