Review: Oregon Trail for the iPhone

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Short Version: If you like the original, you’d enjoy this version. Rather than tarnishing the memories of our childhood, Gameloft has built upon them; almost everything we loved about the original has returned, and the new platform and enhanced graphics have only improved them.

Long Version: Oh, Oregon Trail. Multiplication and division be damned – it was the only thing I really cared about in second grade. When Computer Lab day rolled around, I’d just about fight a kid if it meant I got to sit at one of the computers with it tucked away within. I’m pretty sure Oregon Trail indirectly made me a faster typist; the faster I finished my typing exercises, the sooner I’d be westward bound.

It may seem a bit odd, but the news that Gameloft would be bringing Oregon Trail to the iPhone excited me more than just about any gaming news this year. Without a Windows 3.1 PC or old Mac laying around, it had been a long time since I’d played through. Sure, I could have emulated it (right in my browser, even!), but I’d never found the time. With the game on my iPhone, I could be on the wild frontier while I stood in lines or rode the bus – it could be perfect. Excited as I was to have an on-the-go version, I was also quite wary that Gameloft might not be able to pull it off. This memories were dear and fragile; could any remake really satisfy?

Yes.

Gameloft has taken the original and built upon the details, rather than actually trying to change the game. The improvements all seem natural. The new art style isn’t overly flashy, nor is it so cartoony that it might limit its audience.

If you’ve never played the original, here’s the basic idea: You and your party are traveling from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, a time of limited technology and rampant disease. At its very core, the game has one element: push a button, walk to the west.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. You’ve got to manage your supplies and keep your party healthy, which can be tougher than it sounds. Mini-games are interspersed throughout, most of which are new to the iPhone version:

  • Hunting: This was every kid’s favorite part so, thankfully, it made it in. It has changed a lot over time. In the first iteration of Oregon Trail, players just typed various alternatives to “BANG” as fast as they could (Seriously.) Later versions relied on the keyboard, then the mouse. The iPhone version makes us of – what else? – the touchscreen. Tap where you want to shoot – if your bullet connects, the animal instantly turns into ready-to-eat meat. Oddly, players now have an unlimited supply of bullets, which is one of the only questionable changes from the original.
  • Berry picking: Berries pop up on screen, and you tap them as fast as you can. Don’t tap the rotten ones, though!
  • Gold panning: Shake your iPhone to pan for gold, stopping only to pluck your treasures out of the water. It’s fun, but the floating gold pieces seem to have a hard time detecting when they’re touched. Not bad enough to ruin the mini-game, though.
  • River crossing: In the original game, you could float down the Columbia River as a little side game. In the iPhone port, you can float across every river as an alternative to attempting to cross it or waiting for a ferry. Tilt to steer, collect coins and supplies that are floating in the water. It’s a bit hard to control.
  • Wagon Repair: If your wagon gets busted up or you come across a downed traveler, you can opt to manually patch things up with a mini game, using less supplies than the automatic option. To play, you wait for a nail to fall within your hit-zone, and then tap the screen. Imagine Guitar Hero without music, a tiny plastic guitar, or a subconscious feeling of shame.
  • Telegraph: It’s the game “Simon”, with telegraphs instead of colored buttons. You can opt to play it when you pass through towns, but it sort of seems like it’s just there to give you something to do in towns besides restocking supplies. Beating it once unlocks an Endless mode which can be selected from the main menu.

One thing that may upset the purist fans of the original is that the game’s inventory system has been simplified a bit. You no longer have to deal with your meat stock in pounds – it’s just a slider now. You don’t have to keep track of bullets, nor do you buy wagon parts individually. You buy wagon parts in bulk now, and fixing your wagon just requires that you have some quantity of these generic parts.

What we liked:

  • They improved the original without changing the overall game mechanics or the feel of it all.
  • The new mini-games keep things interesting
  • The new graphic style is gorgeous
  • The developers have somehow managed to pack some humor into the idea of traveling 2,000 miles with little but your family, your wagon, and a box of food. Pay attention to the stuff your party says on screen while they travel – there are some gems in there.

What we didn’t:

  • Loading screens. Lots of them. They’re short, but they’re frequent. Each loading screen displays 1 of around 10 Trail-related facts to spruce things up a bit, but you’ll be able to recite them all by about 1/4 of the way through the game.
  • They simplified your inventory. We don’t mind that you don’t need to think as much about the specifics of your wagon or food supply, but having unlimited bullets makes hunting too easy.
  • Steering your boat when you’re floating down the river is a pain.

Overall, we love it. If you liked the original, you’ll love it to. If you never played the original, the concept may seem a bit strange, but you’ll probably love it anyway. It’s by no means the most involved or complex game ever, but it’s a fantastic way to burn time – and you might learn something, too!

Oregon Trail for the iPhone is available for 6 bucks in the App Store [iTunes Link].

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