Wednesday, December 18, 2013

let's talk about the Oregon/Amazon Trail.

Today, we’re going to embark on a delightful little blast from the past and talk about the best computer games of all time. I bet you already know what I’m going to say: Oregon Trail and its lesser known but completely awesome sibling Amazon Trail.

Sadly, my first encounter with Oregon Trail was NOT, in fact, in elementary school computer class. I feel like that’s where most kids first play Oregon Trail, but not us. The scene was right for it: we had this big computer lab full of brightly colored iMacs, and we would get to go in there every so often and play games. You could play Number Munchers (BLECH!), write a delightful novel with Storybook Weaver (remember that?), and I’m almost sure there was some sort of game where you destroyed asteroids with lasers. However, Oregon Trail was somehow not part of the repertoire.
Can't imagine why.
Like so much of my pop culture education, my first exposure to Oregon Trail was at my friend Allison’s house. She and her family were always a thousand times more up-to-date than I was. They’d had a computer (with INTERNET! WHOA!) ever since I’d known Allison (starting at age five), while my house didn’t get a computer until I was twelve (and internet was still a few more years off in the distance). So going to Allison’s house was like going to a whole new world full of crazy gadgets that did all sorts of crazy (yet amazing) things. I felt like ET.

Of course, one of the crazy/amazing things we could do on these computers was play games. Allison’s house was well-stocked with computer games, and it was here that I first learned of the glory of the Oregon Trail. Allison also had the Oregon Trail’s lesser known sibling, the Yukon Trail, but everyone knows that the Oregon Trail is far superior.

After I started playing Oregon Trail at Allison’s house, I was hooked. Since we had no computer at our house, I’d have to get my fix elsewhere. That meant it was time to expand my Oregon Trail horizons. I soon discovered (to my great joy) that the Brookings Public Library had Oregon Trail 2. They had this sweet setup where you could sign up for computer time and check out a game to play during that time – one of the many reasons I loved the library. Whenever I had the good fortune to make it to the library (which was whenever I found myself in Brookings – turns out that your parents and grandparents are usually willing to take you to the library when you ask), I’d gather up my newest stack of books and station myself at the computer for a good round of Oregon Trail.
First stop: the store!
You all know the Oregon Trail drill: you gather up your wagon party, buy supplies, and you’re off. You’re bound to encounter calamities along the way: someone dies of dysentery, you drown oxen when you try to ford the river, morale gets so low that your remaining travel companions overturn your leadership, and so on.

All disasters aside, what fun! Not only was Oregon Trail completely awesome, but it was more educational than it led you to believe. Sure, there were maps and historical places along the way with all sorts of informational tidbits. As you traveled through, you could also talk to all the locals and learn all about their experiences – I never did because I had trails to blaze (and I thought they were a tad boring, but that could’ve been just me). But the real education was in those real-life skills (and I use “real-life” loosely because, after all, it’s just a computer game) that you had to figure out along your way. You had better know how many pounds of lard to bring along, and you had to choose the right option when your wagon mate was bitten by a rattlesnake. You had to know when to caulk the wagon and when to pay the bridge toll, and you had better get yourself out to hunt and fish when your food ran low. (Remember the hunting part of the game? It could be MADDENING to sit there and wait for something to cross your path. Plus, I felt bad shooting at some helpless Oregon Trail bear and seeing it crumple to the ground. It’s no wonder I’ve never actually been hunting: I have neither the patience nor the stomach for it – not even in the computer game.) 
In the later editions of the game, you also had to know what kinds of plants were poisonous when you went out to gather them. (And if you accidentally brought home a poisonous plant, you needed to know what you should do to un-poison whatever poor soul had eaten it.)

I always found Oregon Trail to be way more fun when I named my wagon mates after people I knew. I used to name them all after my parents and siblings, but I felt awfully guilty when one (or more) of them (inevitably) died.

On the rare occasion that I made it to the end of the Oregon Trail, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment – even though I had undoubtedly killed off most of my fellow travelers and oxen, lost or broken all my supplies, and was a whole lot worse for the wear myself. All that aside, I was the CHAMPION when I made it through the Oregon Trail in (more or less) one piece. 

While I was never fortunate enough to own Oregon Trail, I did persuade my dad to buy me Amazon Trail. This would’ve been around 1999: I was twelve and in the sixth grade, and we had just gotten our first computer. (I remember it well: it was a black Gateway laptop than ran Windows 98.) Sixth grade was the last year that we were sent home with book orders, and this was the first opportunity I had to buy a computer game (as buying a computer game and having no computer didn’t make a lot of sense). My parents would usually be willing to buy me a book, but this time, I wanted Amazon Trail 3. It was fairly educational, so I felt like I could make a reasonable argument. I went to my dad, and he made me a deal: if I beat him at a hand of blackjack, he’d buy me the game. If I lost, I’d pay for half. I won that hand of blackjack and got Amazon Trail, which remains the only thing I’ve ever won as a result of gambling – but when you consider the only other gambling I’ve done is a scratch card I bought when I was 18, those odds sound a lot better.

Amazon Trail was AWESOME. It was more hands-on than the Oregon Trail I was used to: while in Oregon Trail, you just watched your wagon roll on down the trail, you actually had to steer your canoe down the Amazon.
This is your view for an awful lot of the game.
There were rocks and sandbars to watch out for, so you had to pay a fair amount of attention – otherwise, you’d capsize and lose your stuff/get bitten by a piranha. The stops you made were more interactive, too – you had a list of things that you wanted to collect from the people you met along the way, so it was in your best interest to chat them up.
Sometimes they're famous - see the guy on the left?
He's supposed to be Henry Ford.
(They give you all sorts of weird stuff, and these items come in handy later on as the Amazon Trail is pretty treacherous – at one point, you have to use one of your gifts to poison somebody.)

Like the Oregon Trail, the Amazon Trail had you out finding your own food when your supplies ran low. However, the Amazon Trail took you a few steps further. You not only had to spear your fish (which was awesome), but you had to identify the fish upon catching it. For each different fish you identified, they were checked off in your field guide. The more animals you identified, the more points you got in the end.

The other way to identify animals from your field guide was to make your way into the jungle. There were three jungle scenes that you could stumble upon depending on your location on the river, and each housed different animals. The animals moved and ran/flew around, and your job was to take a picture of them and correctly identify them. This picture would be added to your photo album, and more photos meant more points. Edible plants were similar to the fish: you would gather them while you were in the jungle, and identifying them got you more points.
Just look at all the stuff there is to identify!
Unlike on the Oregon Trail – which led you right along the path –you ran the risk of getting lost on the Amazon Trail. Every now and again, you’d come to a fork in the river, and if you chose the wrong one, there was a good chance that you’d be cannibalized. (You could tell because the background music would switch to something ominous.) Once you learned to recognize the warning music, you’d just turn yourself around. When the music was normal again, you knew that you weren’t going to be eaten… FOR NOW.

It had been many years since I’d played Oregon Trail… until James scored me an old copy of Oregon Trail 5 from Goodwill. Miraculously, it worked on my Windows Vista computer (I know what you’re thinking: Windows Vista? get with the times), and I found that it was a lot less thrilling than it was when I was a kid. I ended up getting a lot angrier at the game than I had before – I yelled at the game when my wagon capsized in the river; I yelled at the game when no one would trade for a box of bullets; I yelled at the game when I died of starvation. Maybe some things are better left in the past.

I remember Amazon Trail as being totally awesome, so I probably shouldn’t tarnish my memories by playing the game again and getting really pissed off at it (which is practically a guarantee). However, now that I’ve written this article, the desire to play it again has become overwhelming. I came THIS CLOSE to buying the game on (where else?) Amazon, but I had to talk myself out of it. After all, chances are pretty good that it won’t work on my computer, and that would be a waste of ten dollars. I’m also pretty sure that my original copy of Amazon Trail 3 is floating around my parents’ house somewhere, so I’ll just have to wait patiently until I can dig through the treasure trove of old computer games.

In the meantime, I’ll subsist on my fond Amazon Trail memories… and if I get really desperate, there’s Oregon Trail 5 to play. If you hear cursing and the phrase “broken wagon wheel,” it’s just me. I’ll get over it.

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