Well, it came to pass. Beloved childhood memory The Oregon Trail ($5.99, iTunes link) got updated and graphically reinvigorated for its arrival on the iPhone and iPod touch platform. The question is, is it still just as fun and educational as it was when you used to play it on your Apple II? Well, you no longer get the fun of installing from floppy discs, but the App Store version does present some other new tricks to make up for the loss of that experience.
The people behind Oregon Trail’s most recent resurrection are none other than Gameloft, whose many gaming titles for the iPod touch and iPhone have made them one of the platform’s primary developers. Hopefully, that also means they know what they’re doing, since they’ve had enough practice. I’ve enjoyed their previous kicks at the can, so I was optimistic about my experience with the Trail.
Kudos to Gameloft for going for a look appropriate to the play of the game, instead of trying unnecessarily to stretch the graphics resources of the platform. It would of been easy to go for an angled top-down 3-D view or something else, but the 2-D side-scrolling cartoon look suits the game mechanics and keeps the spirit of the original intact.
Remember hunting? Well, it’s still here, and in the new version it takes full advantage of the iPhone’s touch screen interface. During hunting sequences, you’re given a target number of animals, and a time frame in which to reach that goal. The screen changes to a top-down view with you on a stretch of desert. Clicking anywhere on the ground will move your character to that spot, and arrows to either side of the screen show you where game will enter. Once an animal appears on screen, you tap it to shoot it, and then tap the ambiguous bouncing meat-leg icon that appears to move to and gather the resulting piece of food.
It’s basically a duck hunt interface where you have to pick up your own kills. Occasionally you’ll run across an event that is essentially a hunting game where the animals are after you. Larger animals take more shots to kill. It becomes more fun when you hunt larger game, since squirrels and bunny are very easy and present no real challenge.
You can also fish and gather berries for food. Fishing involves dropping your line by holding a finger to the touch screen to determine depth, and moving left and right to place the line horizontally, then you tap your character to draw the line back in, and it catches whatever happens to fall in its path between the original placement of the hook and the fisherman. I found this one much less straightforward and more aggravating than hunting, but more challenging, too, and possibly more fun as a result.
Picking berries is a response-and-reaction mini-game. The right side of the screen becomes a berry bush, where berries appear in predetermined locations. You have to press them as quickly as you can, or they disappear. Among the berries will appear a bad berry, which you have to try to avoid. Get all the good berries in a series, and you achieve a combo, which grants extra points.
Finding food isn’t the only source of mini-games. You’ll also have to cross rivers (accelerometer-based obstacle avoidance), send telegrams (a remember-the-pattern Simon clone) and repair your wagon (basically a simple rhythm game). For variety of play, you really couldn’t find a much better package than Oregon Trail. Not to mention the fact that it stays true to its educational origins and manages to teach you something, both in-game and during loading sequences.