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Video Game: The Oregon Trail

"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."
1up.com's July 4th Oregon Trail Retrospective

"LITTLE JOHNNY has died of dysentery."
Flavor text

If you went to an American public school during the late 1980s or most of the 1990s, and your classroom was fortunate enough to have a monolithic, clicking heap of machinery called an AppleII, 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 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.

This game provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • Anyone Can Die: The game. Anyone can be killed by random chance. Whether they are crushed by a wagon, drowned in a river, catch some horrible disease, gored by an animal, frostbite, or shot. Hope you brought that medical book and wrote down the treatments!
  • Arbitrary Headcount Limit: Maximum of five people, six in the second version.
  • 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 and Android versions. 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.
  • Credits Gag: The credits for Oregon Trail 2 contain credits for roles such as:
  • Deadpan Snarker: The father/main character in the iOS and Android versions.
    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 blue, sometimes in such a hurry to kill your party that it forgets what logically should have done them in. For example: If Hezekiah had a snakebite, why'd he just die from dysentery?
  • Dialogue Tree
  • Dramatically 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.
    • It isn't even just the buffalo. If you're overzealous in your hunting early on you'll be lucky to even find squirrels by the end since you already killed every living thing on the continent.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Informed Equipment: You can lose your whole clothing inventory and your people still appear fully clothed.
    • Similarly, you can lose all your cooking equipment and have no means of starting a fire, but still eat meat (with no horrendous consequences to suggest it's raw).
  • Idiosyncratic Difficulty Levels:
    • Justified by having you select which character to use. The banker, carpenter, and farmer represent the three difficulty levels by starting funds (though the lower end may be offset by special abilities such as better oxen health, skill at wagon repairs, etc. in some ports).
    • 2 had its own take, as the player wagon was part of a train:
      • Greenhorn, the easiest, put the player in charge of a single wagon, with the fewest options to keep track of. Good performance (aka high morale) would offer a bump up to Adventurer.
      • Adventurer put the player in charge of not just one wagon, but also the route the train took - pacing, forks, etc. Poor performance would kick the player down to Greenhorn.
      • Trail Guide, the hardest, played like Adventurer with one caveat; poor performance meant getting kicked off the train and left behind.
  • Instant Gravestone: The game contains this, including player-defined inscriptions. People tend to try to invoke Grave Humor with Bottom of the Barrel Jokes, as future players can read the gravestones.
  • Kaizo Trap: In The Oregon Trail 2, it's possible to die after reaching your destination and winning the game. How? Even after winning, staking a land claim, and seeing what lies ahead, you can still go hunting and accidentally injure yourself, get infected, and die. Demonstrated here.
  • Luck-Based Mission: As tempting as it may be to label the game Nintendo Hard, it's impossible to do so simply because player skill has precious little to do with whether or not your party succeeds. Highlights include the floating of a caulked wagon (one of exactly 3 ways that can result in a Total Party Kill in the original game). 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. Or the wagon could spontaneously catch on fire seconds after departing, instantly destroying most of your supplies.
    • Combine this with The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard. Good luck getting to Oregon when a thief comes in the middle of the night and steals all of your oxen. Strangely, your player doesn't shoot him after the third or so attempt.
    • How much you lose in the event of a failed river crossing is determined only by whether the crossing succeeded or failed. It's possible to survive a ferry wreck while crossing the Mississippi at the height of spring floods and only lose a couple bags of flour, or to drown your entire party in one shot in the 2 and a half feet deep Platte river.
  • Macrogame
  • Magic Antidote: Half played straight, half averted - Some stuff like gradually warming frostbitten areas and sucking out snake venom (though the latter is not recommended in the modern era with a modern first aid kit) can actually work. Heck, Peppermint actually really helps if you administer it to someone with Cholera (the menthol actually eases the symptoms and allows the immune system to fight off the infection).
    • Played straight in the iOS and Android versions.
  • The Millstone: In 5 and 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.
    • In-game, he's also related to Dr. Brogan Cavanaugh, a snake-oil salesman.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Can Will happen so, so many times on your way to Oregon.
  • Non-Standard 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.
    • 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.
    • One fan comic parodies this. Humorously, mysteriously gaining a bit of food if a party member dies while everyone else is starving was originally meant to be a game mechanic.
  • Player Data Sharing: Some versions (for example, the Windows 95 version) allow you to encounter the tombstones of player characters that didn't make it to Oregon.
  • 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, penniless, and dying during the height of winter at this point.
  • Random Number God
  • Reality Ensues: Characters can die very unexpectedly from gun shot wounds while hunting, drowning, or all manner of random ways, while also be constantly hampered by disease, broken parts, and supply shortages. All this was very common to real life wagon trains.
  • River of Insanity: The. Whole. Game.
  • Role-Playing Game: Especially Oregon Trail 2/5, in which you could have special skills. Oregon Trail 5 further added a point-based character creation system.
  • Save Scumming: Quite often you'll find yourself saving your game due to the whole game being a Luck-Based Mission and how Random Number God dictates the events; they can be quite frequent and will often come at the worst possible times, especially if the outcome is detrimental to your party.
  • 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 a flooded trail or 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.
  • Videogame Cruelty Punishment: If you neglect burying bodies in Oregon Trail II, morale takes an EXTREME drop. See You Lose at Zero Trust.
  • Videogame 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.
    • Thule Trail, sponsored by bike rack manufacturer Thule, is Oregon Trail on a modern road trip from Chicago to a massive concert in LA. You can choose between a SUV (comfortable but expensive), a hybrid car (cramped but cheap), or a turbo wagon (fast but expensive as well).
    • And a fan-made zombie version, Organ Trail.
  • We Cannot Go On Without You: From Oregon Trail II on; the main character's death (or in the second and fifth editions, dismissal as a leader if you choose the trail guide option) 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.
    • 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.
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alternative title(s): Oregon Trail
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