GAME ON: ‘Oregon Trail’ takes players on a nostalgic trip to Willamette Valley

Settlers walk across America in the latest update of the video game "The OregonTrail."  (Photo courtesy of Nintendo)
Settlers walk across America in the latest update of the video game "The OregonTrail." (Photo courtesy of Nintendo)

'The Oregon Trail

  • Platform: PC, Switch, iOS
  • Cost: $29.99
  • Rating: Everyone 10+ (some mild violence, comic mischief)
  • Score: 8 out of 10

No game makes me as nostalgic as 1971's "The Oregon Trail," the game of my childhood. I spent many hours in a school computer lab in the late 1980s traveling west across the Kansas prairie, crossing the Rocky Mountains and surviving dysentery while absolutely crushing the high score list.

First released as an Apple Arcade exclusive in 2021, Gameloft's newest "Oregon Trail" is now available on Steam, Nintendo Switch and the Microsoft Store, and there's a lot of game packed into the journey west.

The original was designed to be played in 45 minutes — about the length of a typical class. Making it to the Willamette Valley will take longer now, about five hours. The core aspect is the same, but added in are hundreds of random events and quests, along with new trails to travel, weekly challenges and a ton of replayability.

There's a rogue-like, randomized element to this game. At the start, you build a party by being offered one of three random characters, each of whom has a profession and two traits displayed, such as a Banker who is Wily and Optimistic or a Farmer who is Heroic and Hedonistic. You must pick one of the choices. Then you get three more choices for the next member, until the full party of four is made.

Completing side journeys and other trails can unlock more professions on future playthroughs. In total there are 13 classes, eight of which must be unlocked. (Carpenter for wagon repairs and Physician for better health are highly recommended).

Each character has a bevy of stats to maintain: health, morale, stamina and hygiene, along with traits in loyalty, attitude, composure and wit, and skills such as shooting, carpentry, wayfinding and medical. Lots of random events will occur, and there's usually some kind of skill check that allows for better chances of success. Wagon repair events are frequent, so a character with good carpentry skill is helpful, and medical events come up a lot, too (I had party members bitten by snakes five times in one trip).

A character's exact skills are unknown at the start, but knowledge of them is unlocked when they attempt to use those skills (haggling to get a better price reveals a character's Wit) or when the party shares stories at a campsite, getting to know each other.

Despite its educational nature, don't expect the trip to be an easy one. Even on normal difficulty, making the journey from Independence, Mo., with everyone intact and healthy is pretty hard, with crossing rivers right at the top of the hardest challenges. Always take the ferry if you can. I rarely got above a 60% chance of success to cross via fording or floating. My first attempt ended at the Snake River with everyone drowning.

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In a neat twist, though, my next party found a bit of their stuff the next time I went through.

There is an easy mode, if you want your trip to be more "Little House on the Prairie" and less Donner Party, and there's even a scenic mode where nothing bad happens at all. But speaking of the Donner Party, there is a scenario where you follow in that infamous party's footsteps to California.

"The Oregon Trail" also just released downloadable content (the first DLC in its 50-year history), called "Cowboys and Critters," that adds the Chisholm Trail journey from Texas to Abilene, Kan.

One of the best improvements is the music. The 15-song, moody, alt-country soundtrack for this game is phenomenal. It even got its own vinyl release. I do wish the score paid a little more homage to the original tunes, but it's stellar nonetheless.

The art style is a blend of pixel art and 3D environments in a way that both resembles the original and elevates it. Other visual modes (such as monochrome green and black) are unlockable.

"The Oregon Trail" has just about everything going for it that I could want: a mixture of strategy, skill and luck, every journey unique, and lots of replayability. Even the weekly challenges become important, as they can help your party start with more money on the next journey. It's also optimized for hand-held gaming, such as the Switch, iOS devices or the Steam Deck console.

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