The Oregon Trail

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"That's how I learned what it means to be an American. To embrace the pioneer spirit, Shoot Everything That Moves, drown my family in a river, and die of starvation somewhere in the midwest."'s July 4th Oregon Trail Retrospective
"LITTLE JOHNNY has died of dysentery."
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If you went to an American public school during the 1980s or early 1990s, and your classroom was fortunate enough to have a monolithic, clicking heap of machinery called an Apple ][, you probably remember a little floppy-disc based game called The Oregon Trail.

If you don't, the premise of this Edutainment Game, designed by three student teachers for their history class, is to lead your family across the American frontier of the mid-19th century to reach the promised land, or Oregon. The game was originally created by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger, with the first version appearing back in 1971. Rawitch later got hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. He used his new position to create an improved version of the game in 1974. It later became available in the organization's time-sharing network, where it could be accessed by schools across Minnesota. Further improvements, updates, sequels, etc, have continued appearing over the decades.

The game would start in Independence, Missouri, where the player could select from professions such as carpenter or doctor, which provided bonuses such as improved health or repairs, before purchasing provisions and heading west. On the long adventure that followed, the player would learn how to manage dwindling supplies, decide whether or not to ford rivers or caulk the wagon and try and float across (paying the ferry was for suckers), manage wagon breakdowns, deal with rattlesnake bites, help rid the West of the buffalo scourge, press SPACE BAR to continue, and lose at least three family members to dysentery. After finally arriving at Oregon, players would abruptly have to steer their wagon down a river, dodging rocks and rapids, before reaching Willamette Valley and the end of the game. There was an option to take a toll road and skip the river-riding segment, but again, for suckers.

The game was quite popular among both students and faculty: teachers liked it because of the historical aspect and the brain-building challenge of managing the expedition, while students enjoyed shooting everything between the Mississippi and the West Coast while leaving funny tombstones along the trail as the inevitable dysentery-related casualties accrued.

The Oregon Trail was successful enough to spawn four sequels (and that's without counting the text-based version that preceded the beloved Apple II version) and a number of spinoffs, such as The Amazon Trail (which had a rather bizarre plotline involving a lot of Time Travel) and The Yukon Trail (recycled IN CANADA!). It remains a cultural icon and a gaming classic which helped raise American dysentery awareness significantly. The cultural counterpart for British and non-Canadian commonwealth countries is the, much worse, Granny's Garden.

The original is available to play here and a newer edition is playable here. Other versions for Facebook, iPhones and other mobile phones have been released. Wikivoyage featured an itinerary to lead the voyager through all of the real places mentioned in the game. And Pressman Toys has released a card game version which reproduces the original game's graphics in all their 4-bit glory!

Tropes used in The Oregon Trail include:
  • Adam Smith Hates Your Guts: Prices go up the farther along the trail you go.
    • Justified, given that supplies in the harsher wilderness would be harder to come by and cost more.
    • Although averted if you are skilled enough in haggling. It is possible to buy supplies, go out of town, and resell them for more than you paid for them. The profit margins are still somewhat thin though, maybe 10-20% per transaction.
  • Arbitrary Headcount Limit: Maximum of five people.
  • Bilingual Bonus: In the second game, you can talk to characters who speak Spanish. If you can speak it, you don't have to learn it in-game to understand them.
  • Bribing Your Way to Victory: The iOS version. You can buy "Oregon Trail Cash" to get the best wagon parts, skip crossing rivers, receive mission rewards instantly, heal sick family members, and buy supplies you couldn't normally get with in-game coins.
  • Cap: Every item has a limit on how many you can carry. In the original: 20 oxen, 50 sets of clothing, 99 boxes of bullets, 3 of each spare wagon part, and 2000 pounds of food. There also is one on hunting: You can only carry back 200 pounds of food per session with multiple people, and 100 pounds of food alone.
  • Completely Missing the Point: The game designer actually made it possible to hunt the buffalo into extinction, as an educational lesson. Didn't stop anybody from doing it, or even make them realize what they had done.
  • Credits Gag: The credits for Oregon Trail 2 contain credits for roles such as:
    • "Gaffer,"
    • "Only Person at MECC who knows what a Gaffer does,"
    • "Rogue Alien Oxen Space Craft,"
    • "Oxen that glow in the dark,"
    • "Silly Credits Inserts."
  • Deadpan Snarker: The father/main character in the iPod version.

Mother: Why doesn't [Daughter] ever talk to me?
Father: [Daughter] hates you, [Mother].

  • Diabolus Ex Machina: The game has a massive hard-on for sending grave misfortunes out of the clear blue, sometimes in such a hurry to kill your party that it forgets what was supposed to do them in (If Hezekiah had a snakebite, why'd he just die from dysentery??).
  • Dialogue Tree
  • Eat The Ox: If you go for a while without food, you will get the option to slaughter an ox for meat. From Oregon Trail II on, if a draft animal dies, it can be butchered for meat.
  • Edutainment Game
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: All kinds of diseases and accidents are just trying to kill you and your party.
  • Fight in The Nude: You can lose your whole clothing inventory and your people still appear fully clothed.
  • Final Death
  • First-Person Shooter: The hunting minigame.
    • In later versions, anyway. The older editions' hunting game was more like Asteroids with bears, deer, and buffalo.
      • The first ever version (released for a mainframe) required you to type "bang", "wham", or "pow" quickly, with misspelled words resulting in a failed hunt.
  • Fridge Logic:

"How do you drown in three feet of water?"

  • Gameplay Ally Immortality: Averted. In addition to the ubiquitous dysentery, a later game made it possible (and very easy) to accidentally shoot one of your allies (or yourself) while hunting.
  • Grave Humor: You can leave whatever text you want to on the graves. People who play after you will have the option to read your tombstones when they pass by where you died in-game. So you can guess what kind of crude and obscene messages kids left for each other back in the day. It was so awesome.
  • Inevitable Waterfall: The Columbia River Gorge at the end.
  • Inferred Holocaust: The first game ends when you reach the Willamette Valley. You might be down to two party members, three bullets, and one ox when you get there. In January. Good luck surviving til spring.
    • Pioneers had been traveling west to Oregon for years before the 1848 start date in the game - presumably you'd be able to find a settlement in the area where your party could shelter until the weather gets better. Plus, this is Oregon west of the mountains, not Alaska or Montana - it's a mild place with a lot of rain all year round.
  • Luck-Based Mission: Pretty much the whole game, particularly the floating of a caulked wagon. A player could be within a mile of the end point with only the main character alive, just to have him be killed by a wild animal.
  • Macrogame
  • Magic Antidote: Half played, half averted - Some stuff like gradually warming frostbitten areas and sucking out snake venom will actually work. Heck, Peppermint actually really helps if you administer it to someone with Cholera. (The menthol actually eases the symptoms and allows the immunity system to fight off the infection)
    • Played Straight in the iOS version.
  • The Millstone: In 5 and probably 2, Nicholas J. Tillman is apparently an in-game millstone who cheats at cards and hinders your train as you go up hills. If you speak to him, he also gives horrible advice like rafting the rapids in the Columbia because it will be fun. He also wears bad suits.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Can Will happen so, so many times on your way to Oregon.
  • Nonstandard Game Over: In the second game, you could be kicked out of the wagon train if you were a trail guide and did poorly enough, accompanied by a still of people looking angrily at you.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: In OTII, choose Salt Lake City as your destination and then choose to continue when you get there (as most people would)--which basically means trying to make it through the freaking enormous Great Salt Lake Desert, and then crossing the Sierra Nevada. If you chose the exact same year (1846) as the Donner Party, you indeed get the exact same snowstorm they got stranded in. The dev team thought of everything.
    • The Donner Party is actually discussed in the 5th version. Talking about everything that happened to them except what they're most infamous for. When it gets to that part the narrator simply says "They did things to survive that I don't want to talk about." One of the kids says "I heard that they-" before they told him to be quiet.
      • They're mentioned in the 2nd version as well.
      • Probably because Oregon Trail 5 is just Oregon Trail II with a few extra features.
    • The leader of the Donner Party shows up in a town in the iPod version, too. He gives your party food, insisting that they've got more than enough to spare. ...Yeah, really.
    • There's also this.
  • Politically-Correct History: In the 5th version, they added cartoon segments throughout the game showing the journey of a boy, a girl, and their Black Best Friend.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Arrive in Oregon with a sole surviving party member; you made it, but the rest of your family is dead as a result. You yourself may even be sick and dying at this point.
  • Random Number God
  • River of Insanity: The. Whole. Game.
  • Role-Playing Game
  • Scare Chord: II (and 5)'s infamous DUN DUN!
  • Self-Imposed Challenge: "Can you kill the WHOLE PARTY before getting to the first fort?" or "Can you get to Oregon with NO DEATHS?"
    • The latter is actually more possible in the later games, assuming you're pragmatic when you pick your gear (don't bring the cast-iron stove, it's a dead-weight) and you don't make really stupid decisions (piss off local Native Americans, wait to hunt until you're totally out of food and desperate).
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: As the status of your party got worse and worse, the music would become more and more frantic/depressing, with Scare Chords in the soundtrack in poor condition. But strangely, if a sick party member dies and there aren't any more sick people, THE MUSIC RESETS TO THE CHEERFUL SOUNDING MUSIC. Also a form of Mood Whiplash.
  • Spin-Off: There's The Yukon Trail and The Amazon Trail mentioned above. And then, you know they want a piece of the FarmVille pie when the developers put out a Spin-Off that requires you to build a town, that's played pretty much the same way as Farmville including buying premium buildings with real cash. Now you can have Farmville in Oregon!
  • Super Drowning Skills: If you ford a river that's too deep, your caulked wagon tips over, or (very rarely) your ferry breaks loose from moorings, some of your party members may drown in the river. Likewise when you raft down the Columbia River, and crash into a rock or (in the Apple II version) the shore.
    • Sometimes your wagon can tip in two feet of water.
      • And people can almost drown in a foot of water without the wagon tipping - Were they trying to do hand-stands in the middle of the bloody river?!?
  • Total Party Kill: The most common ending.
  • Unexpected Gameplay Change: The hunting minigame and the river-riding segment at the end.
  • Vendor Trash: In the second game you can buy things like china sets and grandfather clocks that just make wagon tipping more likely and give you something to trade with people.
  • Video Game Cruelty Punishment: If you neglect burying bodies in Oregon Trail II, morale takes an EXTREME drop. See You Lose At Zero Trust.
  • Video Game Remake: Quite a lot of them; a special note is the fifth edition being largely a remake of the second game, which is literally the exact same game with a couple new mini-games, and they added cartoon segments throughout the game.
    • The 3rd Edition is a throwback directly to the 1st game, with fewer options than the second game when you have to make decisions.
    • And a fan-made zombie version, Organ Trail.
  • We Cannot Go on Without You: From Oregon Trail II on; the main character's death ends the game, even if the other party members are still living.
  • The Wild West: The setting.
  • Wizard Needs Food Badly: Usually not a problem, given that buffalo are plentiful, huge targets, and provide more food than can be carried back to the wagon.
    • The problem arises when you ask to go hunting and the other players click "No, I do not want to stop to hunt" instead of stopping to hunt and then clicking "No, I do not want to go hunting". Many of my family died on starvation rations and I had to ask the teacher to tell people to STOP TO HUNT!!!
    • Can be a problem if you're, say, trying to cross a desert without buying a crapload of water containers first. Or if you forget to vary your party's diet and they all come down with scurvy or beriberi. It's easy to have your whole party die in the desert because even though you bought the canteens, they are usually the first things to go if you tip in the river.
    • Can also be a problem if you lose all your bullets or gunpowder (if you've been using a shotgun) in a river crossing/Hill tip, or food and then cross the deserts since there's only the very hard to hit pronghorns and groundsquirrels/rabbits and their population numbers are smaller.
  • Worst Aid: In the second game, rubbing snow on frostbitten areas (this "treatment" was actually used until the 1950's) is an option. OUCH!
    • The game provides you with many options to treat injury or illness, one of them usually being the very worst thing you could do. Go ahead. Rub some salt into that gunshot wound.
    • How about "exercising" a broken limb?
    • Got snakebite? Just run some laps, you'll be fine.
    • Got Cholera or Dysentery? ADMINISTER EPSOM SALTS!!!
    • In Taxman's LP of Oregon Trail II, the Goons told him to (predictably) bring tons and tons of laudanum. Sick with absolutely anything whatsoever? Have some laudanum! Got to love 19th century medicine. For those of you who don't know, laudanum is whiskey diluted with grains of opium, and prior to opium becoming a controlled substance, people actually would take laudanum for their headaches and such. As you might guess, taking what amounts to a whisky/heroin cocktail might fix your headache, but causes some very real other problems.
  • You Lose At Zero Trust: When playing as an adventurer or trail guide in OTII, your job depends on the morale of the wagon train, which is a reflection of their confidence in you; once it drops below a certain level (even if due to factors outside your control), a bunch of angry people will appear and forcibly demote you. If you're an adventurer, this just means you continue as an ordinary pioneer, but if you're a trail guide, the game is over.
    • Morale is largely based on the health of the party, and factors such as success at river crossings and food amounts. If you also refuse to bury your dead, it will plummet.

Oregon Trail, now on Facebook! Kill yourself and your real life friends, then message them about how they'll never want to go camping with you.