For whatever reason, The Oregon Trail in its various incarnations, whether on DOS or an Apple II, holds a special place in the hearts of American gamers. Maybe it's because of the balanced risk/reward system and simple resource management. But more likely it's because The Oregon Trail was one of the few non-sucky computer games you could play in school without getting yelled at, which made your 8-year-old self feel like you had pulled the wool over your teachers.
But without teachers looking over your shoulders, Gameloft's update can't lean on that getting-away-with-it factor. Luckily, it turns out to be a great fit for a downloadable, allowing quick bursts of fun over a long period of time. You might even learn something.
Education time! The real Oregon Trail was a migration route used in the 19th century to the Pacific Northwest, running from the Missouri River to Oregon. That's a stretch of about 3,200 km. And it's your job here to make that journey without succumbing to the dangers it holds.
You see, the trail is a treacherous place. You've got rough terrain, wild animals and disease to contend with, and more often than not your family of five will break their bones, get mauled by bears, be swooped away by eagles or come down with a nasty case of cholera or, yes, dysentery.
Actual gameplay is broken into what is essentially a series of quick minigames. Traveling asks you balance your speed to minimize time and injury; going too fast risks breaking your wagon or injuring a family member, but going too slow will put you behind schedule and lead to winter travel issues down the line. If your food is low you can get more through a Whack-A-Mole-type berry picking game, or hunting that involves running up to cute little rabbits and blowing their brains out with a shotgun. Each minigame has "levels" too, so they'll ramp up the requirements every so often. While it may sound like the game runs the risk of getting very repetitive, your time spent in each one at a time is usually less than a minute and there's a good amount of variety between them; you'll pop in and out quick enough that they're still fun even by the time you hit Idaho.
And along the trail you'll run into famous historic figures like Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln, locals looking for a ride to a certain town and others who ask you to deliver packages to people elsewhere, giving you a few goals to shoot for along the way and maybe pick up some extra gold.
The resource management elements are still here, still simple and still fun. The occupation you choose before setting out determines how your resources will hold up, e.g. whether your wagon will break easier but travel faster, how long food will last and so forth. Along the way you'll get to choose your path and weigh whether you want to risk shorter, more dangerous mountain travel versus longer, easier plain travel, with their own implications on time, food and wagon management. Shops in towns sell equipment to keep your family safe and your journey smooth, giving the game a nice upgrade system with basic strategic elements.
The bright and cheery presentation of the iPhone version has been carried over, albeit with a little less sheen due to the lowered resolution. Character design is very cartoony and humorous without sinking into sickeningly childish, even lending a strange, dark humor to seeing your youngest get their face slashed by a rabid bear.
Just like the iPhone/Touch version, load times are still ubiquitous and pop up between every possible transition, whether it be entering a minigame (which you'll be doing a lot of) or a new town. They're not long enough to break the game, in fact they feel shorter than on an iPhone 2G, but their frequency is still annoying. During loads, Gameloft kept with the edutainment and slipped in fun and interesting facts about the real trail and the people who took it. Certainly better than staring at "Loading...".
New for the DSiWare version is the camera functionality. Periodically during your journey you'll be asked whether you want your picture taken for the front page of the newspaper, and who wouldn't want that? There are plenty of period items and people to plop on, but going through the trouble of crafting a photographic masterpiece seems pointless once you realize the photos aren't stored anywhere. Which is too bad considering it's a nice little function for younger (and young at heart) players.
At 800 points it's a solid and lengthy release, but DSiWare isn't the only way to get your fingers on it. Available on Apple's App Store for 200 points cheaper, even less if on sale, this might not be the best version for you. Unless you're really attached to that camera function.
As it turns out, The Oregon Trail is fun enough to stand on its own outside of class even after all these years. And with improved load times and added camera functionality, the DSiWare version is the one to beat. Of course, it's also the most expensive, and if you have the means to play the iPhone/Touch version you'll want to look long and hard at which one is more appealing to you. No matter how you load up the wagon, you'll be in for a fun ride.