The Oregon Trail, which holds roots in a classic educational game sharing the same name released on the archaic Apple II computer, chronicles the lengthy journey from Middle America to the illustrious green wilderness of Oregon. As an Oregonian myself, it's easy to see what attracted throngs of pioneers to settle in the rich Willamette Valley: lush old forests, some of the world's best coffee, and an emerging music scene that rivals Seattle in the '90s. But I digress. Most travellers died before sipping a delicious cup of coffee along the Willamette River, having succumbed to disease, fatigue, or any of the random tragedies that often befall a caravan on the arduous trek.
Your job, as head of a westward travelling family, is to ensure that each member of your five-person wagon makes it to Oregon alive. The trail is long, dangerous, and dotted with mini-game challenges that are as entertaining as they are deadly. Gameloft's reinvention comes with a number of additions that enhance the interactivity of this rather static game, notwithstanding tweaks to ensure portable playability. What emerges is one of its finest mobile titles, one that balances depth and accessibility, fun and challenges.
Before hitting the trail, you need to select from three professions: Banker, Farmer, and Carpenter. Choose your hat carefully as each role grants a specific bonus that can make or break your trip. Bankers, for instance, have immediate access to more money than the other two jobs; however, the Carpenter is able to repair wagon malfunctions more easily.
After selecting a profession and choosing the month of departure (March, April, or May), you're ready to go. The ultimate objective in The Oregon Trail is to reach the Willamette Valley alive, although there's a secondary goal in beating trailblazer Marcus Whitman to the trail's end. Along the way, you can note Whitman's progress on the map and adjust your speed to overtake him should you fall behind. You're not required to beat Whitman to win the game, but it does add an extra layer of challenge.
A map situated in the center of the screen displays your progress, as well as notable landmarks and stops along the way. Above it is your wagon, animating across the expanse of the American West. Using the keypad you can select from three different speeds: slow, medium, and fast.
Charging ahead reduces the time needed to get to the next stop, but it comes at the cost of your family's health and wagon's condition. At any time you can rest to restore health, although be mindful that each day of rest is one lost to travel. It's these sorts of decisions that give The Oregon Trail a unique edge, a sense of real-world challenge in the simple decisions that you're forced to make along the journey.
Along with your wagon's condition and family's health, you need to keep an eye on your food reserves. Food consumption on the trip can be offset through hunting, fishing, or purchasing supplies at a general store. Since stores are far and few between, hunting and gathering is really your best bet.
Which isn't the chore it may sound. The hunting mini-game, for instance, has you cocking a rifle to blast unsuspecting bunnies, squirrels, deer, bison, and bears to feed the family. Using the keypad, you move your gun's sights and fire with a press of the '5' key. Hit the key again and your avatar walks over to pick up the meat. Fishing works in a similar manner, requiring you to adjust a lure rather than move a crosshair. When it's near a fish, hitting '5' reels it in.
The game is filled with a number of these easy-to-learn mini-games that do well to mix in a little action. Others include wagon repairs that see you hammering nails with timed presses of the 'OK' key, river crossings in which you navigate your wagon to avoid obstacles, and even bandit chases that force you to speed up to the next town or risk being robbed.
When you finally do reach the end of the trail, you'll be left with an uncommon feeling of achievement, matched impressively by satisfaction. The Oregon Trail exudes a level of quality in its design and presentation that few mobile titles ever reach. The masterful way in which it reinvigorates this old classic with challenging mini-games and a gorgeous graphical overhaul is to be applauded. At the very least, take it as a reminder of the green little state that sits along the Pacific shore of the United States and that this reviewer calls home.The Oregon Trail is a US-only release. Gameloft currently has no plans to bring the game to other territories.