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A Preview of the Classic ‘The Oregon Trail’ from Gameloft

If you’re a Gen-X’er and you’ve spent any time at all in a computer lab at school in the ’80s, you almost certainly have fond memories of one of the most popular educational computer games ever written: The Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail is an educational computer game developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger in 1971 and produced by MECC in 1974. The game was inspired by the real-life Oregon Trail and was designed to teach school children about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the trail. The player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding his party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley by way of the Oregon Trail via a Conestoga wagon in 1848.

Thanks to a commercial floppy release of the game in 1985, Apple IIs and PCs in every school across the land started hitching students to a wagon train blazing a trail out west.  And the thing was, despite being an educational game, it was actually fun!

Last year Gameloft brought this frontiering classic to mobile handsets and brought home the Best Casual Mobile Game of 2008 award.  The Oregon Trail for mobile made it to the top 10 download lists for the Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T networks.  And so it’s no wonder (as Gen-X’ers ourselves…) that we were excited to see the first photos of Gameloft’s iPhone version of The Oregon Trail surface earlier this month.

This week I had a chance to visit Gameloft’s Manhattan offices and speak with several members of the team about the iPhone version and even do a little trailblazing myself.

The first thing anyone familiar with the original game will notice about the iPhone version is its complete (and lovely) graphical overhaul–this does not look like a game from the ’70s.  The second thing one notices is a reduction of the number of very minute details that go into setting up an expedition.  As the game’s producer explained, it can take a good 10 minutes to fully equip a wagon train at the start of the original, which is not conducive to a typical on-the-go gameplay scenario.  The developers have, instead, chosen to present various fully outfitted wagon “packages" that can be easily selected, allowing the mobile gamer to quickly hit the trail.  I do not feel, after having spent time with the iPhone version, that these abbreviations lessen the game, but rather, simply make it feasible for a mobile platform.

Once on the trail, the game progresses much as it did in the original: move from landmark to landmark, ford rivers, lose a wagon wheel, get attacked by marauders–that kind of thing.  But thanks to a bit of creative license on the part of Gameloft, the trail is a little more “eventful" than it was in the original.  For one, more events–both good and bad–befall the wagon train on its journey down the trail.  (And as the game’s producer told me, “some of the bad things are really bad!")  Load screens feature humorous trail trivia and, what’s more, an assortment of historical figures are traveling the trail as well–Samuel Morse and John L. O’Sullivan, for instance–and will introduce themselves and set out various goals for the travellers to accomplish.  And this, in part, leads us to the mini games.

At various points along the trail your party will be invited to engage in one of eight different mini games, one of Gameloft’s notable additions to the title.  Occasionally your companion “trail boss" will invite you to do a bit of hunting to increase your party’s food stores.  Fishing is another activity represented by a mini game, as is the task of repairing your wagon (hammer and nail) and even tapping out a bit of morse code.  (Every mini game I spent time with was touch controlled.)  They start out simply but increase in difficulty the more you choose to engage in them.  And, aside from the first occurrence of each, you do have a choice of playing or passing.

Some readers fond of the original expressed concern that Gameloft’s iPhone offering might be simply an Oregon Trail-themed string of mini games.  This is not the case.  The Oregon Trail for the iPhone is, at its core, the original game given a makeover as well as a series of tweaks and enhancements that help bring the title forward 30 years for today’s mobile gamer.

[ We will, very shortly, be posting a game trailer video to this article. Check back! ]

What can I say?  I had the game in my hands for only a short while, but I must agree–as the t-shirt that was bestowed upon me by the Gameloft gang suggests, The Oregon Trail for iPhone really does seem to make dysentary fun again!

Our readers were asking for it, and The Oregon Trail goes gold on Friday and will debut in the App Store on either February 28th or March 1st for $5.99.  Stay tuned for a closer look next week.