Just mentioning the words “The Oregon Trail” around any child of the 80’s sets off a major burst of nostalgia. This early “edutainment” title acted as a duplicitous infiltrator, teaching us about Manifest Destiny while convincing us we had found a loophole to play games in the classroom. Gameloft’s iPhone Oregon Trail sticks to its educational roots, but douses the graphics in coats of shiny paint and sprinkles on a bevy of new minigames; the Apple II roots of the experience are barely evident. Still, this is a good casual game in its own right. It has a few technical glitches, but is otherwise well-equipped to subversively educate another generation of schoolkids.
In The Oregon Trail, you guide a pioneer wagon cross-country to claim land in the West. The goal is to keep a good pace while balancing your supplies and the health of your family. The game presents you with choices along the trail that usually offer a trade-off between the game’s five main currencies: time, health, money, supplies, and food. For example, stopping to pick berries will slow you down, but boost health and food reserves. The trail is dotted with historically accurate landmarks, river crossings, camps and forts. Each area allows you to participate in certain activities, such as gold panning in a river or fishing in a lake. In the larger forts, you can buy basic supplies, as well as special items such as health kits or new oxen that will help you along the way. The iPhone version also includes more navigational choices than its predecessors, which means you can choose from multiple forks in the trail to best suit your equipment.
The only action sequences in the original game were steering your wagon down a river and hunting. In this version, almost every activity, from repairing wagons to picking berries, has its own minigame. Unfortunately, these minigames are not very deep and usually boil down to some variation of Whack-a-Mole. Older players will probably get sick of these sequences fast, since they appear often and are seldom challenging. Even hunting (the most video game-like part of the original title) has been dumbed down to tapping on cuddly-looking fauna as they slowly amble across the screen.
The Oregon Trail’s presentation is exceptional. The graphics are large, crisp and colorful sprites that animate nicely. All the people you encounter in the game are iconic and packed with character. Plus, the old-timey bluegrass ditties that play along the trail and during minigames are fun to listen to, and the little bits of voice acting are great. The dialog is another strong suit. Your family makes humorous quips along the trail, and the people you encounter in the towns really complement the game’s educational content. You can expect to meet famous historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who might challenge you to a race or ask for a ride to the next fort.
You will also be bombarded with interesting trivia on westward migration during the very frequent load screens. The game has to load in between just about every transition; these don’t take long individually, but they definitely add up. You’ll see all the game’s trivia before you even cross the Rocky Mountains. We also encountered a rare crash or two that was annoying.
It’s important to note that that The Oregon Trail is an ultra-casual game. It presents you with some rudimentary stats and feedback about how well you are doing, but there’s not much in the way of challenge. If there were some reason to try to make it to Oregon earlier–or with more live family members–it might be fun to try to make the perfect run and look past some of the more repetitive parts of the game. However, when you reach Oregon, that’s it. The game just ends, no point total, no nothing.
Overall, the iPhone version of The Oregon Trail is a very beautiful and well-rounded casual game, in spite of a few technical glitches. However, if you are reading this review, you’re probably not in this game’s intended audience. It’s certainly educational, accessible, and fun to watch, but it doesn’t deliver enough nostalgia or challenge to keep harder core gamers interested. On the other hand, if you’ve got a kid in need of entertainment, or you’re looking to relax with something a little lighter and less involved, The Oregon Trail is a good choice.