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Oregon Trail iPhone Impressions

| 26 Feb 2009 05:00
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It might be all cute and cartoony now, but bones will still break and dysentery will still kill children on The Oregon Trail.

Nostalgia's a curious thing. It's also a profitable one. How many senseless impulse buys these days begin with someone thinking, "Oh hey, I remember this!" Well, remember Oregon Trail? It's back! (And not in Pog form). Gameloft, who produced a mobile phone version of the Apple II classic for cell phones, have redone their game from the ground-up for that status symbol du jour, Apple's iPhone.

While we've all got our own memories of our adventures braving the path from Independence, Missouri to Willamette, Oregon, this Oregon Trail is ready to break away from a lot of what Oregon Trail used to be. Gone are the old-school pixel graphics and horrifyingly bad full-motion videos, replaced by a cute and cartoony art style that wouldn't be out of place on a Cartoon Network show. It's all big chins, big hats and big moustaches, bright colors and adorably grouchy oxen worn out from you forcing them to go at full speed for the entire trip.

Also gone is the meticulous planning phase that made up a lot of the strategy in the original game. You don't have to worry about having to bring a doctor anymore, since there are only three different classes to choose from: banker, carpenter and farmer. The banker has more money, the carpenter can repair wagons with ease, and the farmer makes food last longer. After you choose your class, pick your wagon out of a lineup of three, choose when you want to embark, and you're off.

If it took maybe an entire recess to get through that starting phase in the original, in the iPhone game it only takes a minute at most. Streamlining is really the modus operandi for Gameloft here; instead of being forced to sit through ten minutes of watching your oxen pull while you hope for something interesting to happen, in Oregon Trail iPhone, you're hitting landmarks, running into random events, accepting subquests and playing minigames constantly.

Those minigames really make up the bulk of the gameplay in Oregon Trail, and as you can guess, they all make extensive use of the phone's touch screen. For the hunting game, you tap animals to send them to their maker and then tap the meat icon they leave behind to harvest their remains. Gotta send a telegram? That's another minigame - a Simon Says-style memory game where you have to correctly tap out a pattern on a set of telegraph machines. There's also water rafting, wagon repair, berry picking, fishing and gold panning, for which you'll have to shake your iPhone like a gold pan in hopes of hitting it rich.

But while the overall feel and gameplay might not elicit any memories of the "good old days," there are little touches here and there that'll get your nostalgia meters running. There's the river fording that unfolds in a little cutscene where you can watch as your party wades neck-deep and barely makes it across, or drowns miserably and loses half their supplies. And, just like in the original, your intrepid adventurers (who you can name, and you better give them silly/foul ones) will occasionally suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the form of ambushes from nefarious bandits, broken limbs, and everyone's favorite digestive disorder, dysentery. Don't forget to disinfect the water, people.

When I got a look at the game, the little girl in the party broke her arm. We could have rested the party for a couple days to heal her, but since the iPhone battery was running low, Gameloft decided there wasn't time and just trudged ahead. There she was, trudging through snowy deserts and surviving bandit raids with a broken arm. Power on kid - you're on The Oregon Trail now.

So while there's certainly a lot that's new about this version of The Oregon Trail, the spirit of the game is certainly in line with the fondly held memories so many of us hold for the original. Gameloft makes no excuses about who this game is made for - screw teaching kids about American history, this is really meant for people who played the old one and own iPhones today. I'm guessing there'll be a lot of "Oh, hey I remember this!" when people log onto the App Store some time next week and buy the game for $5.99.

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