Review – The Oregon Trail (Switch)
It’s really difficult to look at the importance and cultural impact of a game like The Oregon Trail. For many, not only was it a central game in their childhood, it may have even been their first game. Put on ancient Apple II computers in school buildings, this bizarre approach to historical teaching was an excuse for kids to approach edutainment for the first time. In actuality, it just became a progressively stranger and stranger trek into the lands of the most unforgiving place on Earth: the Midwest in the 1800s. In many ways, the game became a perfect reflection of the life to come for the children who experienced it: a seemingly straightforward path that was so beset with random, horrible events that the people who succeeded were not blessed with talent or skill, but just sheer dumb luck.
So when a remake, simply titled The Oregon Trail, dropped onto Apple Arcade last year, no one was really sure how to take it, though cautious enthusiasm was the primary flavor. It was easy enough to play the original through a series of browser based emulators, plenty of fan creations (including the very cool Organ Trail), and an impossibly hard-to-find and now expensive handheld. So why should there be a new version?
Also, with Gameloft behind the helm, people were cautious about how the overall game would be handled. Although Gameloft has some good history with games, they also have some odd choices in ports that range from microtransaction laden to horrible performance. The reviews have been good though, and now the exclusivity with Apple has ended, letting the whole adventure mosey over to the Nintendo Switch for a brand new path to the pacific Northwest. And, let me tell you: it’s good. It’s damn good.
The Oregon Trail is what you would expect, but also completely, wildly different, all in positive ways. The core aspect is still the same: the main game asks you to complete the trek from Independence, Missouri to Oregon over the course of several months in order to begin a new life in the booming West Coast. You choose a party of four people, pick some supplies, and off you go. If that’s all you want out of the game, then you’ll be pleased as punch because that’s still here.
Only…well, not exactly. You see, Gameloft realized that the raw RNG of the previous game didn’t exactly age well, and left something to be desired. So now there are plenty of stats to consider for each of the party members you choose, from having higher stamina (important for long journeys and doing certain activities) to high morale (keeping positive means not giving up mid adventure) and even charm (haggling is such an important tool!). These stats actually being visible means customizing and understanding what your party is capable of before setting out, which means actually planning for real success instead of “hoping for the best.”
The Oregon Trail, the main game, is broken into five legs of the trek. Each of these legs are broken into five smaller checkpoints, making for twenty-five total waypoints to reach. Between each checkpoint are paths that are randomized, but you’re allowed to decide which branch to proceed down, giving you further decision and control over your destiny. While everything is just a mystery at first, continuing to play lets you understand which paths will lead to hunting, fishing, safe campfire spots, berry gathering, or any number of other fixed events with NPCs.
If you’re running low on meat, heading towards the herd of deer is the natural inclination, whereas trying to head straight for a safe spot to bed is important if everyone’s feeling exhausted. There are still tons of random events that can happen between the checkpoints (broken wagon wheels, someone gets shot, man in a flying machine asks for help), so don’t feel like the game has been completely tamed.
Instead, realize that The Oregon Trail is finally what the game should have been: a branching roguelite adventure title with limited controls, but plenty that can happen. It’s a resource management sim that’s got chances for survival and success, but ultimately, have a lot to do with proper planning, experience, and dumb luck. Completing one of the major legs means unlocking a fast-travel start for future games. This allows you to skip whole sections of the game if you just want to make things easier on yourself.
Hell, there’s an easy mode now where resources deplete significantly slower and bad events almost never happen, allowing you to have more of a Little House on the Prairie adventure and less of a Donner Party. The further you play, the more you unlock custom scenarios for additional elements of madness (early winter, dynamite mines) that actually turn the game into, well, a game.
The result? The Oregon Trail is an incredible achievement in modern takes on classic game archetypes. For one, the graphics have been overhauled without totally forgetting the roots, giving the entire event a very colorful, but pixelated display. It’s not nearly as rough as the original variants, but there’s still a blocky quality that makes it charming and fun.
When the game decides it wants to really show off what it can do, bloom effects and high-grade landscaping reminds you that this horribly unforgiving journey was actually quite beautiful, as the undiscovered American landscape was certainly an inspiration to millions even as hardship stood in the way. The avatars of each character, who are now something more than just a random name assigned to them (such as naming your whole family Butt), are iconic and clean, each with different backgrounds, styles, and races.
I have to admit, it’s very cool that Gameloft has taken the time to specifically address the lack of proper Native American representation in the original game. This time they have the indigenous people more than hazard events that make the game more difficult. Not only are there Native American NPCs that populate multiple areas of the game, several scenarios allow you to play through in their shoes, giving The Oregon Trail a more honest approach to the history that went through this area and time period. While it certainly doesn’t address all the atrocities that occurred, actual representation is great to see and helps to portray a more factual world where the game takes place. Plus it gives us some kickass characters that make the experience a lot better.
In fact, the entirety of The Oregon Trail is peppered with achievements and unlockables to discover additional information about the landmarks, the historic events, the natural elements, and even key figures that existed at the time, giving this actual educational credence in comparison to the original game. While it’s true that many settlers got sick and died on the way across the country, I feel many players walked away from the original just commenting how bullshit dysentery is.
This incarnation, while mixing in real gaming mechanics that allows for planning and strategizing, also gives you plenty of opportunities to read up on tidbits of information that just add color and further context to what’s going on. I sort of wish this is the version I had played when I was a child. I might have been more interested in U.S. History and not decided that ancient Europe was more exciting.
Finally, the soundscape is gorgeous, and there’s no other word for it. It’s got the best of frontier feeling captured in a song, intermingling lonesome guitar, flutes, some occasional jaunty mixes of drum and electronica when the Dragoon brigade (some lost soldiers) show up, and plenty of other melodies to give you the impression of the Wild West. It’s like if Open Range and Trigun decided to split the difference by trying to excite children while deliberating on using wheel grease or trying to haggle with it to get more hardtack. For a game that should just be straightforward and incidental, actually caring about the music is something special to me.
The biggest selling point I can say about The Oregon Trail is that I’ve had it on my phone for a year and barely touched it, and now it’s on my Switch and I can’t stop playing it. I am forcing myself to write this review before I get dragged back in because it is incredibly compelling to keep going for another turn. The simplistic approach to decision making, coupled with actual statistics that give you hope for better choices and not just “hope for the best” helps to capture the enchantment of the original experience, without forcing me to water down my expectations through the lens of nostalgia.
This isn’t just a new version of a game, this is the updated version that actually caters to what gaming personalities expect and look for in new titles. Sure, there’s no touchscreen controls, which is a bizarre choice for something that was just on a goddamn touchscreen device, but whatever! It’s The Oregon Trail, you can play and unlock the filter to make it monochrome green if you’d like. Or you can appreciate the color, the pizazz, and the actual gameplay and realize that it’s a frigging masterpiece. Give in to your inner child and come hop along the trail: there’s a whole wide world just waiting to kill you.
A beautiful blend of modern and retro that gives it the Oregon Trail feel you don’t remember, but scratches the same itch. Unlockable filters can properly re-create the sensation.
Plenty of choices and ideas to help pave the road ahead. Not as engaging as some management sims, but multiple game modes and randomized events keep planning spry and the future uncertain.
If “Lonesome Dove” was actually exciting and you couldn’t help but smile when the Union was marching in, this is the soundtrack you’d hear. Spectacular
One of the few games that I just kept wanting to see what was going to happen next. Genuinely put a smile on my face to play something from my childhood that was remade properly.
Final Verdict: 8.5
The Oregon Trail is available now on Nintendo Switch and Apple Arcade.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of The Oregon Trail was provided by the publisher.