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 Francis

No, I said it was good! C’mon, calm down!

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 Jesse

Jesse is gonna charm the pants of anyone wanting to haggle over pelts.

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.

Gunshot Wounds

There was no infighting, ammunition was improperly stored and a stray bullet hit his leg.

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.